Friday, October 15, 2010

The Violin Story

One of the most exciting things to come out of the California Family History Expo was a discovery I made once I got home from it.  While at the Expo I got to meet Kathryn Doyle of the California Genealogical Society and got a copy of their publication A Most Dreadful Earthquake.  I'm very excited to start reading the book because it centers around San Francisco right after the 1906 quake from the perspective of a woman living through the chaos.  I knew the story of my great-grandmother's family and their experiences during and after the quake but until the other day I thought that was the extent of my personal connection to the quake. 

Then I showed the book to my mother and as she was perusing it she dropped a bombshell.  I mentioned great-grandma and what had happened with her family when my mother casually added "well, you know about the violin story also, right?"  WHAAA?!  I immediately quizzed her because it was like she was speaking a foreign language it such a shock. 

She went on to tell me about my great-grandfather, Gideon G. Berger and how he was in San Francisco at the time.  I never knew he ever lived in San Francisco, none of the records showed it and as far as I knew he was strictly an Oakland boy until he became a minister and left the Bay Area.  But him being in San Francisco at the time explains so much, like why he had a collection of photos of the city right after the earthquake and why there are pictures of him from the same time frame at various addresses that I Googled and found to be San Francisco locations.

The story goes that he was living in the city at the time and after the quake was wandering around the rubble when an older gentleman came up to him.  The man was starving and hadn't eaten in days but he was a musician and had a Stradivarius he was willing to sell for $10.  My great-grandfather managed to get the money and bought the violin.

Now it is very romantic to believe that it was a Stradivarius.  I have no idea if it is or not (I doubt highly that it is), but I do know the violin does exist, in fact, I've seen it.  It sits in my grandmother's living room.  I even held it but never examined the instrument closely because of how fragile it is.  I've even asked her about it.  Unfortunately, when I did it was after I had quizzed her on many other family heirlooms and stories and she was clearly getting tired.  By the time we got to the violin, I was getting three or four word answers and knew it was time to stop.  All she said was "it belonged to [her] daddy"  before looking for a chair to sit down.  I can see now that I'll need to ask her about it again (as well as examine the violin for any maker's mark or names). 

The story needs more investigation but at present I have no reason to doubt the basic points of the story.  I have to thank Kathryn and the Society for giving me the book that inspired this wonderful new piece of my family history.  It was so exciting to learn and made me realize that even when you think you've exhausted a resource (in this case my living relatives) they could still surprise you.


  1. The book Kathryn gave you is so interesting, you will really love it! Nice you were able to make The Family History Expo! I was disappointed I couldn't attend, especially because it was in my own backyard so to speak. Love the story of the violin!

  2. Leah,
    Wow! How fantastic! I can't wait to learn more about the violin. Isn't it amazing the way things work out?

  3. A lot of violins were made "in the style of" Stradivarius or other violin makers.

    If you look inside you will see a piece of paper and it will say "Stradivarius or Cremona" These were copies from the old master to be designed like the original.

    My daughter is a musician and we have a Cremona Violin. Those old ones are usually made by hand and the newer ones are machine made. It probably worth a few thousand. You need to take it to a string shop and hey can tell you.

  4. I used to have a violin with a Stradivarius label, but it was sold by Sears in the 1920s. Still, there are certainly some very good modern violins out there.

    Your story was possible not so much because of the book, but because you talked to your mom -- something that so many just clean forget to do :D

  5. Leah, this sounds like an exciting episode of the Antiques Roadshow! I hope you find out soon about the violin.

  6. Hi Leah, Now you need 'Antiques Roadshow - San Francisco'. Glad you stopped by Katie's Scriven Hall, best wishes on your Mayflower work.
    Here's a great old newspaper link I recently started using. Found a lot of bits for my family around the Bay, up in WA, & over in Hawaii,
    Have fun, Katie

    Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers - Library of Congress

  7. Great story, Leah! As a former concert violinist, and the owner of several violins, I can say with a good amount of faith that the violin is not a genuine Stradivarius. As others here have said, most (but not all) violins are/were made "in the style of" Stradivarius because the sound quality was/is superior, and will even have a label inside stating "Stradivarius - Cremona, Italy." You can generally obtain an appraisal from a reputable violin maker.

    But it certainly is exciting that you have such a wonderful family heirloom! We supposedly had an heirloom violin in my father's family, but it has long since been lost. Hang on to yours!

    I enjoyed meeting you (if only briefly!) at the CA Family History Expo earlier this month!

  8. What a great adventure you have begun Leah! It was great to finally meet you, although we did not spend nearly enough time together.


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