The wooden instrument lay unfinished for nearly a century, wrapped in yellowed newsprint. It made the journey from Chicago to Indiana, coming to rest in a Superior shop. Two weeks ago, local luthier Ron Koivisto gave the vintage harp guitar its voice.
"I couldn't believe how it sounds," said Mike Anderson of Elkhart, Ind., the owner of the instrument. Although he heard it on a video clip, Anderson said he can't wait to hear it in person. "It's so huge, it will have to go in my living room."
Joseph Bohmann, a Czechoslovakian native who immigrated to America, crafted the guitar harp. He founded Bohmann's American Musical Industry in Chicago in the late 1870s. He built instruments into the 1920s, earning a lengthy list of international awards for his pieces, which included violins, mandolins, guitars and zithers.
"He was a major manufacturer of his day," Anderson said, but he specialized in handcrafted instruments, not mass production like Gibson and Martin.
Many of Bohmann's pieces lay locked in a factory after his death and were sold in the 1960s to a pair of collectors. Anderson, owner of Anderson Guitars & Music in Elkhart, has been buying and bringing these vintage pieces back to the market over the last 10 years. When he unwrapped the guitar harp, which was missing strings and a bridge, he knew it was a special case.
"It's been sitting for five years waiting for the right person, like Ron, who wanted to do it right," Anderson said. "He's a very good luthier, willing to take the time to research and do it right."
The restoration project sent Koivisto on a series of internet investigations to deduce the right size and shape for the bridge, how to affix it, what gauge of strings to use, how to tune it and a dozen other puzzles. The complex instrument of Adirondack spruce, birds eye maple and mahogany has six guitar strings, a dozen harp strings and a set of six internal "sympathetic" rods. Koivisto, who has been restoring and repairing instruments for more than 35 years, enjoyed the challenge.
"I couldn't wait to get the strings on it," said the Hermantown native. One of the big "hoots" for him was hearing its voice.
"This is the first time in 113-plus years that, that has ever made sound. So that was kind of exciting for me," Koivisto said the Hermantown native. "I couldn't wait to get the strings on it." After approximately 113 years of waiting, he said, it finally made music.
Koivisto, who lives in Duluth, began playing guitar about 40 years ago. He bought his first instrument, a 1967 Fender Stratocaster, from Associated Music in Duluth. When it needed more strings, he brought it in. Owner Sam Janetta asked, "why, can't you do it yourself?" That started the young musician on the path to becoming an instrument "fixer."
Over the years, he has worked on a wide array of instruments, from vintage pieces worth tens of thousands of dollars to inexpensive guitars.
"There aren't a lot of guys like him who that can do everything," said Scott Johnson, owner of Northwoods Music in Superior. From finishes to full rebuilds and electronics, Koivisto has all the skills. "He's the whole deal."
Despite his years in the business, Koivisto said he's still learning, whether it's researching how to build a perfect bridge for a century-old instrument or picking up a customer's trick of using a safety pin to keep unstrung guitar strings in order. He plans to get local photographer Andy Perfetti to snap some shots of the Bohmann harp guitar before it heads home to Indiana. It was worth the wait to have it done right, said Anderson.