- Associated Press - Friday, June 20, 2014

PEKIN, Ill. (AP) - Phillip Belcher has been working wood since he was a “little bitty kid,” starting with orange crates the produce man would put aside for him.

Belcher built his sister’s first dresser using old produce crates.

But for the past 15 years Belcher has been making something unique to him - taking old wood from demolished buildings and making beautiful music from the destruction of man. He started about one year before he retired in 2000. He was an electrician and laughs when he says, “I still work with wire.”

While Belcher has numerous stringed instruments in his home, but two of the most recent were built from old wood from Pekin buildings now gone forever - the former Pekin Daily Times building at 20 S. Fourth St., and the former Pekin Community High School West campus. The demolition crews were kind enough to give the wood to Belcher for his craft.

The instrument hobby started when he cut off his finger.

“The year I was home healing up from that my son-in-law gave me some woodworking magazines and it had a picture of a little ole’ dulcimer in it,” said Belcher. “I built it.

“I found out they had a festival in Morris, Ill. I went up there and talked to some of the builders and they told me this there is only one measurement on the whole instrument that is critical -a treble bridge. The bridge on the left is a treble bridge and where that is located is the only measurement that is critical because you tune both sides of it and if you don’t have it exactly right it will never tune up. The base bridge can go anywhere you want it to because you only tune one side of it.”

Belcher grew up singing in choirs and plays the harmonica. He is self taught on the dulcimers, psaltery and harps he builds. His older sister played the piano and put herself through college giving lessons.

“There were nine of us kids and music was kind of our entertainment at home,” said Belcher. “My sister played the piano and we all sang.”

Belcher now travels to music festivals and performs. He also plays every Christmas at Luthy Botanical Garden in Peoria.

Belcher gives some of the instruments he makes to area children to give them something to do and keep them out of trouble.

“If you see a young kid who thinks he would use one and you keep him off the streets and out of trouble it’s better to give it to him than let him get in trouble,” said Belcher. “I only sell them occasionally when I need materials to make new ones.

“I get the material anywhere I can get it.”

The instrument crafted from the wood at the Pekin Daily Times is called a bowed psaltery. The strings for a bowed psaltery are standard guitar strings. He said he made “a bunch of them” from wood from the Times building and from Pekin West Campus. The West Campus instruments are branded “Pekin Chinks” using the original branding iron from the high school. The branding iron was given to the Class of 1959, of which Belcher was a part. Anytime the school purchased something new to do with sports at the high school the shop teachers had to go around over the summer and brand the Pekin Chinks on it. Drafting Teacher Jim Cadigan took care of the branding iron after the name of the Pekin Chinks was changed to the Pekin Dragons, said Belcher. One of the West Campus instruments will be used as a fundraiser for the Class of 1959 reunion in September.

Belcher also made some instruments from wood from an old granary demolished in Tremont last year.

The instruments have all of the notes that a piano does. The psaltery is the predecessor of the violin, said Belcher.

Each instrument sounds different because of the wood is it made from. Some are more mellow and have a softer tone, said Belcher. It takes approximately two weeks to complete one of the instruments.

Belcher played the haunting song, “Londonderry Air,” better known as “Danny Boy,” for members of the Times staff on the bowed psaltery made from the Times building. Equally beautiful was his rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the one crafted from West Campus.

The psaltery takes a bow. The only part of it not crafted from the Times building is the tuning tool. The wood was lying in the street after one of the buildings was demolished. Even the case is made from wood from the Times buildings. “I don’t know what all of these nails were for,” said Belcher. “I pulled all of the nails out and put a little wood filler in it.” The wood from the Times building used for the dulcimer was mostly yellow pine.

The dulcimers have maple leaf sound chambers. Belcher found a small maple leaf and used it for a template for the resonating chamber hole on the instrument.

Belcher said he has had many offers to buy one of the dulcimers he made, but he has refused to sell it because it developed a crack. But, he said, it has the best sound and best volume of all that he has made.

Belcher did not know the origin of the name, but the hammered dulcimer and the bowed psaltery have been traced back to 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, he said. There are several kinds of dulcimers - the hammered, the mountain dulcimer originating in Appalachia, and others.

“It’s a very primitive instrument that the people of Appalachia played,” said Belcher.


Source: Pekin Daily Times, https://bit.ly/1m3spgr


Information from: Pekin Daily Times, https://www.pekintimes.com



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