WILLIAM H. WALLACE – MASTER FIDDLE MAKER (January 5/21)

Discovered in an Ottawa violin shop in 2018 – a fiddle showing such fine workmanship that it caught the eye of the shop’s proprietor. Inscribed inside the fiddle was the name of the maker and a date: “William H. Wallace, 1927, Wolfville, NS.” The inscription indicated that the fiddle was the maker’s sixth.

A friend who told me about the discovery of the fiddle’s said the shop’s proprietor, himself a fiddle maker and violinist, was taken with the instrument; so taken that he decided to refurbish it and keep it as his personal violin. Further, said the friend, based on the workmanship and the overall finish of the instrument, its value likely was in the range of two to three thousand dollars.

So, in the 1920s a Wolfville craftsman was making fiddles – violins if you wish – of such excellent quality in the finish and wood that they’re treasured today. My first question on hearing this story was who is William H. Wallace and where was he from?

I was able to find answers to these questions, and much more about Wallace, when it was suggested I contact the Gordon Hansfords. It was from them I learned that Wallaces’ daughter, Shirley Carey, lived in the Wolfville area and was agreeable to talking to me about her father.

This then is the story of William Hector Wallace (1895-1987) a master fiddle maker from around Wolfville who was self-taught and who worked in shop conditions that are unimaginable today. “Dad always worked at carpentry and in woodworking mills,” Ms. Carey recalled, “and he was really handy with his hands, making all kinds of furniture as well as fiddles.”

Ms. Carey said that Wallace made at least 17 fiddles, as best as she can remember. What’s remarkable is that Wallace made fiddles in the evenings by an oil lamp, using simple hand tools commonly used by carpenters at the time. “Early on, during the years he was making them, we didn’t have any electricity in our house and everything he did was by hand. Dad numbered each one of his fiddles. He sold a few of them, and when he let them go, he asked for $20, which he thought was fair.”

As well as making fiddles and repairing them, Wallace was renowned as a fiddler and would often entertain the community at local gatherings. “While Dad played for his own amusement,” Carey said, “we used to entertain with house parties. At least once a month one family in the community would invite neighbors in and Dad would play the fiddle and there’d be a bit of dancing. At night, when he wasn’t working on a fiddle, he’d take his out and play for hours. He dearly loved Scottish strathspeys and reels.”

Besides the fiddle that turned up in an Ottawa shop, Ms. Carey believes that one or two of them can be found locally. Where the remainder are is a mystery.

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