By Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist/Cataloger
In November 1996, James Kane sent Maine Historical Society a document about violin makers in Maine, which included the names of the violin makers, where they lived, and their birth and death dates. In his cover letter, Kane described a wealth of research papers on this topic and asked: “Would your organization be willing to eventually accept this material and house it there?”
Twenty years later, in May 2016, Kane sent us 18 notebooks of research papers about amateur and professional violin makers from Maine, including research notes, photographs, and newspaper clippings. Kane died shortly thereafter, in September of that year.
Who was James Kane, and what was his interest in violins?
James R. Kane (1948-2016) was from Portland, Maine, and graduated from Deering High School. He taught bands and orchestras in California for 36 years. His family summered in Maine since the 1960s at their camp on Sebago Lake, which had been in his family since the 1940s.
In 1978 Kane acquired a few locally made violins at an auction, and after trying to learn more about them he found there was very little to be learned from existing data in various books and historical institutions. His interest piqued, Kane researched and collected information on about 200 individuals in Maine who crafted violins, violas, fiddles, cellos, and basses from before the Civil War to the early 2000s.
He researched violin maker names online, in research libraries, historical societies, newspapers, and through writing letters to individual family members and friends. Whenever possible Kane traveled to examine individual instruments for authenticity and craftsmanship. Data collected by Kane verified that 200 Maine craftsmen constructed stringed instruments during the time span from before the Civil War to the early 2000s, for an estimated total of 2,500 to 3,000 instruments.
We are delighted to announce that this collection is now available for research (Coll. 2978)! Photographs of many of the instruments Kane researched can be found in the collection.
This rich collection provides a glimpse into one man’s passion, as well as providing detailed information on Maine’s legacy of violin makers over the past few centuries.
Below are several items from this collection featuring Henry Harris, considered one of Maine’s most famous violin makers and one of the instrument makers Kane researched.
Henry Harris (1832-1913) of Mercer, Maine, was a cobbler and farmer. Born in Winthrop, Maine to Caleb and Dorcas Harris, he made his first violin when he was 14 years old. Henry Harris was married three times: Abbie Maria Hatch, Ruth Works, and Rose Pickens (1840-1930).