Strings attached

The display of handcrafted, antique violins in a South Arlington living room looked like a scene from the Antiques Roadshow. The instruments had been built on a backyard stump at the southern edge of the Texas Hill Country. That’s where Frank Schahn built fiddles after he’d retired from building houses and dams, says Al Schahn, 88, one of Frank and Ethel Schahn’s five children.

 

Al Schahn shows off his violin collection, which consists of instruments originally crafted by his father. (Photo: Karen Gavis)

“He was 80 years old when he made these,” Al says of the violins.  “Papa was a carpenter and a concrete man. As he had time, he would build guitars. A lot of them are guitars in South Texas … he would build violins. He built harps.”

Frank Schahn had learned woodworking skills from his father, William, who had worked on, and received, lifetime tickets to an opera house in Düsseldorf, Germany. “Even in 1950, [Papa] would finish [a violin] late in the evening, and I would hear it, and it was German,” Al recalls. “He was playing opera music.”

“Dad could fix anything,” he says, noting that people would drive from places like San Antonio, Del Rio and Uvalde to bring him special furniture to fix that was broken.

According to a family Bible that lay on a table near the violins, the Schahn family came to D’Hanis, a small town about 50 miles west of San Antonio, in 1882. Later, they went to Seattle where they built violins in a shop on the waterfront.

Some of the family members, including Al’s mother and father, eventually returned to Texas, and Al grew up in Rio Frio, which was also home to a considerable amount of mesquite trees. Nearly all of the violins that Frank built in Rio Frio have mesquite wood backs, Al says, and they were made without any electricity.

Al, who isn’t a musician but lovingly restores musical instruments, says he can typically tell whether spruce, mesquite or curly maple wood was used to create an instrument just by looking at the woodgrain.

As he talks, one of his former Sunday School students, Emily Klophaus, places one of the  fiddles across her shoulder and begins to play a tune.

“I’m so impressed with all of these,” she says afterward. “These are just so beautiful.”

Al, who’s a member of the First Baptist Church in Arlington, says he and his wife of 67 years, Doris Ann, who died earlier this year, had attended seminary together so they could work with young people.

Near the rows of violins also lay some hand tools that Frank Schahn had used to make the violins.

Al’s 90-year-old brother, Bill, an accomplished pianist, says he believes his father wanted to “make sure each family had a violin.” When Frank died, he had left behind pieces of unfinished violins that Al later assembled.

Bill also recalls a violin that was returned to the family a few years ago by a 92-year-old woman – his first music teacher. Originally, Frank Schahn had made it for the preacher who had baptized Bill and Al in the Frio River when Bill was 14 and Al was 12. “When he left to go to Corpus Christi, Papa gave him a violin,” Al says, adding “that is strictly a Baptist fiddle there.”

Al, who had worked with his father when he was young, says he started restoring musical instruments after retiring from Vought Aircraft.

Bill points out the piano that Al had taken completely apart and restored. Later, he demonstrates the sound of the keys, as well as his vocals.

“When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary; when troubles come and my heart burdened be; then, I am still and wait here in the silence,” Bill sings. “Until you come and sit awhile with me.”

Bill learned how to play steel guitar, and at age 14 he began taking piano lessons. Later, he helped set up the music department at Dallas Baptist University and taught music. As chorale director for Knox Fellowship, he traveled around the world leading worship with keyboard, he says. Bill still travels around playing music, often at retirement homes. He moved to Fort Worth in 1990 with his grand piano.

“We grew up playing [music] out in the country,” Al says. “We didn’t have any television or anything to watch. That’s what we did. We played musical instruments. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t right. We played.”

Today, Al stays busy restoring instruments and writing books. He has self-published “Memories of the Hill Country,” as well as “The Long Way Home,” a historical fiction work that takes him down the Appalachian Trail before buying the place he grew up on and then making a cattle drive into Denver.

Al talks about a woman he had restored a violin for who learned that he had written a book. The woman had not been expected to live, and she now wants to read his second book.

“They can’t figure out what’s happened,” he says. “All of a sudden, she’s reading books. And she brought me a whole page of history, that’s over 100 years old, on that violin.”

People bring Al their fiddles from across the United States and other countries for restoration. Once, someone brought a violin his father had made in 1901 then discovered a historical photo on the Internet of Frank playing the same instrument. Another family picture shows Frank standing near the smokehouse where he sometimes dried his wood.

Al is currently building his first violin out of cherry wood and sycamore. He’ll place the cherry wood on the back and the sycamore on the front, he explains, because softer wood goes on the front of an instrument.

Recently, Al restored a German violin, a copy of Stradivarius, that’s more than 120 years old. As the violin was being presented back to its owner, Al read a poem he’d written about the fiddle, and Klophaus played the instrument before the small crowd that had gathered in Al’s living room.

“It’s just like when it came out the shop,” Al says of the violin. “When they get older, they get better.”