Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Well I have been patiently biding my time pulling together loads of information on Ashborn banjos and realize that I live two hours away from Wolcottville Ct (Torrington) the home of The James Ashborn Banjo factory. I am in the middle of building my first Ashborn replica and think I might be better inspired if I head back to where it all began. Just curious if anyone else has made the pilgrimage and had any insight on what to expect or look for.

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Brian,
Torrington, CT is a compelling place and not just the home of James Ashborn's factory. Torrington is also the birthplace of the abolitionist, John Brown in 1800. His father's farmhouse is gone but there is a granite marker on the site. The Torrington museum has an Ashborn guitar in their collection - donated by Phillip Gura I believe.   There is also a good banjo playing, master potter living nearby in Bantam, CT- Guy Wolff. He has played on a couple Ashborn copies, including one of mine.  He is a top-notch potter - makes some of the best garden pottery in the country - once featured on the Martha Stewart show with his son, Ben.  He also makes replica Union and Confederate coffee mugs and  has a vast knowledge of the local area and the history of string instrument building. His wife is a concert musician and the daughter of a famous New England luthier. If you visit him - bring your banjo.

I look forward to reading about your experience. These journeys are always enlightening on some level.
Thanks James, just the kind of intel I am looking for. I did read about John Brown being from there as well. Thought that was a neat extra tidbit. Not sure when I will make the trek yet but will have to tie in as much as I can.

Hello James & Brian , I just saw this and had to say hello . Thanks James for your very kind words. ! Lots of great maple here and it shows in Ashborn's beautiful banjos ( Well from the pictures Ive seen.... James has held the originals ) The other great local person besides John Brown  was "The little woman who started this war " Harriet Beecher (Before she was a Stowe and moved to Hartford)  lived on North St. with her dad in our town of Litchfield . At the time Litchfield was the bigger town and Wollcottvile was the manufacturing village down in the valley 10 miles away on the Naugatuck river.  I have a really nice Ashborn guitar  that I will be glad to show you . The tuners are hand made  brass geared and the best Ive ever used . These instruments need to be played !! Ashborn was the Henry Ford of the guitar in the quantity and speed in which he made and his understanding of joinery is one of the biggest inspirations of my life .What he knew about structure and glue could fill a book . . Good luck with your banjo making .. I do wish there were more of the originals in the world but we are so lucky that others are inspired by him and are picking up the task ! All the best to you both for your good works .        PS    James if you are ever in the area again I would love to introduce you to my friend David Oakes . You would have so much fun talking about J Ashborn with him and hear his two banjos as I know he would love to hear yours !.He is as passionately interested in Ashborn as you are .. Warmest regards , Guy 

James Hartel said:

Brian,
Torrington, CT is a compelling place and not just the home of James Ashborn's factory. Torrington is also the birthplace of the abolitionist, John Brown in 1800. His father's farmhouse is gone but there is a granite marker on the site. The Torrington museum has an Ashborn guitar in their collection - donated by Phillip Gura I believe.   There is also a good banjo playing, master potter living nearby in Bantam, CT- Guy Wolff. He has played on a couple Ashborn copies, including one of mine.  He is a top-notch potter - makes some of the best garden pottery in the country - once featured on the Martha Stewart show with his son, Ben.  He also makes replica Union and Confederate coffee mugs and  has a vast knowledge of the local area and the history of string instrument building. His wife is a concert musician and the daughter of a famous New England luthier. If you visit him - bring your banjo.

Hello Dan'l  , I cant see how anyone would disagree with your opinion of John Brown .All you have to do is look at a picture of the man to know he was unstable . The very famous Collins Axe factory was asked to make him 1000 spearheads and long shafts . After taking the order and months waiting for the money to start coming  they decided to let a local blacksmith in Unionville finish up  the order. When the whole debacle came to the courts there was a lot of dancing around  the subject and that they thought Brown was taking the spears to the wild west to sell as protection for  the settlers ..You can imagine the conversation on the witness stand by the head of the factory  ..... "We had no idea what that crazy man was going to do with 1000 spears . Thankfully we are happier with Harriet Beecher and John Ashborn and a great Flute maker Asa Hopkins as well all here in the Litchfield area !  

Dan'l said:

The banjo vibe of the place seems fascinating, as are Ashborn instruments. Should be an interesting journey, Brian, thanks for cluing us in.

- Danl

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p.s.  I just can't help but comment on the John Brown connection mentioned. If I can't be excused for commenting here, I apologize ahead. I know it leads off-topic.

    It's just that I've never understood why any place or any one would be promoting their John Brown connection.  Whatever claimed inspiration and moral mission to free slaves John Brown had, his actions were nothing but self-aggrandizing terrorism. Even before his attack on Harper's Ferry arsenal (btw a facility owned by the free and voting people of the United States) the man had committed cold-blooded multiple murder on unarmed citizens, literally chopping them to death in front of their families. And of course the first person killed at Harper's Ferry raid was a black man.

      In any other circumstance Brown would be rightly identified as a man driven by personal failure, who maniacally transformed himself into God's instrument and a cult leader. He shrewdly manipulated his family and disciples to commit murderous and grossly amateur acts of frenzy. In the manner of a livestock salesman (which he was) he duped well-meaning but naive investors into underwriting his cult while keeping their own self-righteous and lily-white hands clean . At the time Frederick Douglass understood that Brown was no person to ally with, and it seems that today any connection to that criminal is to be ashamed of, not promoted.

     Egad, I may be thinking or feeling too much.

Guy, thanks for responding! I had no idea that you were a member of the Ning and am glad we can connect here. To you and James, I have to say thank you because I am really just a fledgling banjo builder and historian. I truely don't know how to start this quest of mine or even what questions to ask. I am a carpenter and woodworker by trade and it only seemed natural for me to build my own banjos. now that I have made a pair of them, I feel compelled to learn more. Living in the area, perhaps you can start me in the right direction. I am curious to know if anyone even knows where the original site of the Ashborn factory was? If so is it accessible, can I stand on the spot where it once was? Somehow I find it easier to connect to history if I can imagine myself in the shoes of someone who was there at the time and picture the place from the experience of having been there. Perhaps we can plan to meet when I come down your way. I have never held an original Ashborn in my own hands but have seen Bob Wynan's at the EABG last June and now that I am trying to build one there are many questions. Looking at the photos of two different Ashborns, it looks as though the necks are one piece (besides the peg head) not two, as other early banjos were. I am not sure how much offset there is in the peg head and unless I get a definitive answer, I will have to make some assumptions. I live near Boston and the Museum of Fine Art who own an Ashborn banjo but don't display it. Unfortunately, I can't just wander in and look at it when questions arise! How inconvenient of them! Thanks for any and all answers.

-Brian

So many things to say here. Driving passed the spot where Ashborn's shop was is a little untouched and I dont think there is a marker. David Oakes and I have talked about putting up a stone marker .  I have a close idea but the Torrington Historical So. can give you that .. The real strength of our area that informs the banjos is all the maple here .Put together an English Luthier and all that maple and you have an in to the man . When you look at anything Ashborn built the first thing you get is his genius for joinery.. I am sure the Boston museum will let you have a closer look at their banjo if you let a curators know what you are doing .Good luck and let me know if you get to Litchfield county ... Yours Guy  


Brian Glass said:

Guy, thanks for responding! I had no idea that you were a member of the Ning and am glad we can connect here. To you and James, I have to say thank you because I am really just a fledgling banjo builder and historian. I truely don't know how to start this quest of mine or even what questions to ask. I am a carpenter and woodworker by trade and it only seemed natural for me to build my own banjos. now that I have made a pair of them, I feel compelled to learn more. Living in the area, perhaps you can start me in the right direction. I am curious to know if anyone even knows where the original site of the Ashborn factory was? If so is it accessible, can I stand on the spot where it once was? Somehow I find it easier to connect to history if I can imagine myself in the shoes of someone who was there at the time and picture the place from the experience of having been there. Perhaps we can plan to meet when I come down your way. I have never held an original Ashborn in my own hands but have seen Bob Wynan's at the EABG last June and now that I am trying to build one there are many questions. Looking at the photos of two different Ashborns, it looks as though the necks are one piece (besides the peg head) not two, as other early banjos were. I am not sure how much offset there is in the peg head and unless I get a definitive answer, I will have to make some assumptions. I live near Boston and the Museum of Fine Art who own an Ashborn banjo but don't display it. Unfortunately, I can't just wander in and look at it when questions arise! How inconvenient of them! Thanks for any and all answers.

-Brian

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