by Derryl Dumermuth
In the seventeenth century Cremona, Italy, had two famous violin makers - Nicolo Amati and Antonio Stradivari. In the twentieth century Tulare had its own violin craftsman, a blind violin maker, Charles H. Baker.
One of Baker's creations can be seen at the Tulare Historical Museum and its documentation read inside the instrument:
Handmade by C.H. Baker
Tulare, Calif. Nov. 1934
Blind since May 1927
This violin was originally a gift to Baker's friend and fellow musician Jether Travis Owen. Owen and his wife, Bertha, grew cotton and operated a dairy on Mooney Boulevard just north of Bardsley Avenue from 1929 to 1933. Owen's daughter, Mrs. Sybil Owen Burney of El Monte, donated the instrument to the Tulare Historical Museum on June 21, 1998.
Born in 1857, Baker arrived in Tulare County in 1907, and relocated to Tulare 14 years later at 630 South E Street. Earning his living as an apiarist, he lost his sight while tending his bees. For a number of years, violin making had been a hobby - it now became his full-time occupation. Eventually he fashioned more than 65 violins and violas, assigning each a number. Experts pronounced the instruments as "tone perfect".
Former County Supervisor Don Hillman, owned "Baker #3", an instrument he played in Cyril White's TUHS orchestra during the 1930s. The back of that violin is made of birds-eye maple, the front of spruce, both salvaged from Central School during its 1924 remodeling. Tularean Wayne Hinman owns "Baker #65", crafted in 1936 during Baker's 79th year. Hinman learned to play his violin while a student at Central School.
In addition to making stringed instruments, Baker was a skilled violinist, and entertained audiences throughout the Central Valley. He participated in many "old fiddler" contests at pioneer celebrations, rodeos and county fairs, winning many prizes and statewide recognition as a musician of great talent.
On December 6, 1938, Baker suffered a fatal heart attack at a meeting of the Tulare chapter of the Townsend Club in the Central School Auditorium on the northeast corner of Tulare Avenue and E Street, present site of the Tulare Historical Museum. He was part of an orchestra which had just finished performing its first number when he slumped forward during the applause, dead in his chair, his violin in his lap. After a brief intermission, the 150 club members present voted to continue with the meeting. The show must go on!
The 80-year-old Charles H. Baker was survived by his wife, Flora; two daughters, Mrs. Fern Kidner and Mrs. Hazel Gaumer; and a son, C.R. Baker. The blind violin maker was buried in the Tulare Cemetery on December 9, 1938.
And just what was the Townsend Club which was meeting that tragic night? On January 1, 1934 Dr. Francis Everett Townsend, a 66 year-old Long Beach physician, announced his "Old Age Revolving Pension Plan", designed to establish a decent pension for senior citizens - part of the plan was to give $200 a month to everyone over 60 years of age. He was inspired to propose the scheme when he discovered three elderly women rummaging through the garbage in his alley. Thousands of old folks joined Townsend Clubs, and the "Townsend National Weekly" had a circulation of 200,000. His plan was supported by Frank Merriam, the Republican candidate for governor of California, and soon legions of white-haired Californians were marching for the GOP and singing:
"Onward Townsend soldiers,
Marching as to war,
With the Townsend banner
Going on before."
In the November election, Merriam defeated the Democratic candidate, famous author Upton Sinclair, by half a million votes. Although the Townsend Plan was never enacted into law, it was the impetus for the Social Security program adopted by Congress in 1935.
Derryl Dumermuth is a retired TUHS mathematics teacher, author of "A Town Called Tulare" and co-author with his wife Wanda of "Tulare Legends and Trivia from A to Z". Both books were written as fundraisers for the Tulare Historical Museum and can be purchased at the Museum's gift shop.
1. Baker violin #46
2. Charles Baker in his workshop. Faded picture copied from the "Fresno Morning Republican". 1931 photo.
3. Tulare's Central School. The auditorium is pictured at the left.