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Mountain Dulcimers in the Appalachian Artifacts Collection

Fourteen dulcimers from the Appalachian Teaching Collection in the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, with information about their makers, based on the exhibit curated by Student Nathan Kouris.

Dulcimer Makers

J. Edward Thomas, also known as “Uncle Ed,” was born in Letcher County, Kentucky in 1850. At the age of 21, he began making dulcimers and sold them in Letcher and Knott counties from the back of a small cart as well as in the Hindman general store. The dulcimers sold for a few dollars each or were traded for food and supplies. Mr. Thomas made more than 1,500 instruments through his career until two years before his death in 1933. Many dulcimer makers credit Mr. Thomas as the premier dulcimer maker of Kentucky.

Bristol Taylor, born in 1879 in Letcher County, moved to Berea in 1904 to attend the Normal School for teaching certification. He returned to Letcher County where he became a teacher and farmer. In order to continue his education Mr. Taylor returned to Berea in 1925, where he lived his remaining years. Taylor’s dulcimers were reported to be high quality instruments, often receiving praise. In a letter to Taylor, W. C. Gamble writes, “I still have the wonderful ‘dulcimore’ which you made for me and also the one which is likely a hundred years old . . . I prize them greatly and show them to friends often.” The letter was addressed just a few days before Mr. Taylor lost a long battle with cancer, passing away in June 1938.

Jethro Amburgey, born in 1895 in Knott County, Kentucky, convinced his parents in the sixth grade to let him enroll in the Hindman Settlement School. In 1918, he joined the army; after being injured in Argonne, he returned home. Amburgey returned to the Hindman Settlement School in 1920. He worked in the school's woodshop to help pay his tuition. This is where he met dulcimer maker "Uncle Ed" Thomas, who often stopped in to get supplies. Amburgey asked Uncle Ed if he could learn to make the instrument as well. Seeing potential competition, Thomas sold Amburgey the plans for his dulcimers at a high price. Amburgey made instruments until a few months prior to his death in November 1971. He was one of the most well known dulcimer makers of Kentucky.

Homer Ledford, born in 1927 in Ivyton, Tennessee, became ill with rheumatic fever in 1946. After recovering, Mr. Ledford received a scholarship to John C. Campbell folk school. There he had an opportunity to repair some dulcimers. His work was so impressive that when the school got an order for two dulcimers for a folk-music store in New York City, they asked Ledford to make them. As he worked, several people noticed them and ordered eight more. He continued to make dulcimers while attending Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University, where he graduated in 1954 with an industrial arts education degree. During his career as a teacher, he developed changes that allowed for an easier construction process as well as for a bolder and louder sound. Eventually he was able to retire from teaching to make instruments full time, which he did until his passing at age 79 in December of 2006. He posthumously received an honorary doctorate from Eastern Kentucky University.

John Tignor, born in 1922 near Hindman, Kentucky, attended Hindman Settlement School where he was introduced to Jethro Amburgey, the Industrial Arts teacher. Mr. Tignor enlisted in the navy from 1941 to 1946. Upon his return, he attended Berea College from 1947 until his graduation in 1950. It is around this time that Mr. Tignor began to make dulcimers. His wife Sally had a Jethro Amburgy-made dulcimer that had become damaged beyond repair; Mr. Tignor decided to make her a new one as a gift. With a few minor adjustments, Mr. Tignor followed Amburgey’s design, adding internal support and changing from the traditional heart to a trefoil design for the sound holes. Mr. Tignor was more concerned with practicality than beauty, so he left many parts of the instrument unfinished (from a woodworker’s prospective). Mr. Tignor continued to make instruments until his passing in 1982. Though not as prolific as some, he is in a direct line of notable dulcimer makers from Ed Thomas, through Jethro Amburgey, to Mr. Tignor himself.

Warren A. May, born in Carroll County, Kentucky in 1947, attended Eastern Kentucky University for his two degrees in the industrial arts. Though he never took shop in high school, he developed basic skills with hand tools at a young age. Mr. May first encountered a dulcimer when he saw a Homer Ledford instrument in the department chair’s office. In 1972, after again encountering the dulcimer in Gatlinburg, Kentucky, Mr. May decided that he could make one. He then spent two weeks constructing his first fiddle shaped dulcimer. Mr. May’s second instrument influenced by Homer Ledford was a more traditional Kentucky-style dulcimer, and it now hangs in his shop. Mr. May began making instruments with three strings as was tradition, but on his eighteenth dulcimer he wanted a stronger melody sound and added the fourth string. Over 16,500 instruments later Mr. May continues to make his dulcimers in the four-string fashion. Mr. May has made Kentucky-style Appalachian dulcimers in Berea since 1977 and he continues to do so today.

Hubert Rogers was born in Denton, Kentucky on April 26, 1915. After graduating high school, he worked for Carter County before enlisting in the Army and serving in World War II. He was musically oriented, playing the banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and dulcimer. However, the only instrument he built was the dulcimer. Mr. Rogers was unique because he made instruments with both two and four sound holes. Although there is no difference in sound quality, most craftsmen use four sound holes. Most of the wood that Rogers used came from reclaimed buildings. He also used scrap metal to make the bridge on his instruments. Mr. Rogers made over one-hundred instruments throughout his career, which ended with his passing in September of 1979.

Leonard Glenn, born in 1910, was the grandson of Eli Presnell, who hosted a visitor who brought the first dulcimer into the Beech Mountain, North Carolina area. Mr. Glenn’s father, Nat Glenn, constructed fretless banjos and made at least one dulcimer based on a tracing he had made of the dulcimer. Mr. Glenn and his son Clifford began making dulcimers and banjos in the 1950s. The first dulcimers they made were single-bout instruments. When Leonard’s uncle broke the scroll of his dulcimer, he brought it in for repair, which is where Leonard learned the design. This became the Glenns' primary design; they also adopted Homer Ledford’s style to accommodate a larger customer base. The business thrived in local shops until it grew large enough to operate straight from the home. Mr. Glenn continued to make instruments until his death in 1997.