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Myersville man picks banjos for a career

December 04, 1996

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer, Waynesboro

MYERSVILLE, Md. - Five years ago, banjos were far from George Wunderlich's mind as he toiled as an insurance salesman and a part-time police officer. Unhappy with his jobs, he sought something closer to his passion for history.

Wunderlich started going to schools to lecture about history part-time, and in 1992, Wunderlich built his first Civil War-style banjo. "My first banjo was so crude, I tell people I wouldn't use it for a canoe paddle," he said. "I keep it around just to see how far I've come."

The next year, he started making more banjos and taking them with him to Civil War re-enactments. "People would see me walking around and their next question would be where and how much."

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Pretty soon, the Wunder Banjo Co. was born and the insurance job went into the circular file.

Wunderlich, 33, moved to Myersville from St. Louis in July and can make 30 to 40 banjos a year, in addition to his speaking engagements through his lecture company, The History Center.

Wunderlich, whose appetite for history was whetted by trips with his parents built around historical themes, first became enamored with Civil War banjos when he heard a tape recording of Civil War banjo music, which was unlike anything he had heard before.

He began to do research on Civil War banjos, and developed an insatiable appetite for information on how banjos were built and what songs were played in the mid-1800s.

"You never know what you're going to find," he said.

Because there were no handbooks on how to make the banjos, he made arrangements with the Smithsonian and other museums and private collectors to examine and photograph original banjos up close in order to figure out how they were made. He also found records of men who made musical instruments, including banjos, and found out what tools they had to work with.

Instead of taking shortcuts, Wunderlich uses only tools that were available during the time period, including several he made himself.

Unlike modern banjos, which rely on steel strings and a steel-reinforced drum to produce volume, Civil War-era banjos are much lighter weight and used gut strings made out of intestines and produce a deeper, quieter sound. Also the banjos didn't have frets. "You have to get used to that," he said.

Wunderlich also makes his own varnishes from items like ammonia and tobacco juice, and historically accurate glues and abrasives.

"I'm in the world's lowest-stress job," he said. "In the insurance business, everybody wants everything done yesterday. People are much more respectful of my profession. People identify that you have a skill and a craft that is not readily available."

An added benefit is that Wunderlich can see his four children all day, and keep tabs on them with an intercom from his backyard shop. "We never need day care, and the kids get to see dad doing his job."

Wunderlich decided to move to the area because he found himself driving from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., Gettysburg and New York several times a year for his research, and his wife Irene has family in Washington.

Wunderlich's handiwork has seen action in some Hollywood productions, including an upcoming HBO movie about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments called "Ms. Evers' Boys," he said.

Others could be used in a cable production of "Rough Riders" and a new version of Zorro.

Wunderlich sells his banjos for $400 to $1,200 mostly through Civil War periodicals, and said he plans on staying in the business in one shape or another for life.

"If somebody had told me five years ago I'd be doing this sort of thing I'd have told them they were nuts."

  • Wunderlich can be reached at 1-301-293-1642.
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