By David L. Funke © 2009
My step-dad, Robert E. Gharst, did not like
his violin. He was always complaining about
it, which intensified after he joined the
Bremerton Symphony orchestra in 1952. He
wanted a better instrument, one worthy of
playing the music of the masters. His violin
was orange, but he never complained about
Whenever I complained about anything as
much as Robert was, spouting his
discontent, I was told to stop and be
appreciative for the things I had.
Considering how many sacrifices and the
history Robert had hadwith his violin, I felt
he was being unappreciative and ungrateful.
Robert received his violin when his Uncle
Jessie and Aunt Nell bought it for him in
1912 when they lived on a farm north of
Pincher Creek, Alberta, Canada. It was not
an expensive violin, but better than a lot of
instruments. His aunt and uncle had to
skimp and save before they purchased the
violin. They were not known to be good
farmers and economic tunes were tough.
Buying the violin was just the beginning of
their musical sacrifices for Robert.
There were the violin lessons every week
from a music teacher in the area. The cost of
replacing strings, music books, a tuning
fork, and resin for the violin bow, time away
from Robert's chores traveling fifteen miles
to Pincher Creek for lessons, and time for
Robert to practice every day. Then one day
Robert did not return from his violin lesson
increasing the sacrifices.
Robert was an hour late and Uncle Jessie
and Aunt Nell became concerned. When
Robert's horse arrived without him, they
were alarmed. They retraced the horse's
steps and found Robert laying on the prairie
with his violin. The horse had tripped in a
gopher hole and fell on Robert's left leg
breaking it in two places. Two compound
fractures. Robert was excused from any farm
chores for awhile and there was more than
enough time for practicing. Even the violin
case received a permanent gash on its top
from the saddle horn during the fall as a
reminder of the incident. The sacrifices
Robert's right leg grew normally while his
left leg was mending. As a result, the left leg
ended up being about a quarter inch shorter
than the right one. From that time on, Robert
required special therapeutic shoes with a
thicker left shoe sole so he could walk
without a limp.
During the 'Great Depression', Robert's
violin kept him from becoming dependent
on the many soup lines in Seattle,
Washington after he was employed by a
Tacoma radio station to play his violin. A
plush job Robert talked about often, adding
how he had to control tapping his foot to
keep time because it could be heard over the
airwaves. I am not sure how he solved the
foot tapping problem, but I always thought
the solution was simple. Remove a shoe.
By the time Christmas of 1952 came around,
my mom decided to put an end to Robert's
griping about the inferior quality of his
orange violin. Buying a new violin was
beyond consideration since our funds were
limited. But when my mom decided about
anything, not having enough money for it
was just a challenge to be worked around.
Like one summer my brother, Jim, and I
wanted cowboy shirts. Since they were so
expensive, mom bought material and shirt
patterns and made us cowboy shirts. So,
when mom read the advertisement for a
book in "Popular Mechanics" on how to
make your own Stradivarius, her prayers
were answered. It became her Christmas gift
to Robert.
When Robert opened the gift, he thought my
mom had wasted her money. He didn't think
he could build something as delicate as a
violin. One look at this rough fingers, I had
to agree. But, mom told him, "You should,
at least, read the book." So he did.
Soon after, a fifty dollar check was on its
way to Lewis & Sons in Chicago, Illinois for
naturally aged violin wood when Robert
decided he could make a Stradivarius after
all. The wood arrived in blocks (front, back,
and neck), strips (violin sides), round rod for
the sound post, and four pegs for the strings,
finger and tail boards, and a nob to anchor
the ebony tail board located behind the
bridge of the violin. It was obviously not an
erector set. One had to carve and shape the
violin by hand as special molds and tools
were needed.
Since Robert did not have a work shop, the
violin was made on our kitchen table. Once
dinner was done and the dishes cleared, out
came the violin making stuff. It took Robert
a year to finish making his Stradivarius. It
was an improvement over his old orange
instrument, but he felt he could do better:
“Not in my kitchen, you aren't,” exclaimed
my mom! So, Robert converted an
abandoned mink shed into a violin making
Mom's gift for Robert became similar to a
religious experience, like being born again.
It literally changed his life as he made a total
of 39 violins - Stradivarius (5), Guarnerius
(3), da Salo (4), and his own design “The
Monarch” (27).
He acquired new friends, too. A number of
Washingtonian violin makers were found -
several in Seattle and Tacoma, one in
Ryderwood, one in Ephrata, named Fritz,
who had violin making secrets, and a
disciple, Henry Mitchell, an Arkansas
fiddler who worked with Robert.
Robert visited Fritz often attempting to
unlock some of Fritz's secrets. Finally he
learned how to tune the wood. Robert's
violins improved notably afterwards as he
began making violins of his own design -
“The Monarch.”
If you ever look inside a violin and see a
stamp that is a capital ‘G’ with smaller
capital letters ‘R’ and ‘E’ inside it, you are
looking at one of Robert's violins. An
instrument made from a perfect Christmas
gift for Robert from my mom.