Ten grandchildren. Ten violins – made by hand. Over ten years from conception to completion.
It sounds like a story waiting to be told. And Gene Van Alstine, keeper of stories, starts at the beginning.
The Cambridge man, known to many as the fiddle player in the popular local band The Mystery Mountain Boys, appears to relish his role as family historian.
In his “man cave” filled with old photos, antique tools, artwork and gewgaws, he points to a black and white photo of an old man with a violin at his shoulder. It’s his mom’s father, Charlie Johnson, just before he died in 1953.
“I used to sit on his lap,” Van Alstine, 72, recalled, “and I’d put my hand on his bow hand and put my other hand (under here) so I could feel the fiddle play – and he’d play “Turkey in the Straw,” and then tell me what a great job I did. I believed that.”
Grandpa Charlie was one of 10 brothers and sisters who played violins, mandolins and guitars at a meeting hall the family built in Opstead, Minnesota, north of Isle by Lake Mille Lacs.
Some of Van Alstine’s best memories are of watching Grandpa saw on that fiddle while square dancers twirled.
“They’d have a jam session every night,” Van Alstine said. “I’m not sure if the cows got milked, but I guarantee those fiddles got played.”
Grandpa Charlie tried
Grandpa Charlie wanted to teach his grandson how to play and bought a secondhand fiddle at a garage sale when Van Alstine was around six years old.
“I wasn’t to touch it if grandpa wasn’t home,” Van Alstine said. “About that same time he had cancer, and he went to the doctor one day, and while he was gone I took the fiddle out.”
He tried his hand at “Turkey in the Straw,” only to be overcome with frustration.
“I’ve always been kind of a hotheaded screwball,” Van Alstine said, “and I played it and it sounded terrible. ... I got so mad that I jammed the bow into the E string and cut off just about half the hairs on the bow, broke the bridge. Then I didn’t know what to do. I got my jackknife out and cut off those hairs so they were only about an inch long.”
Knowing he was in trouble, he stuck the violin back in the case and back on the shelf in his mom’s bedroom closet.
“As it turned out, grandpa never did come home from there,” Van Alstine said. “They put him in the hospital that day. A few weeks later he passed away. I never said anything to mom.”
Life went on without Grandpa Charlie and the violin.
Van Alstine grew up and opened his own business – VanPro Machine Shop – got married and raised a family of four children.
“I had this machine shop going,” he said, “and I worked day and night – long, long hours. There was no time for music. The machine shop just gobbled up my life.”
Then one day his mother, then in her 80s, called and asked him to come get his garage sale violin and his grandpa’s too.
“I wondered if my fiddle looked the same way it was the last time I played it,” Van Alstine said. “I pulled it out and the bow string was all cut up and the bridge was broken. My mom said, ‘Well, you little dickens! I ought to give you a lickin’.’ I said, ‘Mom, I’m 56 years old.’”
The violins had sat untouched on the closet shelf for 50 years.
Van Alstine was thrilled to reconnect with his beloved grandpa’s fiddle. He had both instruments repaired, intending to learn to play either one.
A fast learner
With a little practice under his belt, Van Alstine remembers taking a trip with his mother to Opstead and seeing the old dance hall, now used as a township hall. He had an overwhelming desire to stand where his grandpa used to stand and play “Turkey in the Straw.”
He contacted a woman who had a key and said he wanted to spend an hour or two inside just to reminisce and play some tunes.
Her response: “Boy, Bill and I would like to come.” Other relatives got wind of the plan and said they wanted to be there too.
Trouble was, Van Alstine knew he could barely scratch out the song.
“‘I’ll tell you what,’” he said, “‘we’ll do this a year from now,’ I told them.” He reserved the town hall for one year hence.
With his self-imposed deadline, Van Alstine said he poured his heart into learning to play by watching a teaching series on DVD, hanging around guys who played fiddles and going to jam sessions.
The following year a group of family and friends enjoyed a pig roast at the hall.
“I stood up there,” Van Alstine said, “and played ‘Turkey in the Straw’ right where grandpa used to stand.”
He said the few musicians that came along to help out had so much fun, they wanted to stick together. They started playing gigs – and became the Mystery Mountain Boys.
“Last year we did 47 gigs,” Van Alstine said. “That’s how it all started.”
Keep the music alive
Over the years, Van Alstine felt compelled to keep the family’s musical history alive. He bought most of the fiddles played by his great-uncles and keeps them in a glass display case in his home, and treats his grandpa’s fiddle with loving care.
“Of all the things in the world that I have,” he said, “this is my most prized possession. If my house was on fire and there was $50,000 on the table and this (fiddle) was over here and I had to pick one, I’d pick this.”
One day Van Alstine realized a dilemma lay at the intersection of his love for history, family and grandpa’s fiddle.
“I have 10 grandkids and only one fiddle,” he said. “How am I going to deal with that? I’ve always wanted to make a fiddle anyway. I thought, ‘I’ll just make them fiddles.’”
He began that journey by spending four or five years reading every book he could find about Stradivarius and other famous violin makers, researching everything from wood to varnish to strings.
With the mentality and experience of a machinist, he began building violins in 2012 – not one at a time, but like a Henry Ford assembly line – all the fronts, then all the backs, step by step through all the pieces of 10 instruments.
How to make a violin
Van Alstine began by creating a prototype violin out of $8.50 worth of spruce and maple wood from Menard’s.
“Every time I would move to the next operation,” he said, “I would start with this one. So I’ve had this together and apart half a dozen times, learning in the process.”
The backs of the violins are made of quarter-sawn flame maple ordered from California. The fronts are sitka spruce from Alaska, a wood known for being an excellent conductor of sound.
The cost of wood for just the front and back of each instrument was $150.
Van Alstine received the wood in unwieldy chunks. The graceful curves of the fronts and backs were not made by pressing the wood, but by hand-carving it.
He created intricate “purfling” around the outside edge of the front and back of each instrument – two decorative grooves cut into the wood with ebony strips inlaid. The process took days per violin.
He hand-carved the scroll on the neck of each violin, but got assistance from a friend, Doug Anderson, to create and piece together the “ribs” or sides of the instruments. Another family friend, Grant Crocker, helped mix and apply the colored dye to the fiddles.
“I’m color blind,” Van Alstine said, “so I can’t see that there are different colors (in the finishes).”
Crocker created 10 different dyes so each violin had its own unique finish – from honey-colored to deep brown – lighter to darker in order of the grandkids’ ages.
To top it all off, the varnish Van Alstine ordered is top of the line at $98 a quart. Each violin got eight coats.
“I’ve read that an average violin would take about 500 hours to hand-carve like this,” Van Alstine said, agreeing that was a good estimate of his time. “I think that saying I worked on them 1,000 hours a year is probably true.”
The finish line
Van Alstine was given a nudge to speed up the process three years ago – he developed bladder cancer. He was treated then, but found it had come back last August.
“I thought, ‘I got to get these things done,’” he said, “so I just poured my heart into them and finished them.”
He’s since been given a clean bill of health, and he and wife Shari had their whole brood together on Easter Sunday, April 21, to finally give the gifts more than 10 years in the making.
The oldest grandchild is 21 years old and the youngest is eight months. Some have musical training and some do not, but all appeared thrilled to receive their gifts from grandpa – the keeper of stories and music who had now become the giver.
“I’m proud that they’re going to have the fiddles,” Van Alstine said. “I hope that they cherish them like I’ve cherished my grandpa’s, and they pass them down generation to generation.”