Zithers

Zither DisplayZithers

One can only imagine how thrilled Franz Schwarzer would be if he knew how interest in his zithers has grown in the last few years.

Credit the late Richard Krueger of Pittsfield, Ill., with that renewed interest. The son of German immigrants and a zitherist, he first learned of Franz Krueger’s zither factory in Washington. The shared surname attracted him to Washington. Soon he learned of Schwarzer’s zithers. Schwarzer produced more than 11,000 instruments.

Krueger desired making Washington a center of zither music. He started the Schwarzer Zither Ensemble in 2017, supplying instruments and encouragement. Anne Prinz shared his vision of creating a zither center in the United States and agreed to teach. She asked Alice Spencer and Michael Hustedde of the Davenport Zither Ensemble to help. Eventually, she came to live in Washington.

The main ensemble consists of nine active zither players with two guitar players. A beginning class has five new zither students.

The ensemble held the North American Zither Gathering in Washington in 2018. It was to be held here again in 2020, but was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The museum’s zither collection, housed on the second floor, has grown since the ensemble was formed, museum director Marc Houseman noted. Some zithers in the collection are stored in cabinets.

Ensemble member Jolene Patterson has tracked down and purchased at least 60 Schwarzer zithers. She has had several restored for the museum. Some are not restorable, but because they are unusual models or have outstanding beauty, they are displayed. Patterson has donated around 35 zithers to the museum with the caveat that the zither ensemble be able to play them on occasion.

Patterson found Sasha Radicic in St. Louis, a zither restorationist. Born in Yugoslavia, he left when war broke out, landing in Munich, Germany. There he learned how to make zithers, leading him to make repairs.

He notes on his website, “I have extended my repair work to all American builders, including the renowned Schwarzer zither originally produced in Washington.”

In addition, Tom Pennington, a zitherist and luthier from New Haven, has rebuilt several zithers that came to Patterson in pieces. He "is an excellent woodworker and does understand the mathematics of the fretboard and has helped balance them," she explained. 

The museum has obtained zithers from other sources.

When Krueger died, he donated two of the three known existing Krueger zithers to the museum. Since then, a fourth has been discovered in Dayton, Ohio, as a son was clearing out his father's home. That one has been donated to the museum as well. 

In about 2018, a bowed zither, also known as a violin zither, was donated. While it looks like a violin, the fingering is the same as that used with a zither, but played with a bow. It had an Altemueller label inside, indicating it was purchased at the music and gift shop preceding Altemueller Jewelry.

The museum has three labeled Schwarzer bowed zithers.

Another unique zither came from Kansas City. Schwarzer had made both the zither and the table upon which it rests. A zitherist there played it in Kansas City bars for a number of years. An older woman acquired it and donated it to the museum.

In addition to zithers, Robert L. Miller, who died in 2019, left a zither workbench to the museum. When the Schwarzer factory closed completely in 1953, his father purchased the workbench at the auction. It is one of four Schwarzer workbenches.

The museum also has glass negatives used in Schwarzer catalogs. Annie Grohe, wife to Herman Grohe, who inherited the factory, handed out artifacts such as these to children, including Charles Sincox and George Bocklage, at the auction. She asked them to keep the items in Washington. Sincox and Bocklage have donated their negatives to the museum.

Houseman has been in touch with a woman in Arkansas whose ancestor worked at the Schwarzer factory. He made his own zither, but placed a Schwarzer label in it.

The Missouri State Museum in the state capitol at Jefferson City has the original ledger with Schwarzer serial numbers and purchasers. The museum has a copy of this for use in determining the year, the model and the original purchaser when someone inquiries about a zither.

Many people have been drawn to the museum because of the revival of the zither in Washington. “What a wonderful thing,” Houseman said. “Life has been brought in here because of the zither.”

The Zither King of Washington portrait-fschwarzer-1-.jpg

Franz Schwarzer, a woodworker and a zitherist from Austria, came to Washington in 1867 when he started making zithers.

Soon he started incorporating fine artistic elements, such as German silver frets, mother of pearl inlay and ivory, and rare woods to manufacture his zithers.  In 1873, he entered three zithers in the Vienna Exposition and received the “Gold Medal of Progress.”

Schwarzer produced over 11,000 instruments and eventually employed 25 workmen. Plain zithers sold for about $19, while larger, more decorated ones could bring $600 to $1,000.

He died in 1904, leaving his widow in charge for eight years when she died. Their nephew Herman Grohe carried on until he died in 1924.

Albert Hesse, one of the last zither players in Washington and an employee, continued selling inventory, making repairs and fabricating zither strings. He worked until the 1950s when Mrs. Grohe’s nephew demolished the factory.

By Suzanne Hill