Antique Fiddle at History Center

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Relic fiddle returns home shrouded in mystery 

    After over a century of traveling around the United States, an old fiddle traveled its final 700 miles journey via Priority U.S. Mail. It was a grand homecoming of sorts; the fiddle was made in North English over 106 years ago, a time when the town was booming with businesses and musical talent.
   “After all these years, she needs to go home and retire,” said Nashville entertainer Hershel Butts, a fiddler and mandolin player in his own right, having worked with the likes of George Morgan, Little Roy Wiggins, Tom Swatzell and many others. “She provided entertainment for so many,” added Butts, “there’s no telling what all stages this violin has played on.”
   The Nashville entertainer contacted Dave Jackson, North English History Center, after visiting the Sesquicentennial Website in 2004, inquiring about the violin’s maker. A couple weeks ago Butts, whose stage name is “Uncle Hershel,” wrote back “I’d be so happy for her to go back home where she belongs after more than a hundred years of roaming around, from Branson, Mo., Nashville, TN., and who knows where! I know that she will be in good hands now.”
   There were at least 40 people at the North English History Center on Saturday morning, Feb. 3, when after a short ceremony, musicians Bob and Kristie Black and Larry and Velie Goodman unpackaged and removed the violin from its time worn and musty old case. The violin was passed among the crowd, the curious observers peeking through the “f-holes” on the top of the violin to the inside of its back.
   And this is where the mystery begins. Through the carved holes, when held in the proper light, is the handwritten inscription, “T.R. Ellett, North English, Iowa, USA – 1900.” It’s an inscription that has local historians Scott Romine and Dave Jackson stumped. The initials and last name of Ellett have left them with no less than four possibilities.
   There were two Thomas R. Ellett’s in town in 1900, both musicians, one 19 years old, the other 20. The obituary for the 20 year-old, from 1962, names him as Thomas R. “Todd” Ellett, having been survived by a brother Ray. The obituary reads: “Todd was an outstanding all-around musician. His musical prowess was shown in the fact that he was a member of the Ringling Brothers Circus for several years, playing the English horn. Todd was also a tailor, a sign painter and a house painter.”

  Musicians Bob and Kristie Black examine the North English Violin with Larry and Velie Goodman looking on while Dave Jackson explains the history of this musical instrument made in 1900 by W. R. Ellett.

   And then there’s the advertisement for “Ray Ellett – Violin Maker” that appeared in the 1916 Purple and Gold yearbook, and a 1906 North English Band photo with brothers Ray and Todd Ellett. There were two other Ray Elletts in town, also thought to be related and having some musical skills. Jackson and Romine are hoping some members of the community will help solve the mystery.”
   What they do know is that the violin, or “fiddle” as some would prefer, tells us a little more about its own history. Constructed out of cherry and maple wood, it has been at least a few years since it was played regularly. The back is a
bit loose and needs repair, but yet makes a good museum piece to demonstrate early North English craft working. “I can tell it was played as a country fiddle,” said local Bluegrass musician Bob Black, “violin players like one tuning screw on the tail, and this has all four.”
   There is intricate detailing, called “purfling” around the edge of the top plate of the fiddle. It is made with a tool with two tiny blades to cut a narrow channel around the edge and the decorative trim is inserted and glued into this groove. There are so many intricate details involved in the construction of a fiddle that it would take years for an apprentice to perfect them all. Judging from the workmanship of the North English fiddle, it seems the maker of this fiddle would have made many more than just the one.
   The fiddle was purchased by the Nashville entertainer in Branson around 1985. Butts, 67, born in Southern Illinois, has been playing music, a style he calls “Browngrass” since he was 12 years old. “My dad and mom and all my uncles played, so I just thought everybody played music,” said Butts. He added, “My dad had a square dance on Saturday nights, and everybody would come from miles around to have a little fun and relax; sometimes they got so relaxed they couldn’t walk back home.” Butts plans to visit North English in the future to join local musicians for some “pickin’ and grinnin’.”
   The old fiddle may be seen at the North English History Center, 121 S. Main Street, just north of the library, open every Saturday morning from 6:00 a.m.until Noon. Anyone with information about Thomas R. Ellett, or “T. R. Ellett” the fiddle maker, is asked to call the North English History Center at 664-3988 or Scott Romine at 664-3774.

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