On Saturday mornings, members of the Schwarzer Zither Ensemble meet inside the Washington Historical Society Museum at Fourth and Market streets for practice.
There, surrounded by artifacts and photos of the town’s past, members say they feel an undeniable connection to history as they play instruments that were created some 100 years ago by one of Washington’s most famous businessmen — Franz Schwarzer.
“A lot of these strings are original,” Wynn Scheer, one of the ensemble members, noted during a break in their practice.
If you’ve never been to the Washington Historical Society Museum, you may never have heard of a zither or Franz Schwarzer, but the two are known around the world.
Schwarzer became a world-famous zither maker after he opened a factory in Washington in the late 1800s. And in 1912, the first of its kind Zither Verband (a gathering of zither players from around the world) was held here.
Now more than 100 years later, zither enthusiasts will be returning to Washington for the North American Zither Gathering April 26-29.
The four-day event will include several workshops and it will conclude with a concert Sunday, April 29, from 2 to 3 p.m. in the C.J. Burger Fine Arts Center at Washington High School.
Zitherists from nine states have already registered to attend the workshops, but the concert is open to the public.
See sidebar for more information on the concert.
Schwarzer Won Gold Medal for Zithers at Vienna Exposition
The zither was like the guitar of the 1800s, said Walt Larson of the Washington Historical Society and author of a new book, “Franz Schwarzer, ‘The King of Zither Manufacturers.’ ” The instrument was popular with Germans and other European people, and many of them brought zithers along when they immigrated here in mid-1800s.
“People would have a party at their house and they would bring a zither along to play music,” said Larson.
Schwarzer was a German immigrant who came to Washington in the late 1860s and set up shop as a cabinetmaker, said Larson, noting Schwarzer made one of the early altars for St. Francis Borgia Church.
When Schwarzer arrived in Washington, the town had become known for its corn cob pipe industry, which was booming, and the Busch brewery. He would later add to the town’s success with his zither craftsmanship.
Schwarzer, who had played a zither when he lived in Germany, learned how to make the instrument and began selling them out of his cabinet shop. As he made more and more, he became rather proficient in them.
“He took three to Vienna, Austria, for the Vienna Exposition in 1873, and won the gold medal,” beating out more than 30 zither manufacturers from across Europe, said Larson.
That earned him a reputation, and as a result, he began making zithers full time.
Back in Washington, Schwarzer built a zither factory a block or so away from his home along the train tracks between Walnut and Locust streets. The original house was a modest two rooms, but as he began to make more money, he added on and even built a second story.
In the block between his home and the factory, Schwarzer built what was known as Schwarzer Park, a zoo-like attraction that included exotic animals (a pet alligator), plants (banana trees that were stored in a greenhouse in the fall and winter) and fountains.
Schwarzer was a very socially conscious man, and so Schwarzer Park was open to the public, said Larson.
Workers Called Him Papa
A photo from the late 1890s shows Schwarzer leaning on a tree outside of his factory with a dozen or so of his factory workers.
“His workers were interesting because once they started working for him, they never left,” said Larson.
Schwarzer would start them out with simple jobs and mold them into craftsmen.
Albert Hesse was the last employee at the factory, said Larson. He had started when he was 14 as an errand boy. By the time the factory closed 60 years later, Hesse had become proficient enough that he was making zithers.
Both Franz and his wife, Josephine, were known for treating their factory workers like family, said Larson. Josephine routinely made birthday cakes for each of them, and they referred to Franz as “Papa.”
It was a small, close-knit crew of around 18 to 20 men, at most, said Larson.
Like all instruments, the zither came in a variety of styles and with a wide range of prices.
“Some zithers took up to a year to make,” said Larson. “Some were so highly decorated, with inlaid mother of pearl and such, that it would take a long time because they could only do so much without getting eye strain or they would have to let the wood dry.”
Back in the day, basic Schwarzer zither sold for between $20 and $30. Fancier ones sold hundreds of dollars, and some even reached into the $1,000 range, said Larson.
First Zither Verband
Schwarzer died in 1904, and up to then, there had not been any formal zither gatherings in the United States, said Larson.
In 1911, several men, including one from Washington, began talking about starting a nationwide zither organization that would allow musicians to share information about the instruments construction and the music.
That idea snowballed into plans to organize the first ever zither gathering in Washington, said Larson. It was held at the Turners’ Hall.
The event, which drew people from 10 states, included several days of music and concerts. Admission was 25 cents.
The Zither Verband, as it was called, was the lead story on the front page of The Washington Citizen newspaper, said Larson. In fact, there were nine articles inside the paper about the event.
In 1912, the only way people could get to Washington was by train or one of the early cars, Larson pointed out.
“There was no bridge to come across the river. They would have had to come across by ferryboat,” he said.
Josephine Schwarzer was still alive in 1912, and the concert organizers treated her wonderfully, said Larson, although she died a few months later.
The goal was to hold a nationwide zither gathering and concert every year after, and for a few years, they were.
In 1913, a zither concert was held in Davenport, Iowa, and in 1914, one was held in Cleveland, Ohio. When World War I broke out, the zither gatherings were stopped, said Larson.
A fourth gathering was held in Washington, but after that, interest began to fall.
The Schwarzers didn’t have any children, but they had taken in a couple of the children of some friends and raised them as their own, said Larson. The zither factory was passed on to them, and they were able to keep it going for awhile, but by the 1940s, interest had really tapered off, and by the 1950s, the old factory was torn down.
Schwarzer Zither Ensemble
Last year, a zither enthusiast in Illinois, Rich Krueger, reached out to the Washington Historical Society about trying to get a zither ensemble group started here. A news story in The Missourian seeking people who were interested in playing yielded about 20 responses, said Larson
And at the first meeting, 11 people showed up.
Currently, the ensemble has about eight to nine zither players (all women), ranging in age from a junior in high school to an older lady in her 80s. They live in Washington, Union, Eureka and Marthasville.
The ensemble has performed at the Washington Historical Society Christmas dinner and at the museum’s open house earlier this year.
Their initial instructor was Anne Prinz, with the Davenport Zither Ensemble. She and Krueger would drive to Washington on Saturday mornings to teach the ensemble members.
They didn’t charge any fee for the lessons, said Larson, and Krueger loaned the group enough zithers so that everyone could have her own.
(The Washington Historical Society Museum does have a nice collection of zithers, but most are too special to play or are not playable, Larson noted.)
Prinz and Krueger no longer come to lead the ensemble practices each week. The group have become proficient enough that they can practice on their own, although they communicate with Prinz often.
None of the ensemble members had ever played the zither before beginning lessons last year, although some had previous experience playing other instruments. Others had no musical experience at all.
The group will perform along with zitherists from around the country as part of the zither gathering concert Sunday, April 29. Special guest will be master zitherist Tommy Temerson, from Germany.
Laurie Riekhof, like all of the ensemble members, said she is really looking forward to that experience.
“I just want to hear a big group playing together, to hear what it sounds like and also to hear the master zither player,” said Riekhof, a retired music teacher.
Along with their interest in music, the ensemble members are history lovers too. They are a little in awe of Schwarzer zithers at their fingertips and all of the history behind them.
Jolene Patterson has a collection of eight or more Schwarzer zithers. She has loaned them to other ensemble members who needed one to get started.
Learning to play the zither is challenging, the ladies agree, even for someone like Marybelle Buescher who has been an organist and keyboard player.
“This is entirely different for me,” she said.
Playing the zither requires a different way of thinking, they said. And it can be a little awkward physically getting used to the necessary position.
The zither is designed to sit on a table in front of the player. It cannot be held in a lap.
The left hand pushes down on one set of strings, while the thumb of the right hand is picking the proper string.
It’s similar to a guitar, but it’s harder, said Madelyn Aholt, a student at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School and the youngest member of the ensemble.
“You have to press harder than you do on a guitar,” said Aholt, who also plays clarinet, guitar, piano and ukelele.
New Beginning Zither Class to Start Soon
The Schwarzer Zither Ensemble is always looking for new members, and a new beginner class will start soon.
For more information on that, people should contact the Washington Historical Society Museum at 636-239-0280 and ask for Larson or Marc Houseman.
Current members of the ensemble are still practicing Book One, and after the gathering they plan to go back through it again.
All of the ensemble members said they are more than happy to help share what they have learned with others just getting started.
They also have zithers available to loan to new players getting started.