Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ward Baker, “America’s Most Soulful Violinist”…and Bovina Resident

In the summer of 1908, William Richardson (grandfather of Isabell Russell) sold his home at the bottom of Russell Hill Road at present day County Route 6 to Ward Baker from Wisconsin. Baker would own the house until 1916, using it mostly as a summer home (this is now the Ed and Bonnie Denison home).

Baker was born in Michigan on January 28, 1880. He developed a talent and interest in the violin, but it was a struggle for him to get his career off the ground. His father did not approve of his musical bent, so he went to Chicago and worked as a janitor to save money for a violin. The World Newspaper from March 1905, in reporting his arrival in New York, noted that for his violin, “he suffered, went hungry, was kicked and rebuffed, but through it all he remained true to his ambition, saying 'Why can there be any wrong in doing what is honest and honorable, and what you want to do?'" The paper also noted that he “fiddled 1,500 nights to get an education.” To afford his trip to New York, he stopped at towns along the way and earned money by concerts.  This money making trip made enough of an impression by the time he arrived in New York that he was booked by agents for three vaudeville concerts in the city. He was often referred to early in his career as “The Farm Boy or Farmhand Violinist” and later as the “Soulful Violinist.” He traveled extensively in the United States and Europe to perform, including during the time he owned a house in Bovina. He made at least one appearance at Carnegie Hall.
This dates from around 1910.
Records of the Redpath Chautauqua Collection, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa.
In 1911, he married as his second wife, Fina Pouwels from Belgium. It is not clear if they met during one of his European tours or in the states. In the 1910 federal census, they were both listed as living in the same rooming house in Chicago.  They were married in Jackson County, Missouri.

In 1915, Baker gave several programs in Delaware County and attempted to create a county-wide orchestra.  The Otsego Republican and Farmer (Cooperstown) reported that Baker “will accept some of the best talent from the various villages in the county to make up an orchestra of 75 pieces.  He will go from town to town to train each group separately and then have them all meet occasionally for a grand rehearsal.”

In 1916, Baker rented out his house in Bovina and took a place in Margaretville.  He still was traveling and playing and continued to receive favorable reviews, including from a New York newspaper, as later reported in the Catskill Mountain News for March 26, 1916:  “Ward Baker…constituted the artistic hit of the show, the applause hit of the show and the deserved hit of the show.  Search far and wide, who shall come to vaudeville and even approach this talented artist.  His violin playing is of such a high artistic accomplishment that the audience simply went wild over him and bestowed thunderous applause on him which could only be quieted by giving an encore number of the same artistic selections as the previous.”

Later that year, Baker sold the house in Bovina to Douglass Davidson and was reported as going south for the winter. It appears that he never came back to the Catskills, for, with one exception, there are no references in the local newspapers to him in the area after 1916. The one exception was a reference in 1920, when a custody battle involving a daughter from his first marriage was reported.  The suit started in 1916, when the little girl, Ethel, chose to stay with her mother.  The mother committed suicide and the girl became her heiress, inheriting $30,000.  She had to choose between her father and a favorite aunt as her guardians. The result of this case and what ultimately happened to Ethel is unknown, but the fact that she is not cited in Baker’s obituary says that either she predeceased him or was totally out of his life (and he out of hers).

By 1920, Ward and Fina were living in Chicago. In 1923, the New York Variety reported from Chicago that “Ward Baker, violinist…has turned down all propositions for tours and announces he will become an evangelist.”

By the 1930s, Ward and Fina had settled in California where he became a “professor of music” and was active in the Masons. He died on August 31, 1951 when he was 71 years old. As later reported in the September 6, 1951, Porterville Evening Recorder, Baker had only recently returned from a trip to New York and Salt Lake City….[where] he studied the music of the Mormon Church.” He is buried in Porterville, Tulare County, California.

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