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  • Writer's pictureDerryl Dumermuth

Charles H. Baker "The Blind Violin Maker"

In the seventeenth century, Cremona, Italy, had two famous violin makers - Nicolo Amati and Antonio Stradivari. In the twentieth century, Tulare had its violin craftsman, a blind violin maker, Charles H. Baker.

At the Tulare Historical Museum is one of Baker's creations and its documentation read inside the instrument:

"Number 46

Handmade by C.H. Baker

Tulare, Calif. Nov. 1934

Blind since May 1927"

This violin had initially been 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.

In 1857 Baker was born, and in 1907 he arrived in Tulare County and relocated to Tulare 14 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. Birds-eye maple make up the back of that violin, 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 Tulare chapter meeting of the Townsend Club in the Central School Auditorium on the northeast corner of Tulare Avenue and E Street, the 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!

His wife, Flora, survived the 80-year-old Charles H. Baker; two daughters, Mrs. Fern Kidner and Mrs. Hazel Gaumer; and a son, C.R. Baker. His family buried the blind violinmaker 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 older 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. Frank Merriam, the Republican candidate for governor of California, endorsed the plan, 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 Merriam never enacted the Townsend Plan into law, it was the impetus for the Social Security program adopted by Congress in 1935.

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