I’ve been trying to remember, but I can’t locate the first seeds of my obsession with the fiddle. It must have had something to do with Hoagland’s passion for square dancing (see They didn’t know it yet, . . . below). But I can not recall a local wedding band at the Hoagland Hayloft in the 1960s that included a fiddler. Somehow, back then, I knew that square dancing, as fun as it was, would be even better with a fiddler in the band. In the lack of any clear evidence, I probably have to give credit to television–probably a Bugs Bunny cartoon–or perhaps the radio. Maybe I heard violinist Jack Carmen fiddle a hoedown with Nancy Lee & the Hilltoppers on the Little Red Barn show on WOWO.
There was a violin in our attic. My mom had played it in high school orchestra in the early 1930s. (BTW Hoagland High School had an orchestra in 1930, but only a band in 1960!) She admitted that she was never very good at it, and the instrument in our attic had no strings. Dad played the mandolin. He kept his Gibson A-model in its chipboard case on the floor of the coat closet by the front door (the door we never used). On the somewhat sporadic occasions he’d get it out to play, he also would bring out some sheets of music, some printed and others handwritten. I don’t remember where he kept his music. But a few years after his death in 1972, Mom gave me a big binder full of music from Dad’s days as a student in the Ted Barr Mandolin Orchestra in Fort Wayne before the War. It is a totally amazing collection of mostly handwritten mandolin parts, much of it for 2nd mandolin. But that’s a story for another time. Most of the music-making in our house centered around practicing for the lessons my sister and I took. Jean is three-and-a-half years older. She started first on piano, with lessons from Mom’s first cousin, Helen Reynolds. When I was in 3rd Grade I asked to take piano lessons too. (Helen’s importance in my musical development is yet another story.) Then two years later I started taking cornet lessons with Mr. Marr at the high school next door to our house. I believe Jean followed a short time later with trombone lessons.
But there was no fiddle music in the Tyler home on Hoagland Road. Again, I don’t recall ever seeing a live fiddler at a dance at the Hayloft. But I clearly knew there should be, or could be, or had been. At some point I began asking Mom about square dances and musicians from her earlier days. She had not been an avid dancer, but she had a thorough knowledge of who was who in the Hoagland area, especially the Good German Lutherans on the farms between Hoagland and Monroeville, six miles to the East. I knew that dancing in the old days often took place in the barn. Of course everybody knew that. The Hoagland Hayloft itself, at least the first one before the fire, was a regular bank barn converted into a commercial dance and reception hall. To my surprise, I found out that the before barns were used for dances, folks would clear out the furniture and have a house dance. My Grandpa Franke (Mom’s dad) played harmonica for some of those old neighborhood dances. And he got paid for it too. But after raising a family and struggling to keep the farm during the dark days of the Great Depression, Grandpa Franke saw little value in playing music anymore. I never heard him play. He died in 1961. A decade later, I asked Grandma Franke if he had kept a harmonica. She couldn’t remember having seen one for years.
Mom was able to tell me about a few of the local bands from back in the day when it was mostly the young folks who went to barn dances. The most popular dance band in the 1930s was Hilbert Holle’s band. I later found out they were called the Hoosier Eagles. Hilbert lived three doors to the west of us. His wife, Dorothy played the piano and was occasionally a substitute organist at church. She played in Hilbert’s band. In 1976, I went over to the Holles and talked to both Hilbert and Dorothy about the old-time dances. (I have notes from that conversation filed away, so the story of the Hoosier Eagles will reappear in the future.) Another surprise for me was that Hilbert and Dorothy did not remember their music as old-time. Hilbert played the saxophone, and the Hoosier Eagles saw themselves as playing the latest and most up-to-date sounds that people wanted to dance to. Of course they included some square dances in an evening’s program. But they weren’t that interested in the old-fashioned stuff.
For the real old-time music, I had to talk to some of the remaining members of the generation before my mother’s. There were older musicians in some of the local families with names like Fuelling, Koeneman, Schoemann and Thiele. You can tell they were Good Germans, and mostly Lutheran. Again I have notes from conversations with some of these men. But the one name Mom gave me that struck me as greatly significant was Peppler, George Peppler, I believe. I could have the story wrong, or maybe Mom’s memory was only approximate, but Mr. Peppler was a fiddle player and a relative. Or maybe he was related to the Frankes by marriage, perhaps a distant cousin of my Aunt Dorothy who married Mom’s brother Edward. To be fair, Mom knew exactly who was related to who and how. That’s where my memory is fuzzy. I was more interested in who played fiddle and who played which accompanying instrument.
So this is about as far as this story goes. I’ve long thought that there was one known fiddler in my family, and his name was Peppler. I never knew him, and, as far as I know, I never laid eyes on him and certainly never heard him play. Still, he looms large as an image or symbol for my chosen path through life. If Mr. Peppler was not a fiddler, then he played what has been called variously the concertina or accordion. If the latter is true, then he played regularly with a man named George Judt, who was the fiddler. And whichever of these two men was the fiddler also played for a time with Gus Koeneman, who played the squeezebox. As I began my quest to uncover the story of the real old-time music around Hoagland, I went to Gus Koeneman’s door right after Christmas in 1976. Mr. Koeneman was ill that day, and was not in good shape those last years of his life. I was never able to interview him or find out for sure whether he played a concertina or an accordion.
I learned from other sources that the Chemnitzer concertina, a big square squeezebox with buttons on the faces at each end, was favored by a number of German musicians in the area around Fort Wayne. The Thiele Brother Orchestra in Yoder (ten miles west of Hoagland, where Hoagland Road is known as Yoder Road) played for dances for years. Early on they featured fiddle and concertina. The first Chemnitzer concertina I ever remember seeing was played by Herman Fox of Fort Wayne. In his retirement years, he teamed up with fiddler Hugh Sowers from Arcola, a small town as far northwest of Fort Wayne as Hoagland was to the southeast. After discovering him at a fiddle contest at the Allen County 4-H Fair in 1976 (my sister helped organize it and I was a judge, because I’d been to a fiddle contest a few years earlier when I lived in North Carolina–another story), Herman Fox was one of the first old-time musicians I interviewed formally with a tape recorder running. I’ll upload some more concertina playing from that thoroughly delightful visit in coming weeks. But to hear the sound of fiddle and concertina, what I like to think of as the old-time Hoagland sound, you can follow this link for some 1980 recordings of Herman Fox at the Indiana Fiddlers Gathering in Battle Ground. I’m the fiddler. At the time I had been playing for four years. Herman had been playing for seventy. Plus, here’s a link to Herman’s story (click the Hoosier Folklore Society Newsletter).
N.B. If any of my Franke cousins read this, especially from Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Edward’s family, perhaps you can help clarify for me the identity of Mr. Peppler and some of the others. My mother was good at knowing who was related to who in the community, but Aunt Dorothy was a true master of the art. She passed away in September of 2009. As in the case of my mom and dad, I have a lot more questions I wish I had asked.