by Emily Burnham
of The Weekly Staff
Searsport native Emeline Dehn-Reynolds, a lifelong violinist and a music scholar, was playing a traditional tune at a contra dance in her adopted home of New Hampshire, and began to wonder just where that tune came from.
“It’s called Batchelder’s Reel, and I was very interested in where that name came from,” said Dehn-Reynolds, who grew up attending Maine Fiddle Camp in Liberty, and who has a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. “So I did a little initial research, and lo and behold, it came from Maine, and this Batchelder was a person, and he was from Frankfort.”
That Batchelder is Alvah Batchelder, who for much of the early 20th century was one of the finest fiddle makers in New England. Batchelder and his father, Edwin, were residents of Frankfort during that time, when the region was home to four times as many people as today, many of whom were Irish and Italian immigrants, working in the granite quarries and shipyards.
Dehn-Reynolds and her musical partner, University of New Hampshire professor Peter Yarensky, will give a talk and performance about Batchelder violins and the rich musical history of fiddling, contra dancing, violin making, and music in Frankfort, set for 1 p.m. Saturday, July 11, at the Frankfort Congregational Church in Frankfort. Donations will be accepted.
After that initial discovery about the Batchelders, Dehn-Reynolds investigated further. She found that a man named Albert Quigley, a friend of Alvah’s, brought the “Batchelder’s Reel” tune to New Hampshire. She also found that a fellow fiddle-playing friend owned one of the just 99 fiddles that Batchelder made — an instrument she’s now in possession of, along with a fiddle made by Edwin Batchelder, of which there are only a few left in existence. Think of them as the Stradivarius of Frankfort.
“I would say the Batchelder [violins] are among the finest made in Maine,” said Dehn-Reynolds. “They would stand up for classical playing. Some of the little details aren’t precise, like some of the carving, for example, but for a guy who was a blacksmith, they were really, really good.”
The discovery of the violins has since prompted Dehn-Reynolds to focus much of her musical research specifically on the musical traditions of the lower Penobscot. The Frankfort-Prospect region was once home to a thriving population of longtime residents and new immigrants, working in the quarries and in shipbuilding, each with their own musical traditions. Both Edwin and Alvah Batchelder were regular performers in musical groups throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Alvah’s very own Allie Batchelder Orchestra.
“These were people who were building ships and working with wood, so it’s not too much of a stretch for them to go into instrument making,” said Dehn-Reynolds. “And these people had their own bands and organizations. There’s also a rich tradition of fiddling in Irish, and French, and English culture. So there was a lot of music, and music making.”
Dehn-Reynolds currently is pursuing a second master’s degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston. Eventually she hopes to write a book about the fiddle traditions of the region — and also hopes to raise money to help the Waldo Peirce Reading Room organize its large archive of historical documents and ephemera.
“I grew up here, and I grew up going to Fiddle Camp, and I now realize just how special it was, and how few people know about New England’s unique repertoire of music,” said Dehn-Reynolds. “It’s very important to me to preserve it.”
Emeline Dehn-Reynolds is actively seeking information and especially recordings of Alvah Batchelder; anyone with information can email firstname.lastname@example.org.