Uncle John Wilder

The essay below was written to be included in the liner notes for a forthcoming CD called "North of the Ohio" to be released on the Dust to Digital label. The CD is being edited by Patrick Huber and Kevin Fontenot—it will probably be released sometime in 2010 and will feature a range of fiddling culled from 78rpm discs. I don't know if the complete essay on Uncle John Wilder will be included, so I am presenting it here.

“Uncle” John J. Wilder (ca.1846-1931). Uncle John Wilder first came to prominence in December 1925 after he publicly challenged Mellie Dunham to a fiddle showdown. Like many old fiddlers with a lifetime of rosin dust under their strings, Wilder, then eighty years old, couldn’t understand all the fuss about the Maine fiddler who suddenly had become Henry Ford’s darling after winning a contest at Lewiston, Maine in October 1925. Wilder felt, as others did, that Dunham was only an average fiddler, not quite deserving of all the laurels Ford and the press were heaping on him. On December 20, in the wake of Dunham’s highly-publicized reception in Detroit, the New York Times quoted Wilder as saying “I can fiddle Mellie Dunham to a standstill.” The bluster may have been mostly rhetorical—Wilder was quoted elsewhere sounding more humble. “Don’t claim to be any champion. Never said I could beat anybody. Don’t know until I try.”

On December 24, a Rhode Island business organization announced plans to hold an All-New England Fiddle Contest in Providence in early January. Uncle John Wilder was eager to take on all comers and he signed up. He might have blended unnoticed into the roster of entrants had it not been for his relationship to the President of the United States—he was an uncle by marriage to Calvin Coolidge (his wife was a sister of Coolidge’s mother). Wilder was also the archetype of the old Yankee farmer—he had a country dialect, a droll sense of humor, and a terse but twinkling manner. Capitalizing on his connection to the man in the White House, Wilder liked to tell how he played “Old Zip Coon” when “Cal” was but a boy. Be that as it may, he admitted he hadn’t played the fiddle in public in twenty years. That didn’t stop a booking agency from persuading him to come to Boston for a week’s theatrical engagement. Mellie Dunham was making a lucrative vaudeville debut (at Henry Ford’s suggestion) and Boston theater managers saw in Wilder a counterpoint to Dunham’s stage success.

Even before Wilder left his Plymouth, Vermont farm for Boston (“the first long trip he has ever made”), sketches of his life found their way into the press. His musical credentials included more than sixty years playing for community dances in Vermont, starting at age thirteen when he got his first fiddle and took some lessons in the town of Reading. As his fiddling reputation grew, he left off farming for a living and organized his own full time dance orchestra, Wilder’s Quadrille Band. Following the Civil War, the band was heavily in demand playing dances for governors as well as for farmers. But music was not a very reliable livelihood. The band dissolved in 1870 and Uncle John reluctantly returned to farming. In off seasons and after chores, however, he continued to play for social affairs in and around Plymouth.

In early January 1926, fiddlers from all over New England gathered for the big contest at Providence, but Uncle John Wilder was not among them—he had been put under contract to participate in a staged fiddle contest at the Bowdoin Square Theater in Boston. Wilder arrived in the city by train on Thursday, January 7, and as it happened, Henry Ford was also in the area seeing to business at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury. A handful of local fiddlers, including Wilder, received invitations to visit the inn on Saturday to socialize and entertain Ford’s guests. Eight fiddlers braved a howling blizzard to get there and all enjoyed a day of music in the ballroom as the drifts piled outside. Wilder’s theater engagement was scheduled to run the week of January 11-16 with a mock fiddle contest (“three times daily”) sandwiched between other acts. To attract patrons in mid-week the theater offered free souvenir photos of Uncle John Wilder, while Thursday and Friday nights promised a hundred dollar cash prize for the contest winner along with a chance to challenge Mellie Dunham.

In February, Wilder was invited to extend his contract to play other cities, but nothing materialized until the following October, when the New York Times announced that Uncle John Wilder had formed an “old-time country orchestra composed of cousins and near relatives of the President.” Under management of William Morris who handled tours for Sir Harry Lauder, the trip was to include a stop in New York at the end of October and would also take in Saint Louis; Washington, D.C.; Frederick, Maryland; and several small towns in Pennsylvania. The orchestra was comprised of Lewis Carpenter and John Wilder, fiddles; Clarence Blanchard, clarinet; Mr. and Mrs. Linn Cady, drums and piano; and Herbert L. Moore, prompter and master of ceremonies. Eight additional townspeople from the Plymouth area joined the entourage to demonstrate dancing of sets. Since several members of the troupe still managed working farms, the contract included a provision allowing them “leave” to tend the crops back in Vermont.

The orchestra left Rutland, Vermont by train on October 24, 1926. Their first stop was in New York City where, on October 25 1926, they were invited to cut a record for the Okeh label. One side featured “Lady Washington’s Reel” coupled on the reverse with “Portland Fancy.” Traveling on to Saint Louis, the band performed four times daily for a week at the State Theater. They then went to Washington, D.C. arriving November 7. Their sojourn was deemed a “lark” since most of the members had never been in a big city before. They played a week’s engagement at Loew’s Palace Theater and while in Washington, the party was able to visit President Coolidge for a brief reception and tour of the White House. The New York Times covered the visit and quipped “Half of His Native Village Makes a Call on the President.” From Washington, the troupe arrived at the Opera House in Frederick, Maryland where they appeared for a couple of weekday evenings as an “added attraction” between films starring Douglas Fairbanks. Years later, Lewis Carpenter’s wife recalled how the rustic troupe from Plymouth village had been awed to see such ornate plush theaters.

The tour ended in December and all returned to Vermont tired but enriched by the trip. In February 1927, however, just as the group’s Okeh record was released, newspapers proclaimed “Cal’s Uncle Out of Fiddling Job.” Wilder complained to the New York Times “I have been expelled.” Elsewhere he whimpered that the orchestra “desires my presence no longer.” The band’s spokesman Herbert Moore explained that Wilder’s departure was based on “his own decision not to accompany the orchestra on long night trips to fill winter engagements.” But Uncle John held to his claims—“Yes sir, they fired me, sure enough. ... Guess maybe they didn’t appreciate my fiddling.” In retrospect, one has to wonder if, despite his celebrity appeal, Uncle John Wilder was perhaps a bit superfluous to the Plymouth Old Time Dance Orchestra. Recapping the grand adventure in the 1970s, one writer suggested that Uncle John had “added atmosphere” to the group. It also came out that although the band had been invited to continue making appearances as far away as Hollywood, Uncle John had become homesick, causing everyone to forsake the tour and go home.

Four years later, on September 19, 1931, Uncle John Wilder passed away after a long illness that confined him to bed for eight weeks. President Coolidge attended the funeral and Wilder was buried in the Plymouth village cemetery. Less than a week after Wilder’s death, his “rival” Mellie Dunham also passed away, quietly marking the end of the colorful Henry Ford Fiddle Craze.

—©2008 Steve Green

New York Times, 20 December 1925

Salt Lake Tribune, 9 January 1926

New York Times, 2 October 1926. Another source indicated the band had been playing together twelve years, holding weekly dances in a hall built for them by President Coolidge’s father.

Some information about the group’s itinerary derives from a typed summary of remarks made by Mrs. Margaret Moore of Vergennes, Vermont, self-recorded December, 1976 at the suggestion of Paul Wells for the John Edwards Memorial Foundation. Mrs. Moore was one of the community dancers who accompanied the Plymouth orchestra on its tour in 1926.

Washington Post, 9 November 1926

Thompson, Sally. “Plymouth Old-Time Dance Orchestra.” Vermont History 40:3 (Summer 1972)

New York Times, 26 February 1927

Ogden Standard-Examiner, 26 February 1927

Lincoln Sunday Star, 27 February 1927

Many thanks to Paul Wells for sharing his personal research files and to Patrick Huber and Michael McKernan for copies of news clippings.