May 4—TIFTON — When the Martin Guitar Co. shipped out five new harp mandolins on Oct. 21, 1899, there was no way to know that 122 years later one of those instruments would have a connection to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
"It's an incredible story," Polly Huff, curator at ABAC's Georgia Museum of Agriculture, said. "When I first saw it, I knew we had something special on our hands."
When long-time ABAC Professor of Art Donna Hatcher passed away on Aug. 9, 2020, she left a key to a safety deposit box. When Hatcher's parents found the mandolin in the safety deposit box, they brought it to ABAC to be examined by Matthew Anderson, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and Susan Roe, the college's Fine Arts Department head.
Anderson and Roe immediately called on the curatorial expertise of Huff.
"I wanted to provide Donna's parents with as much information about the artifact as possible, in order for them to be able to make the right decision about where it should go," Huff said. "I was also interested in studying the artifact since it was from the period of history that we cover at the museum.
"Above all, it was a rare artifact with a seemingly lost story, which is the type of item that is at the top of my research interest list."
Hatcher's parents said they believe their daughter purchased the mandolin for $200 in late 1996 or early 1997 from Millport Landing, an antique store in Millport, New York.
With some assistance from her ABAC research intern, Lyndsey Pryor, Huff followed a long trail of evidence to find that the instrument was one of five Style 18, Ebony guard mandolins sold on Oct. 21, 1899, by C.F. Martin of Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
Huff said it appears the mandolin is the only one of the five that survives. The mandolins were originally priced at $13.50 each. Founded in 1833 and still in full operation today, the Martin Guitar Company made 22 of the instruments between 1895 and 1899.
The patent for this mandolin was drawn by C.H. Gaskins of Shamokin, Pennsylvania. The features of the Hatcher mandolin are more along the lines of Style 18 Martin guitars, and it has an ebony guard. Martin mandolins usually had their own style, so it is interesting that the company referenced guitar styles for some of the Gaskins' mandolins.
As a part of her research, Huff contacted a well-known New York state folk musician, Jess Youngquest, who has appeared on YouTube playing his own Gaskins/Martin harp mandolin. He owns the single mandolin made in the Oct. 12, 1899 batch, the one with Ivory guard and bound, probably the most unique of the bunch.
Youngquest said he purchased the harp mandolin he calls "Fred" in the little town of Brewster, New York, back in the '70s, for $75 in an old antiques/junk shop. He had just broken his mandolin and was looking for a replacement.
Youngquest has the original wooden case as well, now held shut by a bungee cord. Inside the instrument there are three markings: "W.L. Scott, Xmas 1899 Williamsport, PA; "Made for CH Gaskins of Shamokin, PA; and "CF Martin, Nazareth, PA."
Huff said her research led her to believe that at least three other harp mandolins survive from the 1895-1899 original batch of 22 besides the Hatcher mandolin and the Youngquest instrument.
Huff collaborated on the project with the Martin Museum in Pennsylvania, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Musical Instruments Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, the Millner Harp Guitars Museum in Pennsylvania, and the Sigel Music Museum in Greenville, South Carolina.
"Throughout the process of researching the instrument, I was reminded of my friend Donna's eye for the unique and different," Huff said.
"I quickly understood why she had purchased and preserved this rare piece of history."
Huff said the Hatchers are now in the process of finding the appropriate home for the rare mandolin, which undoubtedly has traveled thousands of miles and played many a tune during its 122 years of existence.