New Exhibit Features Primitive Cigar Box Instruments

Detail of a one-string violin made in 1912 by Willis Boyce, who would play it at square dances and other events.

HANCEVILLE – The art of creating musical instruments out of common household objects dates back to before the Civil War. Around 100 examples of that art is now on display at The Evelyn Burrow Museum at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville.

The History of the Cigar Box Guitar From the Collection of William J. Jehle will be on exhibit Nov. 4, 2014, through January 30, 2015. Along with the stringed instruments there are also etchings from Edward Forbes’ “Life Studies of the Great Army,” depicting the lives of Civil War soldiers. At least one of those shows a Union soldier playing a cigar box violin.

The collection is comprised mostly of guitars dating back from the 1920s to present day. Some are considered as toys for children, while others are serious instruments. Some of Jehle’s favorites in the collection are a 4-string cigar box guitar that belonged to Rick Springfield; a 4-string Purgatory Hillharp created by musician John Lowe that uses sewing machine bobbins, beer caps, inner tubs, oak dowels and pipe clamps; and a 4-string guitar made from scratch by Jim Ferris and Phil Eggers and with hand-wound pickups made with the help of an electric screwdriver.

Other instruments in the collection include, diddley bows, fiddles, ukuleles and banjos. Two of the fiddles date back to the late 19th century. One of the ukuleles in the collection is one of 12 made by Sam Kamaka Jr., in the 1960s. One of the banjos in the collection is an early cigar box banjo built using plans dating back to 1886. The cigar box that is used in the banjo dates to between 1910 and 1915. Tony Hyman of the National Cigar Museum first owned the instrument. He sold it to cigar box museum owner Shane Speal, who sold much of his collection to Jehle.

“There are lots of stories connected to each piece you’re going to see,” Jehle said of the collection. “There are artifacts from WWI, from trench warfare, made out of anything soldiers had to entertain themselves and lift themselves out of what they were going through.”

The Burrow Museum exhibition came about from Jehle’s professional relationship with Wallace State Music Program Director Ricky Burks.  After learning about Jehle’s collection, Burks brought an idea for the exhibit to Donny Wilson, director of The Evelyn Burrow Museum.

“I thought it would be unique to the area,” Burks said of the exhibit. The more rare pieces in the collection will be behind glass, but other pieces will be displayed where they can be studied more closely. Burks plans to have his own cigar box guitar on hand so visitors can strum a few bars and hear what the instrument sounds like.

Wilson said he is pleased to have the exhibit on display.  “It’s been a joy to go through the collection and see the craftsmanship and ingenuity the makers put in their creations,” he said. “The addition of the prints was a wonderful surprise and blend well with the instruments.

“I think those who come see the exhibit will be pleased,” Wilson added. “They may event want to try making a cigar box guitar of their own.”

Jehle is expected to visit campus to sign copies of his book “One Man’s Trash: A History of the Cigar Box Guitar” and DVDs on how to build cigar box instruments.

Admission to The Evelyn Burrow Museum is free. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. For more information or to schedule a tour, call Wilson at 256.352.8457, e-mail or visit