MISS EVANS' GUITARCopyright 2011 by André G. Germain
In the 1970s when I was a Letter Carrier for Canada Post, my walk was the "old village" of Dain City just South of the City Of Welland between Welland and Port Colborne. My route comprised the Kingsway from Ramey's Bend down to the Grand Trunk and Wabash Railway railroad tracks just South of the Dain City Tavern, Huron St., Michener (Bay) St., Michigan Ave., Erie St., Forkes Rd. E., Forkes Rd. W. and Elm St N. up to the Port Colborne city limits. When done, I would wait at Evans' Store for the taxi that would take me back to the Post Office on Division St. in Welland.
Doris Evans was born in 1900 and became a primary grade school teacher for a couple of years until her father who owned Evans Store at 7 Kingsway died. She then withdrew from the teaching profession and took over the operation of the store. This store was one of those "country stores" that carried a host of household needs from dry goods such as laundry soaps and detergents, canned goods and sandwich meats, greeting cards, soft drinks and candy bars.
Miss Evans was also the Postmistress of the Welland Junction (Dain City) Sub-Post Office, a duty she took quite seriously. She had furnished an alcove at the back of the store with a couple of chairs, a coffee table, a coffee maker and some cups. This is where I sat while awaiting the taxi that would drive me back to the Post Office on Division St. in Welland. If she was not too busy with customers, sometimes she'd take a break, sit and have tea while chatting about this and that. Her part-time hired help, Mary Acaster, would sometimes join us. Miss Evans was well into her 70s by then.
In 1977, I was contacted by an agent/rep for "New Faces", a television show which aired on CHCH TV on Sundays, hosted by an ex-Wellander, Dan Maclean. I knew Dan because he had been my wife's first boyfriend in the early 1960s and also had sang for a R&R band which contained other close friends of mine. In fact, being the lead guitarist for another local band at the time, I was asked on a couple of occasions to attend their rehearsals to teach them some of the songs that were popular on the radio.
"New Faces" was a half-hour program which featured musical talent from a different community each week. When I got the call, it was because Wainfleet (where I reside) was going to be featured and somebody had mentioned to the agent/rep that I might be willing to appear on the program. I wasn't too crazy about the idea but thought that my friend and fellow musician Mike Carrigan might like to do this gig so I contacted him. He was all for it. Eventually we, along with others from our community, were driven to the CHCH studio in Hamilton where we recorded the show. That program aired on a Sunday afternoon a couple of months later.
The next day, after delivering the mail, while I was sitting at Evans Store awaiting the taxi, Miss Evans came up to me all excited and said that she'd seen me on TV. She blustered that she'd been very surprised and had had no idea that I played the guitar at all, never mind that I played it that well! She then told me she'd taken guitar lessons when she was a young girl. Right then, she took off upstairs to her living quarters above the store and came down a few minutes later carrying an old blond tweed cardboard case. She undid a latch at the bottom end of the case, the same kind of latch that was found on the overshoes popular in the early 1900s, and pulled out this little dark-coloured "parlour" guitar. Immediately, her jaw dropped and she exclaimed sadly, "Oh my! What a pity!"
The neck and fretboard of this little guitar had sprung upward because the heel joint had come unglued. The bridge had lifted. The strings were rusty and one had broken. The guitar was unplayable. Miss Evans remarked that it was a piece of junk and she was going to throw it out or burn it in her back yard. She went on to tell me that her parents had bought it for her when she was 10 or 12, she wasn't sure exactly, and that she'd taken lessons for a while learning to play it "Hawaiian" style. I examined the guitar but could find no name on it anywhere. On the back of the headstock, stamped into the wood, "Made in the U.S.A.". Inside the body, a small red sticker with "908" hand-written on it. It looked to be made of solid mahogany, top, sides and back, with a rosewood plate over the face of the slotted headstock. The fretboard and bridge saddle appeared to be made of ebony but upon closer inspection, turned out to be a cheaper hardwood dyed black, as were the string pegs. The wood binding was the "rope" style common on "cowboy" guitars of the day. Some of it had fallen off but those pieces were in the case so nothing really missing.
I told Miss Evans that I had a luthier friend, Jack Armbrust, who could probably repair the guitar and make it playable again but she was disgusted with the instrument that had sat in her closet for over 60 years and re-iterated that she would just throw it out or burn it.
'"Good riddance to bad rubbish!" is the way she put it.
I protested and offered to buy the neglected instrument, arguing that it would be a shame to throw it out after all these years but she huffed at that and turned me down flat. Again I protested. Finally, she told me that if I wanted it, just to take it out of her sight so she could be done with it. So, that's what I did.
Later, when I brought the pitiful instrument to Jack Armbrust for appraisal, he pointed out certain features such as the fretboard made of some hardwood and dyed to look like ebony, internal ladder bracing (as opposed to X-bracing found on quality instruments) etc., and remarked that although made of good woods, it was probably a lower quality instrument. Regardless, he offered to see what he could do to repair it without the job costing me an arm and a leg. I left it with him.
A few days later, he called to tell me to come and pick up the guitar. When I got to his shop, there was the guitar good as new, the heel of the neck re-set, the fretboard straightened and re-glued as was the bridge. The rope binding all intact with the pieces that had come off refastened. A new set of strings topped it off. I picked it up, started finger-picking a blues tune on it and was immediately taken with the honky bluesy sound from this small-bodied guitar! This thing had a soul! A character all its own. With its flat freatboard and poor intonation (due to a fixed uncompensated saddle), not the best-playing guitar but still, a unique instrument that had weathered years of neglect and been resuscitated to live on again.
A while later, another friend, Michel Ninacs who had apprenticed under John Larivée in Totonto, upon looking at this parlour guitar
given to me by Miss Evans, said that it was probably a Washburn, made in Chicago. A few years later I brought the guitar to Paul
Saunders, a luthier licensed to do C.F. Martin repairs. After careful scrutiny, he declared that it was most probably made by
Lyon & Healy of Chicago, the company that made Washburn guitars, but that it was a cheaper version made for the mail-order trade through catalogues such as Sears Roebuck in the US and Simpson Sears in Canada. Price in the 1910s would probably have been around $10. He was quick to add that in today's market (mid 1980s), a collector might pay up to $450 for a guitar in this condition! (*In the late 1990s after the internet became ubiquitous, I did numerous searches online and confirmed that it indeed was a guitar manufactured by Lyon & Healy, circa 1910.)
Around this time (mid 1980s), I went to visit Miss Evans at her store in Dain City and brought the guitar along with me. I asked her to join me in the alcove where I used to sit awaiting the taxi, pulled the guitar out of its case and picked out a couple of tunes for her. When I looked up, tears were streaming down her cheeks. As soon as I was done playing, she reached over and hugged me, thanking me profusely for having restored the soul to her old instrument that she had been on the verge of throwing out.
Miss Evans sold her store soon after that, going to a retirement home in Welland. She died around
1994. Her little Lyon & Healy parlour guitar, though, still lives on. That guitar is now about
a century old! It is still a delight to play and its sound is haunting! I think old Miss Evans'
soul resides in it somewhere...
November 2014: Over the last
couple of years, the action has been getting pretty high on that little guitar so back in April of this year
I commissioned Russ Moore , another luthier friend of mine (who bought the late Jack Armbrust's lutherie tools and supplies), to remove the fretboard, brace the neck, replace the fretboard
with a new one made of rosewood with jumbo frets, replace the bridge, install a bridge brace internally, and install new
bone nut and saddle. Just got the guitar back on November 15 and it has been given another life with new fretboard, nut, saddle and bridge. I'm a happy camper!
June 4, 2018: The bridge that Russ Moore installed 4 years ago started to lift and the action on the guitar was getting higher so I brought the guitar to Bob ("Buzz") Roberts and asked him to remove it and make one that was more like the original bridge that had been on the guitar. Bob had to purchase a piece of ebony to do the job. Just got the guitar back today and Bob did an admirable job! He strung the guitar up with C.F. Martin silk and phosphor (bronze) strings and it now sounds better than it ever did. Morevoer, those strings are very easy on these old fingers! A joy to play!
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