An Old Fiddle and A Kitchen Tunk

About a year ago I was working on an Ancestry project and had the pleasure of meeting a second cousin of my husband’s who lives here in Keene; Verne Green. Verne also loves the fascinating exploration of genealogy and was very happy to connect. I learned of a fiddle that had belonged to the family’s grandmother, Minnie Belle, and had been handed down to Verne. Minnie Belle was my husband’s great-grandmother. She was born Minnie Belle Hayes in 1881, Putnam Valley, N.Y. She married Freeman Christian in 1897. Freeman and Minnie Belle eventually moved to Walpole, N.H. where they bought and lived in the Hooper Mansion and then “the farm” (as referenced in old photos). The fiddle must date back to the late 1800’s as it is told in the family it was handed down to Minnie Belle from her father Stephen Henry Hayes (1850-1926). Verne was told by her aunt Evelyn that Minnie Belle (Evelyn’s mother) played the fiddle at many kitchen parties in Walpole!

The fiddle looked like it needed some repair, so I offered to take it to Acoustic Strings of New England in Keene to have it looked at. I wondered if it was a wall hanger or something that could be repaired. I learned it is a copy of a Maggini. Giovan Paolo Maggini (1580-1630) was a string maker born in Botticino Italy. He was a student of the most important violin makers and then started his own company. Acoustic Strings was able to replace the bridge, tuning pegs, strings and with the help of a new bow, made it playable once again. It cost about as much to repair as its value if sold. To my amazement, sweet sounds began resonating from this beautiful and delicate instrument. Oh...the memories it must hold and I can only imagine the many times that Minnie Belle must have played it and brought joyful sounds to so many kitchen parties!

Around this same time, I was talking about music with my co-worker, Mary Flanders. Mary mentioned that her father was a fiddle player and when she was a young girl her grandmother used to talk about

‘Kitchen Tunks’.. I soon learned that Kitchen Tunks were what was known as informal house or folk dances in the kitchen of someone’s home and were a fixture of rural American life in the early 1900’s. Kitchen Tunks became the opportunity for live music when there was little to entertain people who lived miles from a town. Many people in rural New England had little if any money to spend on recreation when the dollar needed to be stretched to feed a family and buy necessities. These frolicking gatherings not only provided a lot of enjoyment and a place where many learned to dance, they were also a time for neighbors to catch up on the gossip and news in their community. The kitchen seemed like a good place to have these Tunks because it was usually a large room in the home and a few people could easily move the kitchen table and chairs out of the way. Tunks were typically held on a Saturday night after supper. Once all the chores were done everyone would anxiously move the furniture (just about everything but the kitchen sink), often moving the stove out to the barn. If you had a fiddler and someone that could add some percussion by scraping on a washboard of clanking spoons together, that was enough for a band! Often times there were so many people that wanted to join in the fun the kitchen would be full and no room for the fiddler so they would prop a stool in the kitchen sink and there he or she would sit. Tunks were also known as Kitchen Rackets or Kitchen Scrapes. Who knows why? Maybe for the amount of noise they made! The fiddler would set the tempo and choose the tunes and if there was someone who could play a harmonica, guitar, banjo, mandolin, or flute all the better! But, at the center of all this remained the fiddler, without them there was no dance. After researching this, it all sounded so very familiar. This is exactly what Verne had learned from her aunt about Minnie Belle playing the fiddle for parties in the kitchen!

I found an article online from Larry Coffin of Vermont sharing in detail about these Kitchen Tunks. I contacted him and asked if I could share his words and he said “most certainly!”

“Kitchen Tunks and Parlor Songs: After the supper came the dance. There was no music save the fiddles…but was that not enough? Have ever feet tapped more merrily than to a rollicking scrape of some inspired old wool-thatched fiddler, swaying to his own strains and called out the figures in clear, rich tones that harmonized with his wild dance measure as only he could do.” This is a 19th century description of what has been called kitchen junkets, kitchen tunks, tonks, rackets or scrapes. It is dancing in the kitchen. This column describes this New England bit of homegrown fun along with the often accompanying activity of singing in the parlor. The following description of a northern Vermont kitchen junket appeared in an 1894 edition of The New England Magazine: “Old Dave Burrows sat in state on the only chair in the room, scraping wildly on a fiddle with one string broken. Up and down the uneven floor a dozen young folks were going vigorously though the mazy evolutions of the Virginia Reel, while a half-dozen more huddled in the doorway that led to the great ‘square room’ or parlor as the next generation termed it, applauding the most graceful and deriding the least graceful of the dancers. At ten o’clock the kitchen table was pulled out and loaded with doughnuts, apple sauce, pie, cheese and cider. This was pleasant intermission in the evening’s exercises, after which the dancing would go on with renewed vigor.” The figures included traditional contras, quadrilles and square dances, taken from English, Scottish and French traditional dances. At times there was liquor or hard cider. Often a supper followed the evening of dancing. Sometimes dancing lasted until well after midnight. Card games and group singing might be held. In some neighborhoods, the junkets rotated from house to house, whereas in others, the largest farm kitchen was used.’

“Kitchen Junkets” were yet another name for these traditional Saturday night fiddle dances that were a very important part of the New England life and homegrown fun. Junket is a word synonymous with the well-known, Munsonville born, Ralph Page. Ralph was born into a musical family of fiddlers and dancers in Munsonville, N.H. and became the preeminent authority of New England Country dancing. Ralph was a fiddler player and a caller himself dating back to the 1930’s. He was very well known in New Hampshire and especially in Nelson. For more than 30 years, Ralph published a periodical called “Northern Junket”. It was filled with folk music for square dancing, stories about Junkets, notes about specific dances, recipes to share and much more.

It seems that without the fiddle, these magical times would not have been immortalized. I have often wondered what the difference was between a fiddle and a violin and found that it’s mainly the set up and all in how you play it! I’ve seen them for sale online and occasionally in local thrift stores. I remember last year I was poking around the Salvation Army store and saw a young girl leave with one in hand! What a thrift store score! To my absolute delight, I am now the very fortunate keeper of Minnie Belle’s fiddle; it was handed down to me to carry on. I play guitar, mandolin and ukulele and now I will try to learn the fiddle. If you ever have the fortunate occasion to find a good deal on an old fiddle at a flea market, barn sale or in an antique store, you might want to buy it; if not for it’s possible value but maybe only for the memories that it is sure to hold of the Kitchen Tunks, Rackets, Scrapes and Junkets it must have played for!

Larry Coffin is the Curator and past President of the Bradford Historical Society and authors a monthly article on local history posted on larrycoffin.blogspot.com


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