Worst campsite ever – tent pitched on gravel that laughed at our sleeping bag pads, open trash barrels stinking in the oppressive August heat, swarms of yellow jackets, and a picnic table without benches – too high for folding chairs. Who the hell wants to stand up to eat at a campground?! It was not our first choice. Our 1970’s guidebook first led us far into the North Carolina countryside to a campground long out of business. The only other choice was right beside I-85 in Hillsborough, so my wife and I hunkered down for at least a couple nights at the Daniel Boone Complex to see the legendary town of Chapel Hill nearby. And for me to meet with an old NYU professor, now at UNC. He was my last hope– any leads on a musicology job in the South?
At lunch the next day in a dark corner of the Rathskeller (great lasagna!) I could not tell if he rolled his eyes as he dismissed my request with a sideways glance, just like he did at NYU rather than make eye contact with the class. What was I thinking? Is clarity of thought even possible when desperate? A different NYU professor foreshadowed this without Shakespearean heft by regularly talking about us seeking “career alternatives.” I thought he was joking, since he always followed with “like mushroom identification.” My gullibility led to some interesting abandonments.
Driving back to our campground after lunch, my thoughts were as heavy as the cheese in my stomach. I only found out later that the lasagna at The Rat was famous, and was referred to as the bowl of cheese!
Three and a half years of grad school and living in New York got me my subway legs, city sidewalk smarts, and reams of notes on obscure “aspects” of music history as well as thousands of index cards, each with a quote or a reference that I figured would prove essential in some later writing. As reality set in, I realized nobody outside the Musicology Department cared about what I wrote – oh, maybe three scholars somewhere in the world would read it, just to find flaws in my thesis.
Despite this, I still nurtured the fantasy of succeeding as a musicologist, even though I had already found my career alternative. I already had flown the academic coop and spent most of 1978 working in the best violin shop in Philadelphia. I gleefully set aside twenty years of schooling – kindergarten to almost the Ph.D. without looking up. Working with my hands was such a relief. I became a productive bow rehairer in a couple weeks, then learned some of the more intricate repair techniques. My “master” had been a kid in Philly during the Depression, one of the few who passed the test to become an apprentice machinist. He and a bunch of other street kids were given a rough chunk of iron, one flat file, the use of a vise, and a micrometer. The task? Make a one inch cube. Not as easy as it sounds, working six surfaces simultaneously, keeping the angles square, and to end up with all sides the same dimensions! Take any one surface too small and you were done – you can’t add material! Unlike violin makers, bow craftspeople tended to come from metal working, especially jewelers, given the small tolerances, and the need for precisely fitted metal parts, often made of silver or gold.
Turning past the Shell station into the Daniel Boone Complex, I stared up at the colossal statue of Daniel Boone along the driveway, when my eyes found something out of place – a small violin shaped wooden sign screwed onto a post. All it said was “Hillmusic.” Curious, I bypassed the campground and a couple antique shops, and found a small building tucked into the back corner, just off the main parking lot. From its wood façade, it could have been in an old wild west town.
Inside a middle aisle was flanked by parallel rows of old oak cases displaying violins, an elegant hand cranked metal cash register and racks of some interesting looking sheet music. At the back an antique potbelly wood stove sat in front of a wall of salvaged barn board with banjos and guitars hanging, chairs pulled around as if waiting for a jam to start.
“Do you play?” asked a voice from around a corner. I turned to see a man in gold wire rims at a workbench. For some reason, rather than being coy or obscure (probably since I had been reamed of artifice at lunch), I answered,
“I play violin . . . and I work at Moennig & Son in Philadelphia.”
I swear his eyes almost bugged out of his head! Someone from Moennig in his shop?! Along with Jacques Francais in New York and Bein & Fushi in Chicago, Moennig was one of the top violin shops in the country. When the other famous shop, Rembert Wurlitzer, shut down, it was Moennig that purchased a tractor trailer’s worth of their inventory. This guy with the glasses put down a violin and tool, and came out of his workshop. He was used to people just looking around, attracted to the tourist trap of the Antique Mall, next building over. We sat in some armless oak rocking chairs and talked. His name was Nowell, and he was fascinated to hear about a big city violin shop, and I was intrigued by his laid back Southern charm and stories of serving fiddlers as well as violinists. Eye contact was easy – so different than my NYU professor!
I told him stories of how Moennig was run like a medieval German craft guild. Each room of the three story brick townhouse had its own workshop leader, with it all ruled by the boss, William Moennig the third. He did let us call him Bill, and we sometimes referred to him as Bill the Third, since he had recently taken over from his father, William Moennig the second. The reigning Herr Moennig was so strict that when the mayor of Philadelphia declared downtown closed the morning of the Blizzard of 1978, and ordered businesses to close by noon, Bill made it clear we were to stay until the normal closing time. Only one craftsperson broke ranks – our only female craftsman lived on the top floor of a carriage house on a small street on the Main Line, and she wanted to catch a train while they were still running to get home to her husband, a violin maker trying to earn a living as a maker, not a repair person.
I also revealed my affinity for the South. I wore my “born in Virginia” label proudly while growing up outside Philadelphia, even though we moved back to the Northeast when I was 11 months. Now I was pretty much fed up with big cities, crowded trains and fast talkers.
Hearing how bad the campground was, Nowell invited my wife Sarah and I to stay with him that night. As we hung out and enjoyed their relaxed hospitality, Nowell floated the idea of me moving down and opening a branch of Hillmusic in Chapel Hill. He enjoyed his little shop in the quaint town of Hillsborough, and had no interest in moving into the “big city” of Chapel Hill (population around 30,000). As a university town, he knew he’d get more violin shop business there. And by having a real classical violinist with a pedigree of having worked at Moennig, he knew we could lure the North Carolina Symphony players over from Raleigh. Legitimacy beckoned for Nowell, and escape from Yankee cities lured me.
We spent the next night with some friends of Nowell who ran a used bookstore. Linda and H.L. had just won a display window auction at the PTA Thrift Shop – high bid on a sterling silver wine chalice embossed with bunches of grapes and vines. I imagine it had been filled by many priests over the years, and raised to heaven during Mass. They were excited to bring their vintage treasure home, and were inspired by all of us gathered to start “The Noble Grape Society.” We toasted their new venture over and over, refilling the now secularized chalice with wine and passing it around. Our communion was all social, and filled with laughter. As we drove back to Pennsylvania the next day, Sarah and I smiled to recall various funny scenes of the weekend, and remark about the relaxed bunch of folks we had met. And marvel at our prospects for moving there.
Back at work in the bow shop at Moennig, I talked about our camping in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and how cool the town of Chapel Hill was, nothing more. I called Nowell after about a week and he said he had not found a suitable place to rent. I discovered later that he was big on talk and long on procrastination – doing what he said he would do on a timely basis was not his strong suit. As the days went by, my vision of starting a new life began to fade. Then he told me he found a place, upstairs above a stereo store right downtown.
That weekend, my wife flew down to find us a place to live. On Monday I told Bill Moennig I needed to talk with him. Like my NYU professor, he cut me off short and said he could not give me a raise. When I told him I’d be moving to NC and gave my two weeks notice, he didn’t say much, but I knew he was not happy. I was leaving his bow department a man short just as the season was starting. I felt no remorse – if he had been a kinder boss, I might not have jumped ship at my first opportunity.
Two weeks later, we pulled a rental truck into the yard of a small mill house Sarah had found for us in Efland, several miles west from Hillsborough. Our landlord was Sim Efland, the latest of patriarchs named Simpson who lived in the town bearing their name. The post office was next to the beauty salon, an easy walk from our house. Talk about different from Philly or New York! I traded my New York license plate for a North Carolina one the next day, not wanting to advertise my Yankee upbringing. Nowell had a project waiting for me at the Daniel Boone Complex – a viola bow to rehair. Not just any bow either, but the pride of Professor Ann Woodward, teacher at UNC in Chapel Hill. It was a fine French bow, and she expected a fast turn around.
Although I had my hand tools, a bow bench has several special attachments that facilitate rehairing. And my method was quite different from how Nowell worked, so his bench was not what I was used to. Over the next couple weeks as we cleaned up and painted the new space in Chapel Hill, I’d screw together some 2 x 4’s to make a workbench and carve the bow holding jig for the back of the bench, and a wedge cutting block to attach to the front. Then work in my comfortable way. For now, I struggled with Nowell’s bench, which was higher than chair height (like the campground picnic table!) and began my trial by fire. Things went along okay until I dropped the ebony frog on the concrete floor! Frog is a strange name for the part of a bow that holds the hair, moving along the stick to tighten or loosen the horsehair. There is no proof of the origin of the term. The best theory proposes that the vernacular term for the small vise used by bowmakers, a frock vise, came to be applied to the part that it held. We have no idea who first put the term into writing and spelled it “frog.”
This frog was over a hundred years old, finely carved of dense grained ebony, with mother of pearl dots inlaid on the sides, each with a sterling silver ring concentric to the pearl. All bow frogs have a brass eyelet hidden from view when on the bow stick, which engages a threaded shaft to move the frog back and forth to tighten or loosen the hair. The path where the frog glides on the stick is make of a thin nickel silver which also protects a whisker’s edge of the ebony on each side.
The only disaster I had witnessed at Moennig was also a rare French viola bow, made by Nicolas Maline in the 1800’s, and worth thousands of dollars. The old guy who trained me had just finished a complete restoration, including making some new sterling silver parts. George finished rehairing it and was using the buffing machine to give it a final shine before taking it downstairs to show Bill. He was proud of how it came out. Unfortunately, a breeze from the window blew some horsehair into the wheel, which caught it, and sucked the bow out of his hands into the spinning wheel, breaking it to splinters. George was remarkably quiet. He sat back down at his bench with the pieces in front of him, struck a match, lit his cigar and exhaled long.
“In all my years doing this, I have never done something I could not fix – until today.”
I did not envy him his trip down two flights of stairs to tell Bill.
When I got down from my stool and found the frog, I was amazed to find it undamaged, even the top edges. I had dodged a bullet, and had no apologies to make!