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My Grandfather Was A Luthier

Posted by iSteve on Sunday, February 26, 2012

John Hale's Musical InstrumentsMy grandfather, on my mother's side, was John E. Hale.  He was born in 1862 in Whitesburg, Tennessee.  One of his earliest memories was of sitting on a split rail fence with his father, Samuel, holding him, together both of them watching the soldiers returning home from the Civil War.

Grandpa was the son and grandson of woodworkers.  Even as a young boy he worked in his father's cabinet shop, learning the different types of wood and how to shape them to his purposes.

He and his extended family moved from Tennessee to Powell Valley, Virginia sometime in the early 1880s.  Around 1890, Grandpa move to Wise, Virginia where he established his own business.  Initially, he was head of a logging outfit and operated a saw mill.  Wise County at that time, still had thousands of acres of virgin timber.  So his saw mill processed some of the most beautiful hardwoods on the East Coast.  He also ran a carpentry shop and made very fine furniture.  In addition to all of this, he was a luthier - a maker of stringed instruments.  He made and played violins, mandolins, banjos and other assorted instruments.  Of all these, the fiddle was his favorite.

Around 1901, my grandfather had a terrible accident.  He was in the midst of a divorce from his first wife, Emma, and was distracted by it even at work.  One day, he lost the lower half of his right arm in the saw mill.  Especially in the early 1900s, many would have been discouraged by such a disability, but Grandpa learned to adapt.  He fashioned straps of leather and other contraptions so that he could attach his tools to the stump where he hand used to be.  He continued his saw mill, furniture shop, and luthiering for many, many years afterward.  He was not deterred in playing the fiddle either.  He simply slipped his stump between the bow handle and the horse hair, playing away.  One of his favorites was "Turkey in the Straw."

As I approach the beginning of my own musical journey with the banjo, I hope that I have half the courage and determination that my grandfather had.  May I be able to persevere through my own disability, even as he persevered through his own.

P.S.  Note the instruments in the picture.  There appears to be an octagonal banjo which he made.  I wish that banjo was still in our family.  Fortunately, I do have a fiddle of his.  He made it in 1929, the year of my mother's birth.  It is still in very good shape and has a beautiful sound.  Who knows?  Maybe one day I'll take up the fiddle as well as the banjo.  In Appalachian folk music, those two instruments go very well together.

3 comments on “My Grandfather Was A Luthier”

banjotef Says:
Sunday, February 26, 2012 @1:54:54 PM

That's priceless that you have one of his instruments. What a great story!

iSteve Says:
Sunday, February 26, 2012 @1:58:51 PM

Thanks, Tom.

jbanjoist Says:
Saturday, March 9, 2013 @11:46:18 AM

Very interesting grandpa you have.

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