The Bad River name

The Bad River name comes from a region of northern Wisconsin that played a significant role in my family history. If you look for it today, you will likely find it associated with a Native American settlement and reservation. The Ojibwe indians, also known as the Lake Superior Chippewa (or Bad River Band), migrated to the area during the seventeenth century. They were the first to give the river its name – Mashkiziibi – which French explorers eventually mistranslated as “Bad” River.

But during the 1800s, the area became known more for its rapidly growing timber industry. Sawmills and lumber camps dotted the land, and waterways like Bad River became the backbone of numerous logging operations. These operations leased land from the Ojibwe tribe. As was a pattern in these times, the tribe was often cheated out of leasing fees from the timber companies, and the native lands were damaged from overuse.

 

By the mid twentieth century, my grandfather George Corrigan worked as a logging man in the area, eventually starting his own timber company. But he couldn’t help but notice the devastating impact that logging had on the land. In later years, George became one of the timber industry’s first conservationists, leading efforts to replace the trees that axes and saws had taken away. He wrote a book about what it was like back in the day — and the evolution of the logging industry “from horses to tractors and from crosscuts to chain saws.”

My dad grew up working for his father George in the woods and on the family farm. He has told me many stories of what that life was like. When I was just a kid, Dad would take me along to trim branches with him in the Corrigan pines. And in recent years he showed me a path through the woods – hidden to most – that leads to a large stand of maple that is still in the family name.

A few years back, Dad and I were salvaging the modest little building that grandpa George used to call his office. Back in the day, this shack was moved on skids to wherever George was working at the time (mostly in the woods). But more recently, it has settled in across the drive from our family’s summer cabin.

Over a long Wisconsin winters, the old chimney had given out, and nature was having her way with the rooms inside. As Dad worked to patch up the walls and ceiling, I cleaned up what was left of the office. I found some personal stationery in George’s old desk that bore his signature, and the mark of the Bad River Timber Company. I could hear Dad working outside and it made me smile, thinking of the three of us together at that moment, and the spirit of the great north woods that surrounded us.

My dad still uses the Bad River name for the timber property he owns – land that had once been part of my grandfather’s logging operations. Part of that land still yields maple timber. And that maple wood can still be found in banjos that bear the Bad River name.

A Schall tale

J.B. Schall started making banjos in the city of Chicago during the 1870s. Within a few short years, the Schall name became associated with some of the most celebrated banjos of the day. A skilled mechanic and experienced banjo player himself, J.B. Schall worked beside his five employees – ensuring the quality and craftsmanship of every instrument that came off the line.

A few years ago, I came across a vintage J.B. Schall banjo from the 1890s. It had a beautiful double-spun nickel rim, and the original skin head was intact. But the neck was cracked in two at the heel.

When I asked the seller if he knew anything about its history, he shared with me the story of his grandmother. This particular banjo had been given to her in years past by a young man who had wanted her hand in marriage. He presented this banjo to her just days before becoming a Klondiker – one of the many thousands of amateur prospectors who departed for Canada and the Yukon gold rush of 1896.

Out of an estimated 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada between 1896 and 1899, only between 30,000 and 40,000 managed to arrive. And only about 4,000 of those actually struck gold.

The man left Chicago in search of this faraway gold, but was never heard from again. Weeks and months turned into years, and this banjo endured – undoubtedly a bitter-sweet reminder of that lost love.

Struck by the story, I felt compelled to bring this broken old banjo back to life. I bought it immediately and took it into my shop. As I worked on reconstructing the neck, I observed many of the finer details of the banjo’s construction. In particular, the outline of the peghead caught my attention. It was a classic old-time shape – darkly decorative, with flourishing curves and points that only a banjo could own. I was so attracted to the shape that I adopted it as a model for my own banjos.

Progress was slow, as I was also working on other banjos at the time. But eventually, the remaking of old J.B. Schall was complete. And when I played the first few phrases of music on it, I thought of that young lady so many years ago.

A simple ebony tailpiece

This is a newly fashioned all-ebony tailpiece, built specifically for a smaller diameter banjo rim (around 9 inches or so). The silhouette mimics the shape of some very old ebony tailpieces. But the smooth profile and sloped bevels give it a uniquely modern aesthetic.

As with all of my wooden tailpiece constructions, it consists of two pieces of Ebony that are joined with grain in opposing (perpendicular) directions. This guards against warping, splitting or shearing of the wood under tension from the strings. This tailpiece attaches to a banjo rim with a standard tailpiece post.

Rim Logic

Old-time banjos were simple and straightforward when it came to wood. For the most part, there were just four species from which almost all of them were made – Maple, Cherry, Walnut and Mahogany. They all have their own aesthetic. And they all have their own sound.

Maple has always been hailed as the clearest and brightest of the bunch, producing a bell-like tone with quick response. Cherry has a density and reflectivity approaching that of Maple, but with a midrange that is more rich and complex. Walnut falls somewhere between the extremes of Maple (bright) and Mahogany (warm), with a sound that is earthier and darker than Cherry. And Mahogany rounds out the group, producing the warmest tone paired with a slower, gentler response.

Each of these tonewoods has its own distinct personality. Banjos made from these woods – and the music they play – tend to adopt these same traits.

But what if we were to borrow the best quality of one of these woods and add it to another? What if we crafted a banjo rim that enjoyed the responsiveness of Maple, for example, with the added warmth, character and finish of another wood?

The standard Bad River rim has a core of rock hard maple. Its density provides a tonal foundation for whatever wood surrounds it – or so the theory goes.

That’s the theory behind every Bad River banjo rim. Each is built from the inside out in three sections. The inner and outer walls each consist of a 1/8″ steam-bent ply of premium tonewood, with a 1/4″ ply of rock hard Maple in between. Capped at the bottom edge with matched or contrasted wood, the resulting rim carries the finish and tonal character of a classic banjo tonewood (Cherry, Walnut, Mahogany) with the added density and response of Maple at the core.