An Interesting Letter About William A. Conant,
Who Has Made Violins Here For Almost Sixty Years.
In a quaint, white-painted cottage on Canal street, in front of which stand three or four shapely maples, lives William A. Conant, in his 83d year. He is an unpretentious but interestingly jolly old gentleman, who has won more than local celebrity as a practical violin manufacturer, and is believed to be the oldest living representative of his trade in the United States still engaged in the manufacture of these instruments. Although a respected resident of the town since 1829, when he moved from Lowell, Mass., his life-work has been so quiet and unostentatious as hardly to attract the attention of even his towns people, comparatively few of whom understand the degree of proficiency to which he has attained in the manufacture of violins and violoncellos. A brief account of his successful career will be of local interest.
A single room in his tidy home furnishes him a work-shop. In 1841 Mr. Conant began the manufacture of 'cellos for John Woodbury, whose music store was in Steen's bookstore on the present site of the Brooks House. Eighty-four of these instruments were made and sold to the trade in Boston and New York, which secured to the maker quite a reputation for excellence of workmanship. After a time he began to make violins, and as his books show 326 of these instruments were sold to Woodbury and Burdett. Not till 1876 did he begin numbering his violins, so that he is not able to tell exactly how many of them have been put on the market; still it is his belief that he has made as many as 700 violins all told, many of which are undoubtedly in use today. Letters from leading musicians in different parts of the country attest the value of these instruments, and the old manufacturer takes commendable pride in referring to the complimentary terms in which the celebrated Dodworth spoke of these violins, pronouncing them superior in tone to those of French or English make. Another case is that of a celebrated violinist who was asked by a leading city music dealer to select the best toned instrument from four, two celebrated French and two of Conant's make. Placed in a dark room the musician was not permitted to examine the finish of the instruments until he had given his decision, which was decidedly in favor of the Conant make and afterward, when brought to the light, the critic unhesitatingly declared the American violin to be in every way superior to the French. Mr. Conant tunes his own violins, though he cannot play a tune; yet he is often importuned by local musicians and others to string and tune their violins. The wood for the manufacture of these instruments comes from off the Green mountains. It is selected stock, very few trees being fit for use. The top or belly of the violin is of old growth spruce, it being selected for its softness and fine grain. Only one side of the tree is fit for the manufacture of violins. After a suitable tree has been found, only the north side is selected, as the south side grows faster and the sun draws the gum to that side, so that the wood is coarser. it is not especially the grain of the wood, says Mr. Conant, that makes a violin good. Some are made of coarse grain and others fine, "but it is what I call the temper of the wood that gives the best tone to the instrument. I don't suppose I could find one log in all the millions floating down the Connecticut fit for violins, as they are all second growth, cut near the river, where the first growth has long since been destroyed. In Europe the German pine, or deal, is used altogether for violins, but I don't use it." The sides, back and neck of the violin are made of curly maple. He never works his wood until it is at least seven years old, and even now he has some on hand 12 years old. A friend in Norwich, Ct., brought him some wood from the pulpit floor of an old church which was taken down, with the expectation that the age of this stock would impart tone to the instruments. From this two violins were made, but they proved no better than those made from wood obtained on the mountains. "Perhaps," said the manufacturer humorously, "had he made his selection from the singers' seat, the result would have been different." It is conceded that it is the vibrations of the wood that imparts the tone to the violin, and a good violin invariable improves with use. It makes a vast difference who handles a violin, as discords harm a good instrument. This is the reason, declares Mr. Conant, why good violinists are loth to loan their instruments. A violin if laid aside goes to sleep, and it often requires a master like Ole Bull to wake it up and "bring it to." It takes something like six weeks for Mr. Conant to make a thorough violin, and the work requires patience and lots of experience. After they have been put together they are varnished, rubbed down and strung. The bow he does not make, that part of the instrument being a trade of itself; most of them are made in France.
Mr. Conant has not kept continually busy for the past forty years making violins, for he spent some 20 years in making ivory rules for the Stearns company before its removal to New Britain, C't.; but all this time had had a room and occasionally made a violin for a customer, and always had one or more on hand. "A violin is a great study," says the venerable maker: "most of them are got up cheap, but the owners of my instruments say that they are more alike in tone than those of any other manufacture." Some of these violins have been in use by local players for more than thirty years and grow richer in tone as they grow older, and are consequently highly valued. The average price of these violins is $35, though much higher prices have been asked for special instruments. Formerly Mr. Conant and a man named White of Boston were the sole manufacturers known in New England, but today there are several. Notwithstanding his age Mr. Conant manifests appreciation for a good violin and is ever ready to acknowledge the merits of other manufacturers. He is conversant with the history of all the noted violin makers, as well as with that of eminent players, and he often refers with pleasure to the fact that the great Italian, Stradivarius, made violins until he was 92 years old, and that recently some of the latter's make have been sold at auction for $1000 each. Mr. Conant and his estimable wife anticipate with much pleasure the celebration of their 60th marriage anniversary which comes in the fall.
Article By Correspondent, Maj. Frederick W. Childs.
Reprinted from the Springfield Sunday Republican.
William A. Conant was said to get his wood from old buildings and covered bridges. His varnish was typically a dull brown, occasionally with a yellow, or also a dark red brown varnish---
---Circulars are out giving programme and full announcement for Remenyi's appearance here on the 23d inst. The violin which the great artist uses in his concerts was manufactured by Antonius Stradivarius, in Cremona, Italy, in the year A. D. 1705. Its intrinsic value is not less than $5,000. Remenyi calls it his "Princess."
This first Eduard Remenyi concert in Brattleboro was reviewed in detail in the April 30, 1880 newspaper.
---Remenyi says that America now leads the world in violin makers, and that Europe has none who can surpass in power and delicacy the superb instruments which several Yankees have made. . .This is undoubtedly because the great violinist visited Conant's manufactory while in Brattleboro.
---Mr. Wm. A. Conant the violin manufacturer on Canal street has a clock which was ticking in Corcord, Mass., one hundred years ago. It is an eight day clock, an excellent time keeper, and according to Mr. Tripp who has repaired it, is good for a hundred years to come. The clock was owned by Capt. Andrew Conant of Concord, the grandfather of its present owner in 1770, and must have been imported. Its age no one knows. Mr. Conant is a native of Concord having left there when he was 18 years of age. He has made violins in this village for more than 30 years and his instruments are in good demand. He has orders from the west as well as from New England. He is supposed to be the only Violin Manufacturer in Vermont.
William Andrew Conant traced his direct line ancestors to the villages of Gittisham, East Budleigh, and Seaton---all in Devonshire, England. The Conant heirloom clock may have been constructed originally in Devonshire.
Death Of William A. Conant.
Whose Career will Always Hold a Place Unique in the Annals of Brattleboro.
One of the oldest Brattleboro residents passed away and a career which was unique was brought to a close in the death of Wm. A. Conant, which occurred at his home on Canal street Tuesday. Few lives have been more strictly individual than has Mr. Conant's, and in his work as "the old violin maker" he had employed his peculiar gift, and had made a place for himself which was as much his own creation as that of many men who, in a larger sphere, have come to wider fame. Mr. Conant was the son of Andrew and Lydia Miles Conant, and his ancestry dates back to the time of the wars with the Indians, waged by the early Massachusetts colonists. His father's farm covered the site now occupied by the well-known Concord reformatory buildings, and here he was born Nov. 30, 1804. He learned the trade of a cabinet maker, and it was while employed in this vocation in Lowell, Mass., that he met Harriet E. Salisbury, a native of West Brattleboro, to whom he was married Nov. 30, 1827. For about two years after his marriage Mr. Conant followed the business of cabinet maker on his own account at Lowell, but in 1829 the young people came to Brattleboro, moving into the same house on Canal street where their last years were spent. At this time there was no other house on that street except the one where J. H. Stebbins now lives, and there was no house on the road to East Guilford except the one on the Clark place, which stood some way back from the road. Mr. Conant entered into partnership with Anthony Van Doorn in the cabinet business, their shop standing where Emerson & Son's store now is. For twelve years Mr. Conant continued in this business, and then for several years made bass viols for Woodbury & Burditt, the old-time dealers in musical instruments, who sold the product of Mr. Conant's skill to the trade in New York and Boston, where they won for him a reputation for great excellence of workmanship. Afterward, for some 20 years, he made rules in the old rule shop, and was for six years an action maker for Estey & Co.
It was while employed in the rule shop that Mr. Conant began making violins, employing himself in this way in the beginning, doubtless, mainly as a diversion. In due time both he and the users of his violins began to discover his remarkable gift as a maker of these instruments, and after leaving the Estey shops their manufacture was his sole occupation. It was not until 1876 that he began to number his violins, but after that date he made upward of 700, and the total number must have been more than 1000. This work has been done in a room set apart for the purpose in his Canal street home, where many visitors, including musicians of prominence, have received a cordial welcome and have been entertained with Mr. Conant's inimitable vein of drollery and apt sayings. The story of his work has often been told and widely published. One of the best accounts was that written by Mr. Childs for the Springfield Republican several years ago, and younger people will find these extracts interesting.
Until failing health confined him to his house Mr. Conant was a familiar figure in our streets, and his ready wit and off-hand ways made him always a welcome visitor. Mr. and Mrs. Conant's name now stands as the oldest member on the roll of the Centre church. Their golden wedding was celebrated Nov. 30, 1877. Mrs. Conant died in August, 1890. Eight children were born to them, five of whom are now living--Mrs. Harriet Maria Emmons of Brooklyn, N.Y., Charles S. Conant, Mrs. Mary Ann Pettee and Frank Conant, all of Brattleboro, and Mrs. Emma M. Arey of Los Angeles, Cal., but whose recent years have been given to the care of her parents. Mr. Conant's final illness began last October. At the end death came suddenly from a stroke of apoplexy. The funeral was held from the house yesterday afternoon, Rev. Mr. Day officiating.
The Phoenix is indebted to the ready courtesy of the Springfield Republican for its excellent portrait of Mr. Conant.
Also printed in the Springfield Republican, February 13, 1894, with the portrait of Conant initialed by the artist "EAW". This obituary also reprints Frederick W. Childs' April 29,1887 tribute to William Conant.
A Plan of the John Conant Farm (1813) of West Concord is in the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Concord Collections (1813-1991), Series I. Land Documents, 1813-1837: Box 1, Folder 1 in Vault A5 Unit C1. During the lifetime of William Andrew Conant, the place was known as the Concord Reformatory.
German Bow And Case
---William A. Conant and Harriet E. Salisbury were married at Lowell, Mass., on Thanksgiving day, Nov. 30, 1827, and came to Brattleboro to live two years afterward, where they have since resided. Last Friday, the fiftieth anniversary of their marriage---which was also Mr. Conant's 73d birthday---it happened that they were invited out to tea, and when the hour arrived for the regular Friday evening meeting at their church---the Congregational---they attended, as was their habit, and at the close of the services returned to their home on Canal street. Stepping into the house on their arrival, what was their surprise to see standing berfore them their pastor, Dr. Walker, whom they had just been listening to at the church, and a host of other acquaintances and friends; in fact as they soon found out, a houseful of people numbering about 150, whose coming was wholly without invitation on their part, at that particular time. However, though completely surprised by this unexpected call, the worthy couple soon became reconciled to the situation and gave their guests a hearty greeting. Dr. Walker then addressed the aged bride and bridegroom with words of congratulation and expressive of thoughts which naturally arise on such an occasion, and closed by presenting them, as a token of regard from friends present and absent, a handful of gold coin amounting to about $100. Mr. Conant, in response, expressed the thanks of himself and wife in a few happily chosen words; after which some remarks were made by C. N. Davenport, Esq. Besides the gold coin, valuable presents were received by Mr. and Mrs. Conant from their children, of whom five were present of the six now living. Two splendid loaves of wedding cake were also sent by Mr. and Mrs. Clinton Pettee of Brooklyn, N. Y. The occasion was in all respects pleasant and successful, and one that will mark a bright spot in the earthly pathway of this venerable and respected pair,---who yet bid fair to celebrate their diamond wedding.
---Surprises are not always agreeable, but the one which occurred on Canal street, last Friday evening, at the house of Mr. Wm. A. Conant, the veteran violin maker, was highly enjoyed by all who participated in it, the occasion being the fiftieth anniversary of the marriage of Mr. Conant and his wife, and also Mr. Conant's birthday. A number of their relatives from abroad had come to town to spend Thanksgiving, and during Friday afternoon, when Mr. C. and his wife were visiting at a friend's, certain preparations were made, and invitations were extended to some of the neighbors and acquaintances in the different societies. At the close of the evening meeting in the Congregational chapel, where the unconscious pair were in attendance as usual, a large company gathered at the house to give them a hearty welcome and reception. They had suspected nothing, and were greatly astonished to find their premises thus occupied, and the house filled with visitors. Dr. Walker addressed the bride and bridegroom in a very happy manner, referring to the fact that Mr. Conant well illustrates the rare habit of growing old, as well as many other good practices, among which he mentioned an early marriage, and a peaceful life, in the desirable medium between poverty and riches. C. N. Davenport, Esq., being called for, added a very appropriate supplement to Dr. Walker's speech, commending the domestic virtue, as illustrated by Mr. Conant, as of the greatest importance, aside from the Christian religion. Mr. Conant replied briefly and fittingly, thanking the company for their visit, and the friends for their generosity, a purse of $100 in gold having been presented by Dr. Walker in behalf of the donors. Two beautiful wedding cakes were sent from Brooklyn, N. Y., by Mr. H. C. Pettee. Mr. Conant has three sons and three daughters, all of whom were present except one of the daughters, who lives in Brooklyn, and with this exception all are now living in town. After refreshments, the company separated, feeling the satisfaction of having done something to smooth the pathway of the venerable couple in their declining years. Mr. Conant came to this town 48 years ago, worked a short time for Mr. Van Doorn, and afterwards for Mr. Woodbury. For twenty years he worked in the rule shop, in the meantime making an occasional violin. Since that he has devoted himself most of the time to the manufacture of violins, every one of which is made with his own hands. His instruments have a wide reputation, and have been heartily commended by many of the best artists in this country and Europe. There is no sham about the man or his violins, and the latter always bring a good price.
A long, faithful and unselfish life, nearly 63 years of which had been spent as a devoted wife and over 60 years as a consistent member of the Congregational church, was brought to a close last Sunday by the death of Harriet E. Salisbury, wife of Willaim A. Conant.---It will be remembered that she slipped and fell a few weeks ago, fracturing her hip, from which injury her death resulted. Mrs. Conant was the daughter of Hezekiah and Hannah Salisbury and was born in West Brattleboro April 9, 1805. She was the youngest and last surviving member of a family of 11 children. Her mother died when she was seven or eight years old and she went to live with a relative in Leyden, Mass., staying there until she was 17 or 18, when she went to Chelmsford, Mass., now a part of Lowell, to live with a sister, Mrs. Matilda Van Doorn, whose husband was a brother of the late Anthony Van Doorn of this place. It was in Lowell that she met Mr. Conant and there they were married Nov. 30, 1827. The first winter they lived in Haverhill, Mass., but the following spring they returned to Lowell, where Mr. Conant bought out Mr. Van Doorn's business, that of a cabinet maker. Two years later, in 1829, they came to Brattleboro, moving into the same house on Canal street where these last years have been spent. At this time there was no other house on the street except the one where John Stebbins now lives and no house on the road to East Guilford except the Clark place, which stood some way back from the road. Mr. Conant and Anthony Van Doorn were then in partnership in the cabinet business, their shop standing where Emerson's & Son's store now is. Mr. and Mrs. Conant moved from Canal street to Reed Hill, thence to South Main street and to the Van Doorn house on Main street, returning to Canal street in 1861.
Eight children have been born to Mr. and Mr. Conant, five of whom are now living---Mrs. Harriet Maria Emmons of Brooklyn, N. Y.; Charles Sanford Conant, Mrs. Mary Ann Pettee, and Frank Conant, all three of this place; and Mrs. Emma M. Arey of Los Angeles, Cal., who has for some time been with her parents. The oldest son, William Henry, died in New York city, in 1875; Ella M., born in 1847, died when seven months old; and Herbert died in this place in 1881.
Mr. and Mrs. Conant both united with the Congregational church in Lowell and had their membership transferred to the Centre church in this place soon after coming here. In years they were the oldest members of the Centre church and their membership was the second longest. The golden wedding was appropriately celebrated in 1877 and their 60th wedding anniversary was observed by the family circle.
Mr. Conant worked at his trade of cabinet maker 12 years after coming here, was then for several years with Woodbury & Burditt making bass viols, employed in the old rule shop 20 years and was for six years an action maker at Estey & Co.'s. While working in the rule shop Mr. Conant began making violins, and this has been his sole occupation since leaving the shops. The Conant violins are widely known and are considered by musicians as among the best made.
Mrs. Conant was a woman of unusual strength of body, mind and character. Lifelong she was energetic and was always doing something to help and comfort the members of her own or neighboring families. Three times has she suffered from a broken limb, but all of her pains and trials have been uncomplainingly borne.
The funeral was held Tuesday at the house. Rev. Geo. E. Martin of St. Louis, a former pastor, officiating. The singing was by Lucien Howe, whom Mrs. Conant cared for as a child.
The late eighteenth-century house of Hezekiah Salisbury, where Harriet E. Salisbury grew up, stood until very recently on the north side of Western Avenue behind a roadside hedge, west of the Halladay Brook crossing. Seventy years ago, this now neglected house was an attractive, prosperous bed and breakfast.
This pleasant way-station contained a cherry wood side bar, made by the local craftsman and furniture maker, Luther Ames---for whom Ames Hill, toward the Marlboro line, is known, and named.
This historic house was purchased several decades ago by a family that turned the property into a permanent, polluting automobile junkyard, and allowed the house to degenerate. The final fire that consumed Hezekiah Salisbury's house was declared not to be a case of arson.
Richard Grant White, "King Cole And His Band" in William Conant Church, editor, The Galaxy; A Magazine of Entertaining Reading, Volume 22, August 1876, pages 249-257.