DeWitt, Iowa Pioneer Farmer Makes Small Fortune Playing Antique Violin

Poor William Hullinger had a rough start in life. Cholera had claimed the lives of his parents when he was just a young boy in the early 1800’s, leaving him an orphan. But, before he left to live with a farmer in Illinois, his uncle gave him an old violin.

The instrument was very old, but well cared for. The violin’s body was made from spruce wood, and had a maple wood back. When played, it had a rather unique, pleasant sound. It had been in the family for generations, and William made sure to treat it with care.

Learning to Play

In LaSalle, Illinois, his new farm family treated him well and taught him the various skills that he would need to become a successful farmer one day. William was a good student, and learned the trade quickly.

But when the chores were done and evening had settled on the land, he took down that old fiddle and began to practice.

Like many musicians of that time, William was most likely self-taught. He probably picked up the violin and began to fumble his way through songs that he knew, trying to get the pitch and tone just right.

Along the way, he no doubt ran into other, more experienced musicians who were able to give him some advice and help refine his technique. Before too long, William had become a formidable fiddle player.

New Life in Iowa

In 1852, he decided to move out of Illinois and head west across the Mississippi River, to find better opportunities for himself.

William settled down near DeWitt, Iowa, and bought a one-hundred and sixty acre farm. William had spent a lifetime developing his skills as a farmer, and he was more than ready and able to start a new chapter of his life. He built a log cabin to live in, and set to breaking the land.

 

Historic DeWtt Main Street
DeWitt, Iowa in the late 1800’s. Courtesy of www.dewittiowa.org

 

During the 19th Century, rural life could be very dull.

That’s not to say that farmers weren’t good at entertaining themselves, because they were. However, life on the farm at that time was very much about routine.

Every farm was like a self-contained business. Almost everything was grown, raised, or manufactured right there on your property, making it very labor intensive.

Farm families would get up early every day, and set about performing their daily chores. Generally speaking, women handled the household labor, while the men would take care of growing crops, building work, and tending the livestock. However, this was only a generality. There were many cases of men working in the kitchen, or women working at various tasks around the farm.

But, daily farm life could still get boring. It was the same tasks day in and day out. When you went in at night, you didn’t have a television to watch, or a radio to listen to. You could talk to each other, or maybe read. Some farmers could play an instrument, or sing. After supper, such a family could take out their instruments and entertain everyone with their music.

Down-Home Entertainment

Farmers craved entertainment. During the 1800’s, farmers didn’t usually make it off the farm all that much. Travel could be hard and uncomfortable, so some families would make it into a local town maybe once a week, or even less. When they did, many of them liked to attend a show at a local opera house.

Church socials were big events, too. Both urban and rural churches would organize various meals and functions, like ice cream socials, to bring the community together. This gave farm families a great place to break the monotony of their daily lives.

Another way was dances.

The Barn Dance Morgan Weistling
“The Barn Dance” by Morgan Weistling. Courtesy of Google Images

 

Just like the church functions, dances gave locals a place to go and have a good time. You could catch up on all your local news, and gossip about who was doing what about the region. There was plenty of great food, and room for the children to run around in. And, of course, there was music.

Music was rather informal, played with whatever instruments that came to hand. By far the most popular instrument used was the fiddle. Good fiddlers were in high demand for dances, and William discovered that he could make extra money by playing at some of ones held around DeWitt.

He was an experienced and versatile player, and people loved to hear him play. In time, William became one of the most in-demand fiddlers in the whole of Clinton County.

A Well-Earned Life

With every dance and event he played, more money was put into his pocket. William gladly accepted it, saving it back until it became a sizable sum. When he had enough, he took it and bought nearly eighty acres of land.

William settled in, and kept working hard. He got married, and was blessed with seven children. Eventually, he would own four farms, with a beautiful wood frame house to replace his original log cabin.

William continued to play and entertain for many years, and people loved to hear him. There were some that wanted that old violin for themselves, and offered him good money for it. One individual even offered him over a$1000 for it, an impressive sum for the time.

But William always refused. The violin had been a constant in his life since those sad days after they buried his parents. He had grown up with it, and it had been his companion on his move across the prairies to Iowa.

William had passed many a lonely night on his own farm playing it, finding solace and comfort in the bold, clear note s it produced. And when he had shared that sound with others, the old violin had made him welcome at events across the county.

It was an old friend, faithful and true, and one that William was in no hurry to part ways with.

 

 

Sources

“DeWitt Man Owner of Rare Violin.” Davenport Democrat and Times, 3/8/1911

“Wm. Hullinger Dies in DeWitt.” Davenport Democrat and Times. 12/6/1916

“The Biographical Record of Clinton County, Iowa.” Chicago; S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1901.

 

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