An extraordinary wood find: a tree planted by Thomas Jefferson himself!
This column serves as a sequel to my partner
Jeff Huss’ most recent contribution,
“Tales of Wood Discovery” [September 2010 PG]. Jeff’s piece was about the
surprises we sometimes encounter when
searching for unusual wood to build guitars.
Just after that story ran, we had one
of the most interesting finds ever. I’ll share
it with you here before he gets the chance!
The Mystery Unfolds
Betsy Baten—a very nice lady who owns one of our FS models—recently contacted us about a tree that was cut down where she works. Over the many years that the tree had been there, it had become diseased and hollow. It was threatening the nearby house, so it had to come down. But this was no ordinary tree. You see, Betsy is a tour guide at Monticello, the home of Founding Father and former president Thomas Jefferson, and the tree in question had grown just outside ol’ TJ’s bedroom window.
Wait, it gets better. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the organization that runs the mansion, Jefferson planted the tree himself. Betsy asked if we would be interested in some wood from the tree for guitar making. Needless to say, we replied “yes” as fast as we could.
The tree was a tulip poplar, and it was around 15 feet in diameter. Jefferson was an avid botanist, and the foundation has pinpointed entries from his journal noting that a tree of this species was planted in that location. The foundation also had photos from around 1870 (the earliest known photos of Monticello) that showed the tree as being very large then. So this anecdotal evidence suggests that the Founding Father had indeed planted the tree. Wow!
Trekking for Timber
So Jeff, my wife Kimberly, and I struck out for the 30-minute drive across the Blue Ridge to Monticello. Our first stop of the day was to meet with the lady in charge of deciding who received lumber from the tree. After signing an agreement to share proceeds from the sale of the guitars with the foundation, we went out to her car to look at a couple of boards. She pulled out two. They were wide and clear, but looked pretty ordinary. They looked like poplar, though they were the hardest and densest we’d ever seen.
“Oh well,” we thought, “it will make a killer guitar—if not very pretty.” And, after all, Thomas Jefferson planted the tree. After getting a house tour from Betsy—including to the upstairs dome, which is not part of the public tour—we left Monticello to go to a wood turner’s shop at the eastern foot of the mountain. He had procured some wood from this special tree and was making bowls from it. When we got there and saw what he’d crafted, we were more interested than ever. The burls he had used were exploding with color. There were reds and browns and spalting—all kinds of character in the wood.
He gave us a large piece that we thought might produce some quartersawn sets, and then suggested we call the man who runs the architectural woodworking operation back at Monticello. Apparently, there was more of the wood located at a farm that was part of the original Jefferson property and is still owned by the foundation.
So, it was back to Charlottesville and back up the mountain to meet the second gentleman. He took us down to the farm, and there we found what we were looking for—big, wide, quartered billets of some of the most striking, colorful wood we had seen yet. We were pretty jazzed about this stuff. As a woodchuck and history buff, I couldn’t wait to get it back to the shop.
When we got the wood to the milling room at H&D, we started the re-sawing process. Inside the billets was the incredible wood we were hoping would be there. Needless to say, the instruments we build from this tree will be special in many ways.
A Reflective Moment
On the way back home, I felt pretty lucky to be in this business. I don’t always feel this way. What we do is hard sometimes, and these tough economic times haven’t made it any easier. But days like this make you feel pretty good about being a luthier. What other circumstance would put an old country boy like me in a position to work with such a historical tree? I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a beautiful fall day than with my wife and my friend touring Monticello and looking for special guitar wood.
Mark Dalton is a founding partner of Huss & Dalton Guitar Company. When not building guitars, Mark and his wife, Kimberly, tend to the draft horses and mules that inhabit their farm in the Piedmont region of Virginia.