- Historic Sites
The Square Dancing Master
Henry Ford bought a $75,000 Stradivarius, learned to play “Turkey in the Straw,” and tried to teach all those Model T riders how to do-si-do like Grandpa
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
The seventy-two-year-old Dunham came to Ford’s attention when he won a statewide fiddling contest in Lewiston, Maine, in the fall of 1925. The manufacturer immediately invited Dunham to play at one of his Dearborn dancing parties. Dunham, busily making snowshoes, ignored the letter for several days, thinking it was another order for his handiwork. He was much in demand, having made the snowshoes that Peary’s men had worn on their trip to the North Pole in 1909. After opening the missive, Mellie replied that he could not get away for a while because he had to split kindling and patch the barn roof in addition to his regular work at the cobbler’s bench.
The Norway Advertiser learned of the invitation and published the exchange of letters; the following day “every press association, every newspaper in the country thereupon shouted the news that Ford had a new favorite.” Governor Ralph O. Brewster of Maine dispatched a representative to Norway, and Mellie was prevailed upon to accept Ford’s invitation.
Dunham left Norway amid the biggest celebration in the town’s history. Stores and schools were closed and the citizenry paraded behind Mellie, a brass band, and a police escort to the railroad station, where the Governor and his staff conducted farewell festivities. During the train trip through Maine, New Hampshire, Quebec, and Ontario, the fiddler was hailed at every whistle stop, and the press contingent accompanying him kept the news wires humming.
On December 11, 1925, Dunham played “Pop! Goes The Weasel,” “Weevily Wheat,” “Speed the Plough,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Old Zip Coon,” and other melodies at Ford’s dancing party. The event, attended by a large number of reporters and photographers from Detroit, New York, and Boston, probably was the best-publicized dance in the nation’s history. While in Dearborn, Dunham, using Ford’s Stradivarius, gave “the most extraordinary recital in the history of music in America.”
The fiddler then entrained for New York, where, after remarking, “I came to make some money and I make no bones about it, since me and Ma have had honor enough,” he signed a $5oo-a-week contract with the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. Dunham fiddled throughout the United States and Canada for seventeen months, at times receiving as much as $1,500 a week for his services.
In the meantime, dozens of fiddlers throughout the country, including John J. Wilder, President Coolidge’s eighty-year-old uncle, came forward to claim they “didn’t figure Mellie Dunham was so much of a fiddler,” and to challenge him (and Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, Bisbee, et al .) to a playdown. Many of the challengers, including Coolidge’s uncle, went into vaudeville, as the nation was swept by a fiddling craze. Contests were held in hundreds of communities throughout the country, and Ford offered a loving cup to many of the winners.
Sheet music and songbooks featuring old-time tunes became best sellers in music shops, and stores handling violins and old-fashioned guitars reported a boom in sales. Horseshoe pitching, wood chopping, marble shooting, and other contests that smacked of the “good old days” sprang up on every side. Ford, as he contemplated what he and his fiddlers had wrought, had every reason to be pleased.
After the spring of 1926, however, the fiddling and the old-fashioneddancing crazes lost their popularity. Ford, however, was not deterred and continued to hold terpsichorean parties in Dearborn until the early 1940’s.
Ruth St. Denis, the great interpreter of Oriental dance forms, was invited to one of Ford’s square dances, the flivver king thinking that it would be a treat for her. She attended, but, unable to bring herself to participate in the “remarkable performance,” could only sit and sigh, “How awful! How awful!” As for prancing Henry, his form and grace, it was reported, were never better than on that particular night.