Fiddling With History

The Register Guard | Aug. 19, 2013 2:21 a.m. | Updated: Aug. 19, 2013 9:21 a.m.

Contributed By:

Randi Bjornstad

YONCALLA — For years, the Applegate family has hosted an annual Applegate House Heritage Arts and Education Day at the the historic Applegate home, built in 1852 by Charles Applegate.

Now, along with its 100 acres of fields, forest and wetlands, the house at the end of Old Applegate Road near Yoncalla is used as a museum of sorts to showcase the area’s Native American and pioneer history.

The annual get-together is happening again this year — on Saturday — but with a twist. This year, because the mystery of the lost fiddle apparently has been solved, it will be called Heritage Music Day.

Actually, there were three fiddles: the lost fiddle, known among the Applegates as the Henry Lane or “Hen Lane” fiddle, and two made in its image by George “Buck” Applegate for his beautiful identical twin daughters, Eva (pronounced EH vuh) and Evea (pronounced EE vuh).

Family historian and writer Shannon Applegate suggests drily that when it came to naming his children, her great-grandfather either had a great sense of humor “or simply wanted to make everyone else very confused.”

Applegate summarizes the history of the three instruments in a booklet she calls “A Tale of Three Fiddles,” a story she and others will tell at Saturday’s festival. The day’s agenda also includes house tours, Native American drumming and singing, food, wine tasting and lots of live music.

Some of that music will be played on the three fiddles which, although their histories are closely intertwined, have never all been in the same room before. Up to now, probably the only person to have played all three is Buck Applegate, who was born in 1852 — the same year the house was built — and died in 1932. He crafted the twin fiddles in 1895, 21 years after the Hen Lane fiddle left Applegate House for good.

According to Shannon Applegate’s narrative, Henry Lane, also called Hank or Hen, showed up in Applegate country with his fiddle some years before the Civil War.

“In the 1860 Federal Census, a Henry Lane lived in the household of John Long of Yoncalla,” who later married Sally Applegate, she writes. “If this is ‘our’ Henry Lane, he evidently told the census taker he was born in Ohio. He told his friends he was from Nova Scotia, Canada.”

In 1860, Lane was 28 years old “and according to family stories, smitten by the lovely, artistically gifted Harriette Applegate, then 16 years old,” Applegate continues. “Her father, Charles Applegate, liked Henry Lane but may not have known of his attachment to Harriette, his 10th child.”

Apparently Lane was a great favorite among the young Applegate men — there were three families headed by three Applegate brothers who had come together across the plains in 1843 — but not so much by some of the older women, who considered him “a rambler and a gambler,” even speculating that he had won the fiddle by gaming.

But after losing 600 head of sheep during the terrible winter of 1861-62, Lane took his leave, along with several young Applegate men, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields of the Salmon River country in Idaho. When he departed, he left his fiddle for safekeeping with Gertrude Applegate, one of Harriette Applegate’s cousins.

Despite the distance and difficulty of communicating, word reached the Salmon River miners in the summer of 1862 that Harriette had died of pneumonia. Gertrude Applegate’s brother, Alex, wrote her that “You were right in supposing that we had heard of Harriette’s death, and there were but few dry eyes in camp, if any, when we heard the news. Poor Hank seemed to take it harder than any of the rest of us …”

So hard, apparently, that he never returned to Yoncalla to retrieve his fiddle, which Gertrude Applegate then gave for safekeeping to her cousin John Applegate — Charles’ son and George “Buck” and Harriette’s brother — before she eloped with a secessionist and had her name scratched out of the family Bible by her own father, Jesse Applegate.

While in the keeping of the Charles Applegate family, the young Buck, who grew up to be a master cabinet maker, artist and inventor, learned to play the Hen Lane fiddle and had plenty of time to inspect the way it was made and the beautiful inlaid townscape and intricately carved scroll in the shape of a man’s head.

When he made his daughters’ ¾-size fiddles, he followed the same idea. Instead of the European townscape, the inlay on Eva’s fiddle portrayed the Applegate homestead, while Evea’s showed the sternwheeler “Eva” on the Umpqua River at Scottsburg. One fiddle’s scroll is a carved head of “Pooch,” a beloved Applegate family dog; the other the stately visage of a Native American woman.

“The Applegate family was crazy about their dogs,” Shannon Applegate said. “One day, my granddaughter, Sophie, said to me, ‘Nana, there’s a dog in the (family) Bible.’ It says, ‘Old Ponto, dog of George Applegate, age 16, died 11-17-1935, a black shepherd — at the Old Home.’ ”

Incorporating an Indian woman’s likeness on a fiddle scroll also made sense, Applegate said. Local Native Americans, including Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman’s forebears, including her great-great grandfather, greeted the Applegate families when they arrived in the area by wagon and became close friends.

Stutzman will offer a Kalapuya welcome at Saturday’s gathering, as well as performing with a Native American musical group called Splach´ta Alla.

The mystery of the third fiddle might still not be solved if Shannon Applegate hadn’t been having a bit of writer’s block while working on a novel in February.

“I was down in the dumps, so I spent some time cleaning out drawers,” she said. “I found an old address book from 1988 that had a slip of paper in it that just had a telephone number and the words “old violin.” She dialed the number, thinking “Oh, this is a fool’s errand.”

When a woman answered, “I said, ‘I’m sorry to call you in this manner’ and explained what I wanted,” Applegate recalled. “She said, ‘Well, you’ve got the right part of the family.’ She was in Des Moines, and her brother, Doug Johnson, lives in Annapolis. I asked her to have him call me, and he did.”

It turned out that the Johnsons were related to the Applegates, and that the missing Hen Lane fiddle had been in the extended family for the entire 139 years that no one in Yoncalla had seen it.

“Buck Applegate’s sister Fanny married Joe Johnson — both of them were fiddlers, too — and they went to live in the Wallowas in Eastern Oregon,” Applegate said. “When Buck went there once to visit them, he probably took the Hen Lane fiddle with him.”

No doubt, the couple’s son, Arthur Johnson, who loved the fiddle but wasn’t allowed to play his father’s instrument, saw his Uncle Buck’s fiddle and never forgot its unusual look.

In 1938, Arthur Johnson heard about the plight of another relative, John Applegate, who had come back shellshocked from World War I and was unable to make an adequate living or pay for expensive medication during the Great Depression. Arthur Johnson contacted him and offered to help him sell some family heirlooms and furniture to ease his situation. Apparently aware that John Applegate’s father had been in possession of the Hen Lane fiddle, Johnson asked if his family still had it. Applegate replied that they did.

Through the years, rumors had arisen that the missing fiddle was an extremely valuable instrument made in the 1500s, but when it was appraised by an expert it was determined to be a well-crafted reproduction.

Nonetheless, in order to keep it in the family and help a needy relative, Arthur Johnson paid Applegate the equivalent of $1,600 in today’s dollars for the instrument. He later gave it to his son, also named Arthur, who gave it to his son, Doug Johnson, who has had it since 1978.

“I think it’s so amazing that the person who bought it was also an Applegate relative, so the fiddle really has been in the family all this time, since Henry Lane left it in 1874,” Shannon Applegate said.

“I am so thrilled that Doug Johnson and his wife and his son are coming clear across the country to be here this weekend so we can have all see and hear these three fiddles finally together.”

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