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Spring is here and a walk through the woods can be invigorating. Last year’s leaves rustle underfoot while new buds emerge from the many tree species found on Vermont hillsides. The birch seed buds, called “kittens” by some, dangle from the ends of branches like earrings, and the leaf buds of maples look like tiny elephant ears. In many places it appears Robert Frost’s elves were busy during the winter. The old stone walls found amongst the trees are in need of some mending. The winds blow through the trees and the rush of the air makes the tops of the trees sway and click against one another. The birds are busy singing and the streams gurgle over the rocks as the water winds its way to the Connecticut River. It’s nature’s music and it has the power to renew us, if we find the time to listen. One hundred forty years ago William Conant was an old man in his 70s who wandered through the woods of Dover, Wilmington and Woodford looking for old-growth maple and spruce trees. By the 1880s he believed all of the decent trees for violin making along the Connecticut River had been cut and floated down to the Massachusetts lumber mills. Conant needed to get up into the Green Mountains if he was going to find the types of trees necessary to make the components for the violins he produced. For the top of his violins he looked for old-growth spruce trees. He was looking for soft, fine grain wood. When Conant was interviewed about his violin making techniques he explained that he only selected wood from the north side of old-growth spruce trees. He believed the south side of a tree faced the sun, grew a bit faster, and drew the gum to that side, making it coarser and less desirable. After the wood was cut, Conant shared that he did not work with the wood until it had aged at least seven years. For the sides, neck and back of a violin, Conant looked for “curly maple” trees. Maple was thought to be ideal because its density could best resonate and project the sound vibrations created by the bow upon the strings of the instrument. “Curly maple” refers to the grain of the wood. Curly maples are mature trees that usually grow on hillsides. Trees that don’t grow straight can develop “curly” or “tiger” grain when they are turned into lumber. Conant spent most of his life working with wood. In the 1820s he began as a cabinet maker in Lowell, Massachusetts. He met his wife, Harriet Salisbury, a native of West Brattleboro, while living in Lowell and they married in 1827. William and Harriet had met because William worked with Harriet’s brother-in-law. After a few years they moved to Brattleboro and William went into a cabinet making business partnership with Anthony Van Doorn, another brother-in-law of Harriet’s. They moved into one of only two houses that were located on Canal Street at the time. Conant made cabinets for 12 years and then went to work for the musical instrument maker, Woodbury and Burditt. He worked for them in the 1840s and made cellos that were sold in their store, (where the Brooks House is now located), and in Boston. During that time he switched from making cellos to making violins. He made over 80 cellos and then over 300 violins for the company. Woodbury and Burditt went out of business in 1847 and Conant then went to work for the Stearns Company and made rulers for 20 years. During those 20 years he continued to make violins on the side. When the ruler company left town to relocate in Connecticut, Conant began working for the Estey Organ Company. For six years he made actions for organs. The action is the linkage between the keys or pedals and the valve that allows air to flow into the pipes to create the proper notes. After Conant retired from Estey he began making violins full time. His workshop was in his Canal Street home and he received visitors from around the country who were interested in purchasing one of his violins. A strong supporter of Conant’s violins was Allen Dodsworth, a co-founder of the New York Philharmonic Society and its first violinist. In 1876 Conant began to number his violins and made about 700 numbered instruments. Between his numbered violins and those he made while working for other companies, he easily made more than 1,000 violins. In an interview he gave in 1887, Conant explained that it took about six weeks to make a violin, and the work required a lot of patience and experience. At that point he had been making violins for more than 40 years. According to contemporary articles, Conant was considered a very good violin maker. His violins were judged as superior to many of those made in England and France. His violins were not valued as much as those made by Italian manufacturers. He sold his violins for prices ranging from $35 to $80 apiece at a time when the average worker made about $470 a year. William Conant died in 1894, at the age of 89. He had continued to make violins until a few months before his death. Harriet, his wife, had passed away four years before. They had eight children. Conant violins were made by hand and can now be found for sale on the internet for over $1,000. When you are walking through the woods, listening to the sounds you find in nature, think of old William Conant searching the hillsides for mature, crooked maples and giant spruces that might produce the wood necessary for the violins he made for close to 50 years.

Spring is here and a walk through the woods can be invigorating. Last year’s leaves rustle underfoot while new buds emerge from the many tree species found on Vermont hillsides. The birch seed buds, called “kittens” by some, dangle from the ends of branches like earrings, and the leaf buds of maples look like tiny elephant ears. In many places it appears Robert Frost’s elves were busy during the winter. The old stone walls found amongst the trees are in need of some mending.

The winds blow through the trees and the rush of the air makes the tops of the trees sway and click against one another. The birds are busy singing and the streams gurgle over the rocks as the water winds its way to the Connecticut River. It’s nature’s music and it has the power to renew us, if we find the time to listen.

One hundred forty years ago William Conant was an old man in his 70s who wandered through the woods of Dover, Wilmington and Woodford looking for old-growth maple and spruce trees. By the 1880s he believed all of the decent trees for violin making along the Connecticut River had been cut and floated down to the Massachusetts lumber mills.

Conant needed to get up into the Green Mountains if he was going to find the types of trees necessary to make the components for the violins he produced. For the top of his violins he looked for old-growth spruce trees. He was looking for soft, fine grain wood. When Conant was interviewed about his violin making techniques he explained that he only selected wood from the north side of old-growth spruce trees. He believed the south side of a tree faced the sun, grew a bit faster, and drew the gum to that side, making it coarser and less desirable.

After the wood was cut, Conant shared that he did not work with the wood until it had aged at least seven years. For the sides, neck and back of a violin, Conant looked for “curly maple” trees. Maple was thought to be ideal because its density could best resonate and project the sound vibrations created by the bow upon the strings of the instrument. “Curly maple” refers to the grain of the wood. Curly maples are mature trees that usually grow on hillsides. Trees that don’t grow straight can develop “curly” or “tiger” grain when they are turned into lumber.

Conant spent most of his life working with wood. In the 1820s he began as a cabinet maker in Lowell, Massachusetts. He met his wife, Harriet Salisbury, a native of West Brattleboro, while living in Lowell and they married in 1827.

William and Harriet had met because William worked with Harriet’s brother-in-law. After a few years they moved to Brattleboro and William went into a cabinet making business partnership with Anthony Van Doorn, another brother-in-law of Harriet’s. They moved into one of only two houses that were located on Canal Street at the time.

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Conant made cabinets for 12 years and then went to work for the musical instrument maker, Woodbury and Burditt. He worked for them in the 1840s and made cellos that were sold in their store, (where the Brooks House is now located), and in Boston. During that time he switched from making cellos to making violins. He made over 80 cellos and then over 300 violins for the company. Woodbury and Burditt went out of business in 1847 and Conant then went to work for the Stearns Company and made rulers for 20 years.

During those 20 years he continued to make violins on the side. When the ruler company left town to relocate in Connecticut, Conant began working for the Estey Organ Company. For six years he made actions for organs. The action is the linkage between the keys or pedals and the valve that allows air to flow into the pipes to create the proper notes. After Conant retired from Estey he began making violins full time.

His workshop was in his Canal Street home and he received visitors from around the country who were interested in purchasing one of his violins. A strong supporter of Conant’s violins was Allen Dodsworth, a co-founder of the New York Philharmonic Society and its first violinist. In 1876 Conant began to number his violins and made about 700 numbered instruments. Between his numbered violins and those he made while working for other companies, he easily made more than 1,000 violins.

In an interview he gave in 1887, Conant explained that it took about six weeks to make a violin, and the work required a lot of patience and experience. At that point he had been making violins for more than 40 years.

According to contemporary articles, Conant was considered a very good violin maker. His violins were judged as superior to many of those made in England and France. His violins were not valued as much as those made by Italian manufacturers. He sold his violins for prices ranging from $35 to $80 apiece at a time when the average worker made about $470 a year.

William Conant died in 1894, at the age of 89. He had continued to make violins until a few months before his death. Harriet, his wife, had passed away four years before. They had eight children. Conant violins were made by hand and can now be found for sale on the internet for over $1,000.

When you are walking through the woods, listening to the sounds you find in nature, think of old William Conant searching the hillsides for mature, crooked maples and giant spruces that might produce the wood necessary for the violins he made for close to 50 years.