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In Memoriam: Victor Gardener

In Memoriam: Victor Gardener

April 1, 1909 – April 7, 2006

by Chris Dungey

Originally published in American Lutherie #92, 2007

Victor Gardener, a fellow violin maker, tree cutter, and friend, passed away last year, April 7th, 2006. He was a giant person in so many ways. I have struggled now for a year to write this letter, in honor of a man that had a tremendous impact on numerous violin makers, players, teachers, and most of all, his most gifted apprentice, Michael Kline. In fact, to honor Victor Gardener, Michael has established a very successful violin making program in southern Oregon called the Giardinari Violin Making Program.

Victor did not want a memorial service when he passed away. This did not surprise me. He was always the first to refuse any thanks for all he had done for others over the years. I always remember Victor talking about wanting to take violin lessons when he was a boy. But his family was so poor, they could not afford to buy him an instrument or lessons. He made his first violin in his lap with a few tools from Sears Roebuck Co., and went on to make 405 violins, violas, and cellos. Among his completed instruments are 108 cellos. He was never able to fulfill his dream of becoming a violin player. Instead, when he became a violin maker he made a point of practically giving away his instruments so the student or family would have the opportunity of playing and enjoying the violin in a way that he never was able to.

Photo courtesy of Michael Kline.

Growing up in the mountains of southern Oregon, almost all his spruce, maple, willow, and mountain mahogany was from trees he found, cut, hauled, milled, and air-dried himself. His ebony he bought in lumber form. He made everything for his instruments, including the purfling, fingerboards, pegs, end pins, tail pieces, and chin rests. I have never known a violin maker or read of a maker anywhere who was so prolific and worked from the tree to the finished product.

Giardinieri’s talent was discovered by Hans Weisshaar, a notable master maker and restorer. A fire broke out in the University of Oregon and the instruments were taken from the Music Deptartment and laid on the lawn until the all-clear was sounded. During this time, as Weisshaar waited outside with everyone else, he spotted a viola. He was impressed by the bold artistic carving but did not recognize the name, Victor Gardener. Weisshaar took some time and located Gardener in the mountains of southern Oregon and for the next several years he would invite him to come and visit his shop and home in California and there he would teach him. Weisshaar had worked with Simone Sacconi for Wurlitzer in New York. It was finally Weisshaar and Sacconi who talked Gardener into using his Italian name, Vittore E. Giardinieri.

Weisshaar and Giardinieri became good friends and corresponded for many years about violin making and the art of carving. Giardinieri would not forget the help that Weisshaar gave him. Victor would return that help by getting ten apprentices started, many of them becoming award-winning makers and enjoying successful careers.

Victor was born July 1, 1909, in Lake Creek, Oregon, the youngest of six children of Rafaele Diodatto Francesco Gardener and his wife, Luisa Maria D’Francesco Gardener, immigrants from Cavalese and Bolzano, then in Austria and now in Italy.

Victor was a logger, dairy farmer, and rancher; he was a designer and builder of earthen dams and irrigation systems; and eventually he became a violin maker. He married Harriet Short in 1936 and lived in Jackson County throughout his life.

I first met Victor when I was a first-year student at the Newark School of Violin Making in England. Since I had grown up in the southern Oregon area, I had known of Victor for a number of years prior to starting my violin making career. I had heard stories of this man who lived in the hills outside of Medford, Oregon (where I had grown up as a youth), who had piles of wood. Maybe I would get lucky and he would agree to sell me some of his wood! As a first year student, I was on the hunt for obtaining piles of my own wood for future instrument making.

At that meeting Victor was very open and friendly, but, “No, I don’t sell my wood” was his reply when I asked to purchase some. “But,” he said, “if you would like to go cut a tree, I would be happy to show you how.” I jumped at the chance!

Little did I know how involved the whole operation was to become. He did show me how to find a tree, and helped with obtaining the proper permits to cut the tree. At which point he said, “Have fun cutting!” Yikes, I was on my own to figure out how I was going to cut, chop, peel, move, wax, stack, and transport this material back into town for storage. With the help of numerous friends and family (several of whom were loggers at the time) the project did come to pass. The next year I came back to visit Victor again and asked if we could go get another tree. He agreed, and from that day forward he was an active participant in what was later to become ten or fifteen various wood cutting-trips that we collaborated on together. That first tree, as I found out later, was his way of testing how serious I was in wanting to obtain my own violin making wood for future years of supply. I guess I passed the test by returning year after year for more!

It was on one of those last trips that Michael Kline and I had the chance to cut one of the last couple of spruce trees that Victor was to be involved with. The areas that Victor knew contained high quality wood have since become off limits to cutting.

Victor had a memory that was amazing! Several times when I would go to visit him and talk about those wood expeditions, he would be able to name every person that was on that trip. He wanted to know what they were doing now, where they lived, and so on. I struggled to even remember the trip itself.

I could easily write a short book about all of the wonderful times I was able to spend with Victor and his wife Harriet. Unfortunately time and space will not permit me to do so. But I would like to acknowledge that without Victor’s help, guidance, tutoring, generosity, and openness (and Harriet’s fantastic pies), I would not have had the good fortune to be where I am today in my career as a cello maker. I keep a picture of Victor near my workbench today, in honor of a gentle giant that I shall never forget. My only wish was that I could have written this article sooner rather than later in remembrance of a dear friend and a man who was like a father to me.

(I would like to thank Michael Kline for his generous contribution and help with this article.)


I would like to include a partial list of all the violin makers that Victor shared his tree cutting help with in the past. List of Makers involved with Tree Cutting with Victor (As memory serves me, 7/2006)

Weisshaar shop employees-prior to 1976. Not sure who they were.
Carla Shapreau
Michael Weisshaar
David Burgess
Mark Norfleet
Kevin Smith
Andrea Mages (not sure of spelling)
Jonathan Woolston (Lydia at the time was wife)
Gavin Macalister
Gerry Pare
Michael Kline
Howard Sands
Anne Cole
Robert Cauer
Roland Feller
Chris Dungey
Nancy Rohn
Paul Stevens
Pam Anderson
Michael Fischer
Paul Wiessmeyer
David Van Zandt
Steve Banchero
Tim Bergen
Janet Toon
Bill Scott
Stephanie Horton?