– Kentucky Dulcimer Excursion Part II

30 May 2016
David Bennett

As some of you may remember in early April 2016, Karen and I made a trip to see vintage mountain dulcimers in the triangle of Renfro Valley, Berea, and Hindman, Kentucky. During that trip we learned the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame  did not open for the season until the following week and the Mountain Life Museum at Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park did not re-open until Memorial Day weekend.

Specifically, what Karen and I wanted to see in the Renfro Valley area were dulcimers in a couple different locations that we had read about in Chet Hines’ 1973 book, “how to make and play the DULCIMORE”. As fortune would have it we had reason to pass through the Renfro Valley again and this time it was Memorial Day weekend and the two locations we missed last month were both open.

As a side note one of the places in Renfro Valley mentioned in Chet Hines’ book, the Mountain Museum, has either closed, changed names, or been absorbed by another entity since 1973 and I have not figured which. But we knew this upfront and it was not on our original itinerary back in April. A likely location for those dulcimer, but I have not been able to confirm yet, is that they’re connected with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance  . Of the three dulcimers at the Mountain Museum Chet’s book states on page 34, they are “… in storage at the Mountain Museum, Renfro Valley, Kentucky, in the custody of John Lair, entertainer, composer and for many years the producer of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance.” I’ve contacted the Renfro Valley Barn Dance people and they told me they have no dulcimers on display don’t know anything about them, they said they could have donated or loaned them out, if they ever had them.

With that said I’d like to tell you about the mountain dulcimer related items of interest that we did see when we revisited the Renfro Valley area this past weekend. There are two sets of photos below:

Mountain Life Museum, Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park

Though the Levi Jackson State Park is open year round, the Mountain Life Museum is open from Memorial Day weekend through the end of October. When we got there Thursday (before Memorial Day) they had just opened for the season fifteen minutes before we arrived. The pictures I took could have been better, because of the glass in the case reflecting both the electric light and natural light from the windows and open door, it was next to impossible to get a close and clear photo without any reflection in the middle of the photo. Therefore, I have taken the liberty, for educational purposes, of including a couple images from Chet Hines’ book.

  • Dulcimer 1: Harmonium/Double Dulcimer. The maker of this courting dulcimer is unknown. The entire instrument is covered with a “preservative, which unfortunately prevents positive identification of the wood.”
  • Dulcimer 2: Hourglass/Cumberland Style Dulcimer– Maker unknown, made from a variety of woods. The sides are made of white oak and the soundboard is walnut. Chet states in his book that the back is not original and is made with “a rather poor grade of yellow pine.” The author further states, “The shape of the back does not match the shape of the soundboard very well and several flatheaded nails are in each end to hold it in place… A very startling fact is brought to light as one inspects the soundboard more closely. The shape of the sides does not conform to the shape of the soundboard!” Chet speculates that the maker “intended to produce the hourglass effect for purely artistic reasons, but lacked the steaming equipment, instrumentation, or possibly the time to provide the sides with the complex curves to match those of the soundboard.” Chet complimented the maker noting the rest of the dulcimer was made with superb workmanship and artistic purity of design and “leaves little doubt that the maker was a master craftsman and experienced instrument maker.”

There is quite a bit more description of both instruments in the Chet Hines book and though it is out of print you can find copies on Amazon.com and other places on the Internet.                       Click on first image to start slideshow

Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, Renfro Valley, Kentucky

The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame was not actually mentioned in Chet Hines’ book, it probably wasn’t in existence in 1973. We ran across it when trying to track down the location of the dulcimers the Mountain Museum use to have, it was an obvious place to look for dulcimer history.

If you missed Part I of the Dulcimer Excursion see Kentucky Dulcimer Excursion Part I   or the video version