COUNTY AGENT GUY
Drive onto Larry Groon’s farmyard northeast of Arlington and you won’t see much out of the ordinary. The farmstead sports the typical assortment of outbuildings, along with a majestic farmhouse.
But step inside Larry’s workshop and things begin to take a turn for the unusual. The unremarkable array of woodworking tools share space with an extraordinary assortment of stringed musical instruments.
Here hangs a banjo; there sits a stylish mandolin. A shelf holds a partially assembled guitar.
All of which were built by Larry.
“My son Steve and I milked 60 cows in a stanchion barn until it burned down in 2000,” said Larry, who will be 72 this year. “We talked about getting back into dairying, but eventually decided against it.”
Larry and Steve rebuilt the milk house, which Larry now uses as a woodworking shop. Larry has since constructed numerous pieces of furniture for his wife, Joan.
About 5 years ago Larry began to toy with the idea of building a stringed musical instrument.
“I’ve always wanted to do art, but lacked the skill,” says Larry. “I thought that maybe building something musical would satisfy my artistic impulses.”
Larry found plans for a mountain banjo in the pages of a Popular Mechanics magazine.
“It’s the sort of banjo they would traditionally build as a first instrument for a kid in the Appalachians,” says Larry. “I followed the plans to the letter. But the neck is out of proportion to the body, so it sounds out of tune when you play the high notes.”
Undaunted, Larry next purchased plans for building a mandolin.
“I figured that a mandolin is small and would take less time to build than something like a guitar. But I soon learned that building a mandolin is fussy work.”
Larry recalls how he felt when he initially installed the strings on his first mandolin.
“I was so nervous, my hands were shaking,” he says. “I finally had to leave it and come back later.”
But the results of his hours of fussy work exceeded his expectations.
“It sounded good. Certainly I made some mistakes on that first mandolin, but that’s how you learn.”
Larry denies possessing any special musical abilities or artistic skill.
“I’m a three-chord wonder; I can play three chords and wonder how I can even do that. I learned that constructing stringed instruments is mostly engineering and that if done well, engineering can become a thing of beauty. Building mandolins is my way of creating art.”
As Larry built more mandolins – he has now produced a total of 19 – his skills grew. He gleaned advice from an Internet forum for luthiers, and the UPS truck began to bring exotic wood from across the globe to the Groon farm.
“I like to use local wood whenever possible,” says Larry. “I’ve made instruments from a felled ash tree that grew on our farm and have used black walnut that I bought from a guy at Milbank.”
Larry was soon hankering for new challenges. He began to construct guitars and has built 10 so far. He just put the finishing touches on his first hollow-neck lap steel guitar and recently completed an Irish bouzouki made from native ash.
Larry has added some of his own tweaks to his purchased mandolin pattern. So it has been with his guitars.
“Our daughter Linda likes to play music and we got started talking one day about designing our own guitar. After a good bit of debate, we came up with something that we thought would work.”
A twinkle in his eye, Larry unfolds a large sheet of paper that has a guitar outline drawn upon it. Flipping the paper over reveals that it’s actually the outer layer of a seed corn sack.
Like all farmers, Larry improvises whenever possible. For instance, he uses a homemade rig built of scrap iron to heat the wood that will be formed into the sides of his instruments. Beef bone is used in the bridges of his guitars.
“Bone is traditional, plus most agree that it produces a superior sound,” says Larry.
Asked how many hours it takes to build an instrument, Larry replies, “About a month.”
The musical instruments produced in Larry’s workshop are a wonder to behold, with intricate inlays and a silky smooth finish. Art has truly been achieved through engineering.
Larry has now reached the point where he has begun to instruct others in the craft of luthiery.
“I would like nothing better if more people came to my shop so I can pass on what I have learned,” he says.
Asked if this is a hobby or a passion, Larry replies, “Neither. It’s a gift from God. He just waited until this time of my life to give it to me!”
Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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