“He was a seafaring man. He went to sea in his early years,” Elaine Sanford says of her father who was born and brought up on the Bay of Fundy.
Alexis (Alex) W. Irving was born in Baxter’s Harbour in 1873, in a time when it was common for boys to take up a seafaring trade. Alex left the sea early, however, and worked most of his life as a cooper out of Sheffield Mills. He lived to age 90, dying in 1963.
Elaine Sanford remembers Alex working as a cooper when she was going to school at Kings County Academy in Kentville. “He didn’t have his own shop,” she recalls. “Most of his life he worked on farms around the county wherever they needed barrels.”
People still remember Alex Irving. In Sheffield Mills, in the nearby communities of Centreville, Canard and Canning, people still talk about him, especially in local musical circles. It’s in the musical field that the old time cooper had a unique talent and a special claim to fame
Irving’s name came up when I was in Centreville recently talking with Bill Tupper. Bill’s hobby is making and repairing musical instruments and he was showing me his latest creation, a three-stringed cross between a banjo and mandolin. “This is called a strumstick but I call it a strumoline,” Bill joked as he picked out chords on the instrument.
Setting the strumstick down, Bill picked up a guitar he had made, strummed it briefly and then picked up a fiddle and bow. “Listen to this tone,” he said, running the bow across the strings. “Not bad for an old, home-made fiddle.”
When I asked who made the fiddle, Bill held it up and told me to read what was written inside. “A. W. Irving, Sheffield Mills, 1924,” I read aloud.
“Who was he? I asked. “His name sounds familiar.”
“About all I can tell you is that he made fiddles and good ones,” Bill replied. “The story is that he only made 12. As far as I know, there’s only a few of them still around.”
As I mentioned to Bill Tupper when he showed me the old fiddle, Irving’s name rang a bell and I was sure I had something on him in my files. I dug through several files where I keep notes and after a long search, found the record of a telephone call from Elaine Sanford. I called her immediately and she told me about her father’s hobbies – besides fiddles, Irving made model ships – and about his life as a seafarer and cooper.
Bill Tupper may be right about there only being a few of Irving’s fiddles in existence today. Irving began making fiddle in 1920, Ms. Sanford says, and she wasn’t sure but he may have made only 12. One of the fiddles is in her possession and besides Tupper’s, may be the only one remaining.
Ms. Sanford remembers that her father had a lifelong fascination with wood and would go to any length to obtain the perfect piece for whatever he was working on. “He was particular about the wood he used,” she says. “There was a special piece of wood he wanted for a project and he had my brother bring it down to him from the States.”
One of the stories still told about Irving was his constant search for the perfect piece of wood for his hobbies. He would make the rounds of woodpiles in Sheffield Mills, pick up various pieces of wood and listen to the sounds they made when he tapped them with his fingers.
The fussiness about wood may have had some connection with Irving’s fiddle-making. Bill Tupper explains that “different woods have different sounds,” adding in effect that maple has a different ring than ash, and so on. “This is what Irving must have been after, a piece of wood with the right ring for a fiddle.”