HARWOOD TENOR VIOL RESTORATION
This blog (started 6/5/2022) documents my ongoing efforts to restore a New England tenor viol built in 1816 in Enfield, MA.
Beginning in the late 18th century, New England artisans began building what they called “viols,” stringed instruments that were initially intended to accompany psalmody but were also used in a broad range of community music making. During the following half century New England viols were built in various sizes, from the “double basses” produced by Abraham Prescott (NH) to the diminutive alto-sized instruments similar to modern violas but likely played vertically, resting on the knees. Here is a video documenting how these instrument were played (the video starts with me playing a tenor of roughly the same size as the Harwood instrument).
In 1816 the little hamlet in western Massachusetts called Enfield was incorporated out of parts of the towns of Greenwich and Belchertown in what was then Hampshire Country. That same year Benjamin R. Harwood (1794 – 1858), one of eight children of Benjamin Harwood (1766 – 1852), who moderated the first Enfield town meeting in 1816, signed his name to the label on a New England tenor viol constructed in the newly minted town.
A couple surviving books document the rich musical lives of Enfield’s residents during the first half of the 19th century. They include Francis Underwood’s sprawling Quabbin: The Story of a Small Town (1893) and The hundredth anniversary of Enfield, Massachusetts (1816), which begins with a long poem narrating Enfield’s history by one Carrie Warren Harwood, who can only be related to Benjamin R.! I am also looking forward to spending some time in the various archives and libraries in Massachusetts that hold relevant materials. But I will have to return to these accounts in a future installment–they’re too fun and interesting to be briefly summarized here.
BTW, a fictionalized Enfield, MA is the setting of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, a book that’s been a favorite of mine since college, and my mom now lives just off of Enfield Rd. in Belchertown, MA, which used to run into Enfield center, before the town was destroyed.
For Enfield, MA no longer exists. The site of the former town now sits at the bottom of the Quabbin Reservoir, created in 1939 to supply Boston with water. Haunting pictures survive documenting the “end of Endfield” and the current ruins, some 40 feet beneath the surface of Quabbin Reservoir.
But what of the Harwood tenor viol? It must have left MA sometime during the 19th century and been taken to Michigan, where it was discovered years ago in an old house in Detroit tucked up between the joists in the basement by the current owners. One part of the story I’d like to uncover is how and when the instrument made its way from MA to MI. The tenor was still in MA in 1858, because pencilled inside the instrument is “George E. Knowles, Leicester, MA, May 1858.” Knowles, apparently, repaired the instrument at that time (the lower bouts were evidently damaged and repaired with cloth strips and a small section of the top was coarsely replaced with a piece of pine).
The Harwood tenor is now in a shop in Philadelphia where master restorer Sarah Peck is supervising my restoration work. In May of 2022 we removed the top and are strategizing how to reconstruct the ribs, the most damaged part of the instrument.
Like most New England viols, the ribs are glued into channels in the top and back of the instrument. This was a useful expedient for makers who didn’t have molds to work from, but it makes repairing these instruments difficult. You first need to remove the ribs from the grooves, a slow process that can end up damaging the rib itself or the groove from which its being removed. I’ll add a closeup of that process when we begin it in earnest. Sharp-eyed viewers will see the linings added to the lower bouts during the 1858 repair. The tenor was originally constructed with no linings, but with the ribs inset into the top and back.
In order to source replacement wood for the rib repair, I needed to identify what the surviving ribs are made of (the history of the instrument and a visual inspection would suggest some sort of Maple, of course). A bit of DIY micrography suggests unfigured Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) or its subspecies Black Maple (Acer saccharum ssp. nigrum). Since we could only take teeny samples from the surviving bits of the instrument (I sampled the top, back, ribs, neck, and one surviving original peg), micrographic identification must happen at pretty high magnification levels…I’m entirely new to micrographic wood identification (as well as using a microscope), so these various conclusions may shift.
The micrograph of the rib, above, shows the cross-sectional surface of a tiny sample Sarah scraped off a fragment of the rib. It may be too small a sample for a definitive identification. However, since it was very common for makers to use the same material for the back and ribs of a given instrument, the larger sample from the back, below, appears to be comprised of the same kind of wood and is large enough to offer an ID.
I will continue this narration and post more pictures as the project proceeds…
July 25, 2022
While the Harwood tenor viol sits quietly in Philadelphia over the summer, I’ve been traveling around New England and Maritime Provinces. Among the stops I’ve made are the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, the Jones Library Special Collections in Amherst, and the Swift River Historical Society in New Salem (all in Massachusetts). On the drive west from Worcester towards Amherst on Route 9 I passed through Leicester, where the Harwood tenor had been repaired in 1858.
I’ve learned a lot more about the history of Enfield from the materials in these various collections, as well as the knowledge generously shared with me by various curators and librarians. I’ve also seen (and photographed) some images and objects that help me imagine the world of a small but bustling Massachusetts village in the early decades of the 19th century.
ENFIELD CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
The impetus for the creation of New England viols was psalmody. Since as early as the 1760s or 70s, likely, viols were used to help teach New Englanders how to sing psalmody from notation. While the earliest records typically mention bass viols, by the first decades of the 19th century viols were being built in a range of sizes by makers across New England (and in New York and Pennsylvania, as well).
The Harwood tenor would have been frequently played in the Enfield Congregational Church. The church had been built in 1787 and in 1814 it was rotated 90 degrees and a steeple, belfry, and bell added. In the Jones Library Special Collections there is a box labeled “Enfield” and in the box is a folder labeled “Enfield Congregational Church” and in the that folder is one item, the photo on the left. The church burned in 1936, likely set on fire as the town was in the process of being cleared before the valley was flooded. But in another pamphlet I found a picture of the church as it likely looked in 1816, shown on the right.
MUSIC IN ENFIELD c.1800-1850
The Enfield Congregational Church Manual, published in 1926, claims that the town was “said to have the finest music in the State outside of Boston.” While such boosterism is not uncommon, various records support the presence of music in Enfield’s church and broader community. In Quabbin—The Lost Valley, Howe writes of Enfield that “[In 1822] fifty dollars was appropriated to pay for church music, and a singing school was voted in 1826 at a cost to the town of seventy-five dollars.” I have not been able to find Howe’s source for this claim, but have found records of various payments related to “music,” “singing,” “singing society,” and “singing school” in the Enfield Congregational Church record book from the early decades of the 19th century (see below for an image and transcriptions of a few such entries).
April 4  An order to Ansel Fabus committeeman for the support of singing — $15
March 7  An order to Alvin Smith for the singing society — $5.00
But there also appears to have been a broader tradition of instrument making in Enfield. For the purposes of my restoration of the Harwood tenor viol, reconstructing this history would be particularly valuable. The Harwood tenor, completed when Benjamin R. (1794-1858) was about 22, reveals the influence of someone who had previously built stringed instruments. The Harwood tenor’s design and craftsmanship are too sophisticated to have resulted purely from the enthusiasm of a young, Yankee “maker,” as Benjamin fashions himself on the instrument’s label. The young Harwood may have made the instrument under the guidance of another local instrument maker, perhaps even using his tools and workspace. Certainly keyboard playing and making has a history in Enfield, as is recorded in a pamphlet printed for the 1916 town centennial celebration. There, Amanda Woods Ewing writes that “for many years the organist of [Boston’s] Old South Church in the same city was a fellow townsman of [Enfield]. The old Gilbert piano was first made by two brothers living in Enfield and the well known Smith American Organ Co. was founded by two cousins also natives of the town.”
A visit to the Swift River Historical Society in New Salem, MA, turned up several objects related to stringed-instrument making (including a couple actual instruments!) that may have originated in Enfield. The SRHS is a sort of sanctuary for many of the archival materials and artifacts associated with Quabbin Reservoir’s four “drowned” towns, Enfield, Prescott, Greenwich, and Dana. Located on a colonial farmstead in New Salem, the SRHS features several buildings, including a meetinghouse that had originally stood in Prescott. The farmhouse has an Enfield room (as it does for each of the other drowned towns), and there and in the church are numerous musical instruments and ephemera.
Most striking, of course, are the stringed instruments. In the Enfield room sits a violin that is frozen in mid-repair. There is no acquisition number or information that links the instrument to Enfield beyond its physical presence in the Enfield room. The violin shows features very low arching, ribs inlaid into the back and table, and painted purfling, all features characteristic of New England viols from before about 1850 and that the violin shares with the Harwood tenor. On the underside of the top, which has been unceremoniously sawed off of the ribs, are numerous sketches of sound hole designs. The neck appears to have been set at a strange, backward angle, and the whole assemblage has the feeling of a prototype that didn’t quite work and has been abandoned during a later attempt to correct (though this is purely speculation based on a brief examination of the instrument). It seems possible that this violin originated from the same or similar shop as the Harwood tenor.
Among the items now displayed in the Prescott church sited at the SRHS is a violin “cradle” and a partially roughed-out back plate. Unfortunately, the acquisition numbers written on the two pieces of the back plate do not appear in the SRHS acquisition book, so little can be inferred from the presence of these items beyond the fact that stringed instruments were being built in the Swift River Valley at some point before it was flooded.