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Man remembered for craftsmanship; 2 violins to be donated

In the early 1950s, the late Alfred Davis of Albert Lea set out on a long-term experiment to win a bet with his music professor at what was formerly known as Mankato State College.

Davis’ goal was to rediscover the old secrets of great violin-making.

Well after his 50th birthday, Davis started taking night classes at MSC whenever possible in pursuit of an engineering degree. He was interested in radios and other electronics at the time. By profession, Davis worked at the BENCO Electric Cooperative.

Davis enrolled in a music class during his time at MSC. According to a 1975 article written by Lowell Schreyer in the Mankato State College Today, Davis’ professor at the time was Howard VanSickle. VanSickle was aware of Davis’ background in electronics and woodworking so he suggested that Davis pursue hands-on research.

Steve Brown, 52, of Mankato said that his grandfather — Davis — started producing and researching the instruments as a result of a bet with VanSickle.

Davis set a goal of building 150 violins in the early 1950s. At age 62, he had completed 65 violins, nine violas and a cello.

The 1975 MSC article quoted Davis saying, “I’m a late bloomer.”

Two of the violins Davis created will soon be donated to the Albert Lea High School music program.

“I’d like to bring attention to my grandfather’s feats according to his accomplishments against the odds,” Brown said. “But more importantly to the music program in general — which is all that my grandfather ever wanted.”

Davis gifted each of his grandchildren an instrument that he built. Brown is the seventh oldest grandchild of Alfred and Jean Davis; because of this, Brown received the seventh violin of the hundreds of violins that his maternal grandfather built. On a small piece of paper inside the violin, his grandfather wrote Brown’s full name and the year he finished the violin — 1968. The paper is visible through the f-holes of the instrument.

“This (violin) was mine. He was sick at the time so there are some flaws, but I guess it sounds tremendous,” Brown said about the violin his grandfather built for him.

Davis had an ear for music but never played the instruments he built. His only formal training with music came from his time in his high school orchestra.

Neither Brown nor Davis ever learned to play the violin fluently. In the 1975 MSC article about Davis, Davis claimed to be a violin maker, not a violinist.

According to Brown, Davis knew enough to tune the instruments and play a tune to hear the sound.

Brown has photos and memories of his grandfather working on the instruments in his home in Albert Lea. Though he grew up in Austin, Brown has early memories of canoeing on Albert Lea’s Fountain Lake. Brown recalled an infestation of illegal goldfish occupying the lake that Davis taught him to fish on as a child. Brown credited his grandfather for fostering his love for the outdoors.

Brown graduated from Austin High School in 1982 and completed a degree in marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire thereafter. He has lived in the Mankato area since graduating from college and is a real estate agent.

Brown is the son of Judy (Davis) Brown and Sid Brown. His parents graduated in the early 1950s from Albert Lea High School.

During his life, Davis toured area schools to teach children about his craft. His presentations included the parts of the violin, the process and the specifications needed for different frequencies.

Davis died in 1984.

It is unknown how many hand-crafted instruments that Davis built in his lifetime, but Brown estimates that the number is between 150 and 200.

“They were meant to be played,” Brown said. “Grandpa wouldn’t want them sitting around.”

Davis sold the violins for what he had into them, which Brown estimated to be around $100. Brown recalled his grandparents being people that lived a humble lifestyle.

“Grandma and Grandpa gave generously to the music program at Albert Lea High School,” Brown said.

Davis and his wife, Jean, lived at 1506 Sunset St. in Albert Lea for most of their lives.

About Evelyn Seffinga

Evelyn Seffinga covers education and arts and culture for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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