This was where the concept began. Some one gave us a bird feeder once and we put it up outside the kitchen window. At breakfast time Barbara and I would watch the various birds that would come by. We slowly became interested in the Blue Jays. We don't know anything about birds but these Blue Jays seemed especially interesting. They were strong and they had powerful voices that could call out over the whole neighborhood. They were loud and shrill, but then they could also be soft and pleasant and man what a paint job. We began to pick up a bag of peanuts with the groceries every week. We'd put them out so the Blue Jays would keep coming around.
One day the idea came to me. Why not try to express what a Blue Jay is in an instrument. It would be a fiddle. The top would be tuned to G# because that is the pitch the bird uses for its brightest song. The back would be F# because that is the pitch used in the softer tunes. That would also give the two sides the required one step difference. At this point I decided to use an unconventional wood simply because I had always wanted to. I used a nice piece of oak I picked up from Requarth Lumber, the same place the Wright Brothers bought the wood that went into their airplane. The top was a good piece of soft wood and I used maple for the fingerboard and the banding. Some old fashioned dyes made the colors and I had a great time.
I played this fiddle at church for almost a year and I developed a lot of confidence with it. I learned it was OK to play an unusual instrument. The sky didn't fall and I found I could dig deeper into the sound because it meant something to me personally. I think I did capture some of what makes a Blue Jay such a striking bird and I began to look around for other subjects that might be translated into an instrument.
The phone rang and a woman started speaking quickly, "I want you to make some fiddles for me. They're taking my grandparent's barn down. I would love to have some fiddles made out of the wood from that old barn. It would be a great way to remember them.."
"OK." I answered, "When are they actually taking the barn down?"
"Now" she said. "They're out there right now. You've got to come here right away."
Emergency! Of course I went right over and sure enough there were a bunch of guys and trucks. They had a crane and they were dismantling the barn. I started in and did my best. The good news was that the wood was 150 years old. It was air dried to perfection. The bad news was that it was in terrible shape. I kept telling myself that there had to be something useful. I was able to find some wood, but not much. Mostly it was wide grain oak which I filled and stabilized. There were some pieces that were heavily stained and that gave everything some real character. The soft wood was in better shape, but I don't think it was as old as the hardwood. No matter, it did come from the barn and I got a nice down home farmer's fiddle tone out of it.
Turns out the barn belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Winston who were among the first settlers in our Ohio town of Centerville. It was a great project. I built two fiddles, the farmer and his wife. All the while I thought about the kind of people they must have been to move to Ohio, to have a farm and then to start a town together. In the fiddles at their grand daughter's home they are remembered fondly and every once in a while they still make music together.
In every town and city in the days of yesteryear there was a big department store. Everyone who grew up in those times has memories of that store. In Dayton, Ohio the store was Rike's. With the advent of "The Mall" downtowns began to change and department stores all over started to close. Many people in Dayton tried valiantly to save the old Rike's building, but eventually the best idea was to take it down. The good part was that the space left after the building was gone would be used for the new Benjamin and Marian Schuster Center for the Performing Arts. I set my goal. I would build a fiddle out of wood I gathered from the old Rike building, and that fiddle would be played on the stage of the new Schuster Center. It would be my master work.
The first picture shows the wood in the back of my truck just as it was. The softwood was Douglas fir, the hardwood was Butternut and there was a little Maple for banding and what not. As I started telling people about my project it seemed everyone in Dayton who remembered Rike's Department Store had a story of something good that happened there. While building the fiddle I relived my own memories of shopping at the downtown department store in my own home town.
One of the greatest nights of my life was the opening of the Schuster Center. Leora Kline, first violin for Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra played the Rike fiddle for the entire concert. I heard Stravinsky's Firebird played on a violin that I had made.
The Rike Fiddle is now on permanent display at the Schuster Center courtesy of The Gerstner Company, master woodworkers Dayton, Ohio.