jump to navigation

Long ago: The violin maker July 19, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, home, memoir, music.
Tags: , , , ,

My great-grandfather, Edward Kennedy

This is taken from a memoir entitled “When I Was a Girl” by my grandmother, Sybil Crowninshield Kennedy Bennett. The series starts here and alternates every other post.

My father, Edward Kennedy, had almost no schooling. He was the oldest child and was kept out of school to go about with his father, who worked on farms in the neighborhood. There was no compulsory school law and as the child of Irish immigrants in the 1850s, no great encouragement to go to school. He had a quick responsive mind, a very good memory for everything he read or experienced and extremely skillful hands. He could “fix” almost anything.

He was born May 18, 1850, and brought up in the country about two miles south of Cato [NY], near Brick Church. At eighteen he had a ruptured appendix, which was called then “inflammation of the bowels.” He was an invalid until about twenty-five. Later, doctors could never understand how he survived. At the age of sixty-five, by x-rays, it was found that he had many intestinal adhesions, almost obstructing his bowels. Eating and digesting were serious problems and caused him to be always very undernourished. He lived to be seventy years old.

He was about five feet five inches tall and never weighed more than 120 pounds. He wore clothes as loosely as possible to make him look larger. When he became well enough, he bought a carriage making and repair business on Main Street in Cato, where he built buggies and wagons, custom-made, completely with hand tools. He also did the painting and finishing, having a large upstairs room for the purpose. He allowed no one in while painting or varnishing as any movement would stir up dust and cause specks. When finished they had mirror surfaces. He worked very hard to find out how to do things properly, buying books and going to see other people’s work.

He played the violin self-taught and was crazy about music. He would sometimes play all day on Sunday on his violin, reading slowly through the violin parts of all kinds of music. He had a large book of 400 pages. He particularly liked the romantic and tuneful ones, operas and Strauss waltzes. He also enjoyed the church music by great composers that was occasionally played by musicians who visited our town. When he was ten years old he bought a fiddle for ninety-nine cents, after hearing one played at a country dance. “I was the most disappointed boy you ever saw,” he said, “when I found I couldn’t play it. I thought that the man who played it didn’t half play and that if I could have hold of it, I would make it sing.”

He never joined the church, formally, but attended regularly, his outside position leaving him free in his own eyes to criticize the sermons. Sunday evenings after church he would walk from one corner of the sitting room to its opposite, from the clock to the dining room door, preaching the sermon over the way he would have liked it.

[My mother and father] took a weekly newspaper, the Albany Journal, to keep up with the state political news. They also took The Outlook, edited by Lymon Abbott. Papa used to read every number, rocking gently in the big Boston rocker, upholstered by my mother in red plush, smoking rather negligently a pipe which had to be constantly relighted as he forgot to puff when he read intently. Mother used to say that he smoked matches.

He was a trustee of the Cemetery Association—important in Cato—and a director, then president, of the Telephone Company, a small independent one in which I held stock until 1959 when it was sold to a consolidated company. He was most influential on the School Board of which he was president for many years and succeeded in having the school changed from a two-year Union School to a full four-year high school.

After buggy making was done in factories about 1900, he put a gasoline engine into his shop (no electricity then) and did custom planing and lathe work and all kinds of repair work on farm wagons and machinery, even some welding. He employed a blacksmith sometimes but they were usually prone to sprees and he would get tired of their antics.

My father was very skillful with his hands and eyes. This, with his love of music, led him into his most interesting and valuable hobby. He took up violin making in his later years and made nine violins, all judged by people who knew violins as good, some as very good or superior. He reached everyone he heard of who had made violins and had the good fortune to buy from an estate the tools and books of an old violin maker, I think in Victory, New York. Papa ordered the wood from a Boston firm. It came looking like sticks of firewood. Spruce is the wood usually used for the tops and maple for the backs and the bouts, the curved sides which are cut in a sertain grain, then soaked, heated and shaped around a wooden form. The size and thicknesses are measured to one sixty-fourth of an inch. The backs and fronts were also graduated very carefully in thickness, tapering to the edge from the center under the bridge. They were roughly shaped, then slowly, carefully cut with a sharp chisel and finally a knife which really shaved very thin. The heads and necks were made to a pattern, and he made some of them. Since they did not affect the tone, he finally decided to buy them ready-made. It took him several months to make one violin. He worked evenings nearly always without any light except a kerosene lamp. Finally, when electricity came to Cato he was able to have his shop wired and to see better.

It is a sad thing to think that he did such painstaking work without proper light and in a place not too warm. It is that which makes me have such a tender memory of my father whose natural abilities of mind and hand were very great and who had such a little opportunity to develop them as much as he wanted to.

He was very popular and loved by people and had many friends always. Many people brought him presents, fruit, fish, maple syrup, a freshly caught turtle even. His funeral [in 1920] was very large and the people sad.

(To be continued)

I am very fortunate to have one of my great-grandfather’s nine violins. My brother possesses one of them also.