Farmers in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries Tried Lutherie in Their Downtime—with Mixed Results

American farmers took their skills and sharp blades to making violins with advice that was decidedly vague

By Cliff Hall | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

In this age of instant discovery, many would-be luthiers can Google “how to set a soundpost” and a bevy of results will appear ready to educate and edify. Clear examples (with varying degrees of actual technical prowess) abound, and a discriminating viewer could sort through hyper specific videos with a confidence abundantly afforded to those living in the modern age. But this DIY sensibility is hardly confined to the modern age. In fact, farmers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were similarly inclined to tackle violin-making projects during long, dormant winter hours, despite a lack of clear instruction. And while results varied, some reportedly had an admirable talent for doing so.

Violin-Making as It Was, and Is, Ward, Lock, Bowden, and Co.
Violin-Making as It Was, and Is, Ward, Lock, Bowden, and Co.

Relying on resources like Edward Heron-Allen’s 1884 book Violin-Making as It Was, and Is, these yeomans found advice of a rather nonspecific nature. For example, “It is always, however, better to err on the side of excess than of meanness, for the best authorities allow that an instrument with plenty of wood left in it has a much finer tone than one which has been chiseled down to a minimum of thickness, and again, instruments which have been spared the chisel in their infancy have a much better chance of maturing to perfection than weaker ones. The great thing is to avoid extremes.”

It was in the long winter nights that American farmers, weary from both the darkness and banality of applying their expert craftsmanship to crafting cabinets, took their skills and sharp blades to making violins with advice that was decidedly vague.

James Calvin Kerlin-Photo-Carroll County Historical Museum
James Calvin Kerlin, aka the “Violin Maker of the Wabash.” Photo: Carroll County Historical Museum

James Calvin Kerlin was such a man. Known as the “Violin Maker of the Wabash,” Kerlin turned out over 200 instruments in his lifetime. “An Indiana farmer makes violins with such skill as to cause well-known musicians to discard costly instruments and make use of those made on a little sixteen-acre fruit farm in Carroll County,” wrote the Indianapolis Star in 1907. “Not long since some of the best-known violinists in Michigan City heard of the instruments that were made of wood chopped out of Hoosier forests, and they experimented. The farm fiddles were of sweeter tone, their construction on absolutely correct lines, and they threw away the creations of established factories and adopted those made by a man between 60 and 70 years old who works beside a kitchen stove, using only a jackknife and other tools that he originated.”


One of the most peculiar facts about the Hoosier farmer’s strange talent was that he was unable to play any kind of instrument and produce a melody. However, he reportedly possessed the remarkable ability to recognize when an instrument emitted its proper sound. “Aged wood of old instruments under certain fanciful conditions, may help regenerate tone art and exercise a moral influence,” said Kerlin.

A veteran of the Civil War who listed his occupation as carpenter, most of Kerlin’s professional life was as a farmer, mainly focusing on growing fruit trees. It was this combination of hand skills and plentiful winter downtime that gave him the room to explore lutherie. “A great deal of the work done by the old fiddle maker is transacted at night by lamplight. He sits by the kitchen stove and scrapes away at a piece of wood until he has worked it down to the proper thickness,” continued the Indianapolis Star. “Frequently he holds the piece to the light to tell by his eye how thin it is getting to be. He has worked as late as one o’clock in the morning until a certain piece of timber has attained its proper slender proportions.”

1913 Indianapolis Star article on Farmer and luthier James Calvin Kerlin
1913 Indianapolis Star article on Farmer and luthier James Calvin Kerlin

Another example of an agriculturalist turned luthier was William Howells of Shandon, Ohio. A second-generation farmer, Howells was known to most in his area as a hobbyist violinist. In 1931, the Hamilton Evening Journal noted, “Last Sunday morning there was a special program for opening exercises of Sunday School. Miss Lucille Walthers, pianist, and Mr. William Howells, violinist, opened the program with an instrumental prelude, and playing the accompaniments for the singing.”

But things did not always turn out quite so well on Howells’ farm. In his free time, he constructed violins on classic forms with fine-quality woods but with tonal results that were often less than spectacular.


Jake Wildwood, who has operated a vintage instrument shop in Rochester, Vermont, since 2007, has seen his fair share of these violins. “The trouble with these ‘folk fiddles’ is not so much that they’re built poorly but that they’re built weird,” says Wildwood in an email. “Often the neck and neck block are one piece, which proves challenging for a neck reset, and many times the sides are put to the top and back with no purfling or edging of any sort, so there’s not much of a seam to speak of to hold things together. Often you find no bass bars or ‘integral’ bass bars.” Integral bass bars were simply carved from the wood of the top with dubious tonal results and were often employed in entry-level factory violins from the same era.

The Opelousas Courier 1907 article on a farmer making fiddles

Wildwood is constantly on the prowl for the nicest and most interesting players’ instruments from the middle of the 1800s through the mid-1970s. In this endeavor, he has made particular note of oddities of the American folk violins he has encountered. “Much of the time they actually sound pretty good (why wouldn’t you refine your instrument if you’re spending all that time on it?), but they often have really weird overtone sequences or bad sympathetic notes ringing,” he writes.

About 40 percent of the American workforce was employed in farming in 1840, but that percentage has declined to a little over one percent today, and thus the practice of rural lutherie has all but disappeared. But the tradition lives on elsewhere.


In 2020, an article published in China Daily highlighted the remarkable story of approximately 2,600 farmers residing in Queshan county, Henan province, in central China, who unexpectedly emerged as the driving force behind the dreams of millions of violin enthusiasts worldwide. Surprisingly, these farmers have managed to produce a staggering 80 percent of middle- to high-end violins and 40 percent of violins, violas, and cellos in China. Their instruments have gained popularity and are sold in numerous countries, including Italy, the United States, Germany, and Spain. The roots of this extraordinary journey can be traced back to the 1980s, when a group of farmers from Queshan county opted to leave their agricultural work behind and pursue more lucrative prospects in Beijing’s violin handcrafting studios.

One such individual who takes immense pride in his profession is Jiang, a skilled luthier employed at Henan Haoyun Musical Instrument in Queshan. Jiang’s journey began in 2001. When seeking better employment opportunities, he secured a position at the company. Over the years, he has honed his craft and risen through the ranks to become a respected luthier, eventually attaining the prestigious position of director of his department. Although no longer producing the rustic folk instruments that his American counterparts created as technology has leaped dramatically forward, the work ethic and personal satisfaction remains the same.

“I’m proud of my job,” Jiang says. “Who can believe a bunch of farmers, who have no knowledge of staves, could have produced such a large portion of violins across the world?”