Reader Requests Information about Violin Maker, E.W. Hinkle

Recently, Kitty Cornett contacted me saying, “I have been trying to track down a local violin maker in Johnson City, who's long gone by now, but may still have family living in Johnson City.” After acquiring her mother's old violin, she spotted inside one of the two F-Holes the words: “E.W. Hinkle,” '”H”,' “Johnson City, Tenn.” and “1933.”

Top: Kitty Cornett Holds Her Mother's Restored Violin. 

Bottom: Beautiful Wood Design on Back of Unrestored Violin.

Kitty would like to know if anyone has information about this person. She also wants to know the significance of the letter “H.” My hasty response to the 1977 Science Hill High School graduate was that the only vintage violin maker I knew about was Virgil C. O'Dell, who operated from his residence at 207 W. Pine.

However, after perusing my “Yesteryear” collection, I located a Jan. 11, 1934 Johnson City Chronicle newspaper clipping concerning an E.W. Hinkle. The article's subtitle, read: “Hotel Manager Is Making Beautiful Violins, Cabinets.” I further located his name in two city directories.

“One of the newest and most interesting of Johnson City's industries,” said the piece, “is a violin-making shop operated by E.W. Hinkle at the Fountain Square Hotel (109 Fountain Square, west side). Hinkle, who is also an expert cabinet maker, made two magnificent secretaries for Christmas gifts for members of his family.

“He has produced fine rolling desks, cabinets, etc., but his pet hobby is making violins of the Stradivarius style. His instruments, according to expert violinists, have an exceptionally fine tone and resonance due to the skill with which the backs and bellies are hand shaped. Hand-made violins are generally much finer and more expensive than factory-made instruments for that particular reason.

“Factory-made instruments where the backs and bellies are machine cut, the thickness of the wood is necessarily the same. But with hand-made instruments, the back and belly are of varying thickness ranging from 3/64 inch to 9/64 inch, this variation being accomplished by hand shaving of the wood, according to the location, particularly on the belly.

“Hinkle imports from Germany the wood used for the bellies and, of course, also uses considerable ebony. He is experimenting with instruments made almost entirely of wood from this section (East Tennessee) and has made two instruments of very good tone using local wood. Very shortly, he intends to make an up-town display of his violins and invites musicians to inspect and try them out. It is purely a hobby with him, as he has never attempted to commercialize his work.”

Ms. Cornett, an Assistant Director in the Graduate and Executive Education Programs of the College of Business at the University of Tennessee, provided additional information that included several photos of the four-stringed instrument before and after she had a reputable professional business restore it.

“Note that the back of the violin looks like a striped tiger, she said, “and if you look closely, there are two thin lines that outline the edges of the back. I originally thought they were painted on but figured if that were true, they would have rubbed off by now. The newspaper article makes me believe they are ebony.”

Top: Hinkle's Writing Visible Inside F-Hole of Violin.

Middle: Kitty's Mon, Jane; Aunt Pat; and Their Grandmother.

Bottom: Cowan Moss III at About 9 Years of Age.

(Photos Courtesy of Kitty Cornett).

Ms. Cornett's parents grew up in Johnson City, as did their parents. Her mother, Jane Perdue Lewis Cornett, who was born in 1921, took violin lessons under a qualified music teacher. However, she detested the experience, later telling her daughter that she was never a good violin player and always occupied a “second chair” position in the school orchestra.

During the height of the Great Depression, the youngster, who by then was in high school, was finally relieved of her misery when Jane's parents let her quit taking lessons. In retrospect, she knew the real reason was the poor economy. The violin thus abruptly went silent.

Kitty related how she came in possession of the unfretted fingerboard instrument. Her cousin, Cowan Moss III (son of Dr. Cowan Moss, Jr. and Pat Lewis Moss Rowan) came home one afternoon and announced to his parents that he wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument.

Since Jane still possessed her violin, she and Pat agreed that he should learn to play it. The two ladies had the violin spruced up and restrung for the youngster. The instrument was about to arise from its deep slumber.

Cowan recalled that his “violin career” started in the early 1960s when he was in about the 4th grade at Fairmont School where there was a sincere effort to establish an orchestra. However, by the time he went to North Junior High, they had a decent orchestra, which the lad joined. He said that he was always in the second chair section Junior High and Senior High schools.

Young Moss noted that South Junior High’s orchestra was the better of the two, which was evident when they were combined at Science Hill.

Kitty said to this day she can still visualize him in her mind's eye as he hurriedly carried the violin case and metal music stand with sheet music “flying in the air.” As an aspiring violinist, he often improvised his own songs.

Cowan's family members frequently begged him to play their favorite violin “hit” of his, a made-up composition that was appropriately titled, “Cats and Dogs.” It was so-named because its wailing sound resembled that of a fight between the two animals. The young man so seriously performed his homemade composition that he took no notice of his siblings and cousin writhing in the floor, laughing hysterically.

One favorite memory that Kitty's mom and aunt shared was when Cowan’s orchestra was performing at a concert. The two ladies had the starting time wrong and made a grand entrance just as the performance was concluding. Kitty said the two pulled off quite an act when they convinced Cowan that they heard every note he played and that he was brilliant.

By the time the young man entered high school, the demand on his time had greatly increased. Therefore, after limping through his sophomore year, he finally bailed out of the orchestra, causing the violin to go silent again.

Kitty recalled the day after the violin had been restored. The store owner's assistant tuned it and played it, propelling once again beautiful music into the heavens. Although the instrument had been dormant for about 45 years, she described it as being an emotional moment for her. To her untrained ear, it sounded wonderful.

If anyone has knowledge of Mr. E.W. Hinkle or would like to comment on this story, please drop me a note.