- Born: 13 Oct 1916, Sturgis, Sask., Canada 653,654
- Died: 25 Jul 1991, Sturgis, Sask, Canada aged 74 655,656
- Buried: 30 Jul 1991, Preeceville, Sask, Canada
Western Producer, Thursday February 13, 1975.
Oliver Larson of Sturgis, Sask, is a quiet man of middle age who collects, plays and makes violins, and is devoting more and more of his spare time to mastering their secrets.
A railway line through a spruce swamp, gumbo used to plaster log houses, a Model T Ford in difficulties, a coyote's howl, a boy approaching manhood on his parent's homestead. Who could dream that these elements from the past would fuse into todays violin music and the hobby of a lonely man?
O. C. Larson, builder, is well known in Sturgis Sask, for he has lived here most his life and has constructed houses and done cabinet work inside them for many years. But Oliver Larson musician? This aspect of his character has remained almost unknown locally though it is, probably, nearer to the real man that carpentering.
When dreams do not find an anchor in the work that puts bread on the table, they sometimes emerge as hobbies, and sometimes these hobbies can lead in strange new directions.
Oliver must have carried from birth an affinity for music, but it was a chance encounter when he ws approaching maturity that made him aware of it. One day in 1936, a stranger asked at the Larson homestead for help with his Model T Ford which was mired in gumbo nearby soil that, moistened , was so useful for plastering log cabins and so unco-operative with wheels. Using one of the farm horses, Oliver hauled the Ford to safety.
According to the custom of hospitality that prevailed then, the stranger was invited to spend the night and in the evening he entertained his hosts with some old time fiddling. That evening changed Oliver's life. His face no doubt reflecting the depth od his response.
The stranger must have been a prespective man. As he was leaving the next morning, wanting to pay for his night's lodging and knowing that any offer of money would almost be an insult he made Oliver a present of the violin. It was a Stradivarius, a thing of magic.
Oliver had no musical training. Up to that time, he had never held a fiddle in his hands. But he loved his first violin and he devoted the following winter to understanding it. He recalls how long suffering parents often sent him to the hills in those days and how there must have been near panic amoung the swamp creatures who endured his practising. But he learned. Hearing a tune only once, he taught hiself to reproduce it and spent many happy hours when the triumph of mastering had come.
Later, he took the fiddle with him into the army, where he was stationed four years in Alaska, he was part of an impromptu orchestra. He took it with him into the nothern woods of Manitoba upon his discharge, where he built a log cabin and trapped beaver, lynx and muskrat until he regained the health that had been lost in military service. He was not, however,an outgoing man and when he returned to Sturgis and took up the building trade, he musical accomplishments went almost unnoticed.
"All this time," says Oliver, "I didn't know anything about a fiddle except how to play it." As a carpenter though, he wondered about the inner secrets of the violin. How was it constructed? What was the reason that every fiddle had its own individual voice easily recognizable by its owner among a thousand?
Once he found one begrimed with grease and dirt, in an old machine shed and after paitent hours of scraping and sanding restored it to music. He put an advertisement in the paper: Old Violins Wanted, and became a collector.
The house whice he has built and in which he lives today is almost a museum of violins. One bears a clear interior date as 1634, others are even older. He plays them all and has hung them in the living room to restore them to life and harmony.
There is such a thing he tells you earnestly, as "live" wood and "dead" wood. Live wood is resonant, dead wood gives back only a dull thud when struck. A violin cannot be stored under a bed or tucked away in a dusty attic, for to produce music, wood must vibrate to living sounds.
Musicians, he says, hang their violins over a piano or near some source of harmony so that they can store away the resonance they need. The 12 fiddles currently clustered about in Oliver's living room near his tape-recorder and his television bear evidence to his faith in this theory.
"But is was busted ones that I learned from." he recalls. When one came to him shattered, he studied its interior with his carpenters eye and he began to understand the source of its music. He taught himself to construct missing parts and to restore fiddles. One day someone suggested that, instead of working with broken fragments, he should make himself a fiddle from new parts. At first he rejected the idea. Then he thought "Why not?"
That was less that a year ago. Since them Oliver has made three fiddles and has now begun to order parts from distant places. "All I made in these first ones" he tells you "was just the fiddle itself" The keys, the strings, the chin rest, the bridge.......all that stuff has to be bought" But he knows wood, and he is talking now about maple and ebony. Some day, perhaps he will have a fiddle that is entirely his own handiwork.
At present though, he is making violins from local wood, local wood with a romantic history. The backs of fiddles are made from birch, but not just any old birch.
This wood comes from a tree cut by a pioneer of the Sturgis district, Jack Pollack, back in 1936. The fronts are made from spruce, grown in the swamp that bordered the old Larson homestead. Oliver has a fancy about that spruce, a fancy that can explain why it can produce its unique melody.
In earlier days, when a branch line of the CNR was routed through the swamp, an old spruce was left with its roots exposed and hanging into the right-of-way.
Unknown to Oliver then (or to any mortal), it drank in the sounds of the swamp, storing them away in its heart as the sensitive roots received them. It heard the lonely steam whistle of the midnight flyer thundering its way from Flin Flon to Regina.
Along with the Larson log house, it trembled to the vibrations of the train approaching Sturgis. As the whistle hooted near and its echoes began to die away, the aroused swamp responded with a varied harmony that sank deep into buy and tree alike, the yodelling of lonley coyotes, the yapping of foxes, the baying of farm dogs, the whoo whoo of a questing owl, the baying choras of frogs.........all the mysterious voices of wild creatures disturbed by the wailing train rocking and rattling through their muskeg. Inside the old spruce these night sounds blended into a harmony that was later to emerge as the music of Oliver's violins.
Like many men who have lived alone, close to nature, Oliver is givin to fancies of this sort but he has a sense of humour too. "My friends tell me" he chuckles, "that my fiddle sounds like a pack of coyotes. And thats why."
Friends may indeed say this, but the truth is that, with local birch and spruce and purchased parts, Oliver has constructed fiddles that sing. Recently he and his violins were featured on a Yorkton television program. He tells how a visiting musicain from Saskatoon picked up one of his homemade fiddles with a sceptical smile, changed the expression as he slid the bow over its strings and later carried the instrument back to the city with him.
So a casual gift from a passing stranger long ago has wrought a small miracle in Sturgis. A man who builds houses has learned to transform the basic materials of nature into music. And the melody of the swamp has found a new voice in the cadence of Oliver Larson's Violins.
By Patricia Armstrong
Obituary, Oliver Larson, Sturgis, Saskatchewan, 1991
Funeral service for Oliver Clifford Larson, 74 of Sturgis, who died July 25 in his home was held July 30 in St. Johns's Lutheran Church with Pastor Frank Armistead officiating. Burial was in Preeceville Cemetery with Preeceville Funeral Home in care of arrangements.
Born Oct 13, 1916 in Sturgis, he was educated at Sturgis. He was a farm laborer until the early 1940's. He trapped for several years until he began to hate the pain and suffering he was causing the animals. He became a deputy game warden and worked as a conservationist for many years.
He had his own carpentry business until about 12 years ago and built houses in many parts of Canada. In his retirement he built and repaired musical instruments, especially fiddles, which he had learned to play as a teenager.
Predeceased by his parents, Martin and Malla, and a sister, Kathleen Georgina, he is survived by a brother, Warren Gordon Larson of Armstrong, B.C. and three sisters, Inez Anderson of Kelowna, B.C. , Bessie Jensen of Medicine Hat, Alta, and Millie Nightingale of Hudson Bay. ( Saskatchewan)
Noted events in his life were:
• Residence, 1921, Preeceville, Sask. 23