Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Untold Stories of the Heirloom Violin

We've been on spring break at my parents' house in Alexandria, where the kids have been busy playing computer games, eating ice cream, and practicing songs on the piano and keyboard.  I decided it was a good time to take a closer look at the heirloom violin that has been in the Riggs family for more than 200 years.

I don't know what year the violin was made, or for whom.  I can only trace the story through old newspaper accounts, which indicate that my great-great-great grandfather's brother, James Riggs, inherited the German-made violin as a boy in about 1796 and decided late in his life to give it to his 10-year-old nephew, Jasper.

My great-great grandfather Jasper was born in 1843 in Mercer County, Illinois, the second youngest of 13 children.  By the time he reached double digits, he must have demonstrated musical talent, or at least shown interest in music, or perhaps his Uncle James just liked him.  Whatever the reason, he became the violin's next owner.

I like to imagine Jasper’s delight in receiving such a gift.  Considering that he had many older brothers and sisters, and that he grew up on a farm, he likely had few possessions that a sibling hadn’t already worn or used.  I can picture him hurriedly finishing his chores so he could take his violin to the barn, his calloused fingers becoming more graceful with practice.  I especially like to keep this image of him in my head, preserving his boyhood innocence for just a little longer, knowing the hell that was in store for him as a young adult.

Because as you may have guessed by doing the math, Jasper was a young man when the Civil War erupted.  The fact that the Riggs violin endured long enough to pass into my dad’s hands leads me to think it was not among Jasper’s possessions when the blue-eyed, sandy haired 19-year-old left the farm to join Grant’s army.

Jasper enlisted on Sept. 24, 1861, and mustered into service on Christmas Eve in Chicago with the 45th Illinois Infantry, Company I.  He fought in the battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg, participated in Sherman's March to the Sea, and took a shot in the left leg during the Battle of Jonesborough in the fall of 1864.  He was honorably discharged at the war's end.  He returned home to his sweetheart, Rebecca, whom he’d married while on furlough in April 1864, and they started their musical family.

(A sidenote: When Union forces captured Vicksburg, Jasper's regiment was given the advance of the Union army for meritorious service and was the first to march into Vicksburg, where the regiment's national flag was raised at the Vicksburg courthouse.  I didn't know anything about this when I lived in nearby Natchez, Mississippi, and worked as a newspaper intern at The Natchez Democrat in the summer of 1988 and as a full-fledged reporter from 1990-91.  I covered a trial at the Vicksburg courthouse and visited the Vicksburg National Military Park during my time there.  Now I want to go back and take another look at the Illinois Memorial, which lists the names of all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who fought at Vicksburg.

I also didn't know, until a few years ago, that Jasper's son, my great-grandfather G. Oliver, also visited the Vicksburg battlefield.  He played in an Iowa regimental band that toured several Southern battlefields in November 1906 with the Iowa governor and dedicated all the memorials to Iowa soldiers.  But that's a topic for another post, since this is already getting way too long!)

Jasper and his family moved around often in the post-war years.  They left Illinois to homestead in Avilla, Missouri, and then Wapello, Iowa, where G. Oliver was born.  Jasper's war injuries made farming difficult, so he went into the general store business in Dorchester, Nebraska.  The family also spent some time near Esbon, Kansas.  During these years, Jasper played the violin for dances to earn extra money, Rebecca played the accordion, and G. Oliver and his sister Daisy grew up making music.

G. Oliver Riggs, left and his dad, Jasper, right, both played violin.  The photo was taken in 1899.

G. Oliver liked music so much he put himself through the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, where he studied violin, piano, cornet and the history and theory of music.  He graduated in 1891 and soon took a job teaching violin at the Iowa Wesleyan Conservatory of Music in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.  He was a violin and cornet soloist for many years before he focused on organizing and directing bands.

 G. Oliver Riggs poses with violin and cornet, circa 1913.

My dad figures that G. Oliver didn't use the family violin for his solo work; he likely had a different violin.  If so, we don't know kind he had, or what happened to it, although it's possible he had to sell it in his later years, when he no longer played and was short on money.

We told Sebastian, age 11, that he could hold the heirloom violin if he promised not to smoke.

Jasper, who had smoked heavily but despised the habit, died in 1911.  His will indicated that his violin should go to G. Oliver's eldest son if he refrained from using tobacco until he turned 21.  If he had used tobacco, the violin was to go to the eldest son of Jasper's daughter, Daisy.

When my grandfather Ronald turned 21 in 1922, he inherited the violin, and it later passed to my dad, William, who is the eldest in his family, and who has never smoked.

I wished, as we opened the case on Sunday, that the violin could tell us more about the people who have played it.  But no stories were contained inside; only a jar of rosin made in Paris, a shoulder rest, a silk handkerchief and a tiny key in a little yellowed envelope, which appeared to fit the lock on the case.  My dad plans to have someone look at the violin, to see if we can learn anything more about it.  I don't imagine it's worth a whole lot of money, but we wouldn't sell it anyway.  It's a piece of our family history.

Inside the case we found a silk handkerchief with an embroidered R.

As I plucked one string gently, I thought about how Jasper had once held this instrument, about how he had played it on the Kansas prairie, just like Pa Ingalls, how it had traveled the Midwest during so many important years in the expansion of our country.  You can't appreciate that connection to history by reading a textbook, or by watching a Ken Burns documentary.  It's the kind of history you have to touch with your fingers, and feel in your heart.


  1. Thanks for sharing the violin's story. Made me cry - in a good way.

  2. Closing in on 60 (circling, anyway), the trumpet I play now mostly at church and weddings is a 1938 Olds Special; a fine playing horn that has been refurbished a couple times. It was given to me by a close friend of the family. Cut to this week when, out of the blue, I got a call from a fello who used to play in a rock band with me now 40 years ago. I'll connect in person with him in a couple weeks and I can't wait to tell him that his dad played taps at the funeral of the fellow who gave me this horn, all nearly half a century ago. Great connections, but I was the 3rd owner. We'll see if it becomes an heirloom in our family. Nothing approaching the violin story, though. Thanks for sharing.

  3. That's a great story! Your trumpet is sure to have many more adventures. Thanks for reading.