Lifestyle & Human Interest

Grandfather Battling Cancer Embarks on 10-Year Journey To Make Violins for His Grandchildren


One of Gene Van Alstine’s most prized possessions is a violin that once belonged to his grandfather. His grandfather had only begun to teach him before unexpectedly passing away.

Now, as a grandfather himself, Van Alstine wanted to give each of his ten grandchildren something similar. The only problem was that he only had one violin to pass down which would be impossible to fairly split between them so, he learned the craft of building violins so they could each have their very own.

When Van Alstine was only six years old, his grandfather, Charlie Johnson, purchased a violin for him at a garage sale, hoping to pass down his musical knowledge.

Grandpa Charlie would play his own violin with his siblings at the town meeting hall in Opstead, Minnesota; others from the community would come to square dance.

“They’d have a jam session every night,” Van Alstine told the Isanti-Chisago County Star. “I’m not sure if the cows got milked, but I guarantee those fiddles got played.”

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Van Alstine fondly remembers sitting in his grandfather’s lap while he played “Turkey in the Straw.”

So once Van Alstine was old enough, Grandpa Charlie purchased a violin for him and began lessons, but there was one strict rule: Van Alstine wasn’t to touch the violin unless his grandfather was home.

Eager to master “Turkey in the Straw” like his grandpa, he broke the rule one day while Grandpa Charlie went to the doctor for his cancer.

Young Van Alstine quickly grew frustrated when he realized that the sounds coming from the wooden instrument didn’t translate to the jig he was attempting to play.

“I got so mad that I jammed the bow into the E string and cut off just about half the hairs on the bow, broke the bridge,” he said. “Then I didn’t know what to do.

“I got my jackknife out and cut off those hairs so they were only about an inch long,” he added.

Immediately sensing the amount of trouble he would be in once his grandfather came home and realized what he had done to his violin, Van Alstine placed the now mangled violin back into the case.

But his grandfather would never return home.

After the seemingly harmless doctor visit, Grandpa Charlie was admitted to the hospital where he died a few weeks later.

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For five decades, Van Alstine never touched his violin due to getting married, starting a family and running his own business.

But one day his mother called and asked him to pick up his grandfather’s violin as well as the violin his grandfather purchased for him. When he took out his old violin, it was still in the same mangled state he had left it 50 years prior.

He had both violins restored so that he could finish learning what his grandfather had started to teach him years ago and did so quickly.

A little over a year after he started taking lessons, he rented the old dance hall so he could stand in the same place Grandpa Charlie once did and play “Turkey in the Straw.”

A few other musicians helped Van Alstine bring his family’s musical history back to life and had so much fun doing so that they formed a band together, the Mystery Mountain Boys.

As Van Alstine reflected on how everything had come together, he realized just how much his grandfather’s fiddle means to him.

“I’ve got a lot of stuff in this world,” he told KARE. “But nothing that means more to me than that fiddle. Every time I pick it up, I think of my grandpa and how much he meant to me.”

He wanted to keep the musical legacy of his family alive and pass on his violin to one of his grandchildren, but he couldn’t decide which of the ten to give it to.

“I have 10 grandkids and only one fiddle,” he told the Isanti-Chisago County Star. “How am I going to deal with that? I’ve always wanted to make a fiddle anyway. I thought, ‘I’ll just make them fiddles.’”

So he embarked on a ten-year-long journey of researching and eventually building violins so he could give each grandchild their own.

For the first four or five years, he studied methods from famous luthiers like Stradivarius, but when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2016 he felt pressure to speed up the process.

On Easter 2019, all ten violins were finally finished and the grandchildren were presented with their incredible gifts.

“I think we’re so lucky to have somebody that loves us so much that they gave us that special of a gift,” Van Alstine’s 19-year-old granddaughter told KARE. “He doesn’t even necessarily need us to play them, he just wanted us to have this special thing from him.”

Van Alstine is just glad that his grandchildren have a special gift that will remind them of him.

“You know you can go and buy a fiddle that’s probably as good or better than I’ve made, but all that was, was money,” he said. “This was made with love.”

“I want to leave them something that’s special, just like my grandpa did me.”

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Kayla has been a staff writer for The Western Journal since 2018.
Kayla Kunkel began writing for The Western Journal in 2018.
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