Violet Hensley, Fiddle Maker
by Joshua Heston
Suppose you were to imagine a 91-year-old. And suppose you imagine she builds fiddles.
Now, you better forget all that.
Because who Violet is transcends anything you just thought up. Violet Hensley was born in Montgomery County, Arkansas, in 1916. Because of her skill, a lot has been written about this self described "oldtime hillbilly."
She's a regular and — perhaps the most famous — craftsmanship demonstrator at Silver Dollar City. She's been coming since 1967.
She has appeared on the Beverly Hillbillies Show, the Art Linkletter Show, and Captain Kangaroo. Charles Kuralt stopped by her house once.
She's traded jibes with Ralph Emory, who asked her, "Does a fiddle just keep getting better with age?"
"Well, yeah, up to a certain age. Then they level off — just like you!" was the reply.
Hensley knows how to make fiddles. The Yellville, Arkansas, native can also tell you how to pick cotton, plow fields, hew logs, build fences (rail, picket, barbed-wire, net-wire, rock and brush fences), and make quail traps.
A lot has been written about Violet. But somehow, it's always best to hear the story firsthand:
"It was a poor farm," she says, "Well, the farm was all right, but it had poor land and we were poor folks. My dad, George Washington Brumley, made his own fiddle because his brother Sam had one and wouldn't let him play it.
So he made his own in 1888 when he was 14 years old.
Guess I wanted to be a copycat. When I was 15, I wanted to make a fiddle and the thing is, I'd already watched him, helped him cut the wood and knew all about it. Made my own at one-sixteenth size — that was in February of '32. Finished my fourth one in August of '34, got married the next year and didn't make anymore fiddles for 27 years. Then I found some wood and my pocketknife and thought, I think I'll see if I can make another.
A man from Nashville played on it and said, "Better hang onto that fiddle. I like it." So one of my boys bought me some wood and I started making my sixth fiddle. Went to War Eagle for two years and that's where the people at Silver Dollar City found me.
I'd never heard of Silver Dollar City. But they had me start in 1967 and this is my 41st fall fest here. I never thought any more about making a fiddle than I did sharpening cross-cut saws or shoeing horses.
See, I bought my horse, Tony, when my husband was in service. I rode Tony for 20 years and he didn't like anybody messing with him but me, so I shod him myself.
Story continued above right...
plate 1. Violet Hensley on Tony.
plate 2. George Washington Brumley
“George Washington Brumley, my dad. They said dynamite comes in small packages. Here he's playing his fiddle with a smoothed-down stick instead of a bow. This was taken in 1937.” — Violet Brumley Hensley
Photos courtesy of Violet Hensley
Violet Hensley, continued
"He wasn't a big horse. I could take the saddle horn in my left hand and leap in the saddle without touching the stirrup. I thought I was a real cowgirl.
We had to make everything when we were growing up. If we had cornbread, we grew the corn. If we had sorghum molasses, we grew the cane and made the molasses.
I didn't go to school much. We picked cotton until it was all picked — about three acres worth — and then we had to gather corn. In the spring, we had to mend the fences and plow the fields. So there wasn't much schooling done. But, it didn't hurt me."
Nevertheless, she's been written about in 37 books and magazines and many, many newspapers.
The Arkansas Arts Council gave her the Living Treasure Award in 2004.
Still, it's clear that Violet Hensley is far more focused on doing what she loves than listening to others brag about her. "I didn't start out to be somebody," she says. "I'm still not somebody!"
But if you get a chance, be sure to stop by the fiddle-making booth at Silver Dollar City. Be ready to visit and ready to learn and ready to respect a very special person.
Violet Hensley. Fiddlemaker.
December 29, 2007