Prairie Dulcimer Club has played a very significant role in the preservation, promotion, and advancement of dulcimer music in the Midwest region. It is the third dulcimer club founded in the U.S. . . . a mark of distinction establishing it as an important part of the revival of the dulcimer in America.
From 1900 to 1960, the hammered dulcimer and it’s music was a dying art. There were three pockets in the country where it was being kept alive: Michigan, West Virginia, and Western Kansas. In West Virginia in 1971, Russell Flaharty organized the Mountain Dulcimer Club.
In Western Kansas (general area of Hays and Ellis County), the Russian-German people were keeping the dulcimer alive within their ethnic group.
In September 1963, Elgia C. Hickok founded the ORIGINAL DULCIMER PLAYER’S CLUB in Michigan. It was the first dulcimer club in America. Through this club, many people were introduced to the captivating sound of the dulcimer. It was founded for the purpose of encouraging, preserving, and promotion of the hammered dulcimer. The mountain dulcimer was totally unknown in Michigan and surrounding states at that time.
Before he founded the ORIGINAL DULCIMER PLAYER’S CLUB in Michigan, he spent three years in travel and research during which he located sixteen players from throughout the state to attend the first club meeting.
The outstanding role of Elgia C. Hickok in the revival of dulcimers in America is documented in the Smithsonian publication, The Hammered Dulcimer in America, by Nancy Groce, published in 1983.
In 1964, Hickok was invited to perform at the Newport, Rhode Island Folk Festival. The success of Hickok’s dulcimer music at that festival sent many people home to scour the antique stores in their area for a dulcimer. Soon the antique market was all but dried up. Some of the older builders in the ORIGINAL DULCIMER PLAYER’S CLUB began to build again. Younger college age men also attended the meetings and concerts of the club and began to learn from the older generation to build and to play. And so, the dulcimer revival began and continues today.
In 1972, a change of work location brought the James Gillett family to Kansas. Mrs. Gillett (Lilah, daughter of Elgia C. Hickok) missed the ORIGINAL DULCIMER PLAYER’S CLUB in Michigan . . . the music and camaraderie of the group. The sentiment was shared by the Gillett family. In August 1975, son Don suggested placing an ad in the Overland Park Sun Newspaper, in hopes of sparking some dulcimer activity. Through this ad, contact was made with Harvey Prinz, hammered dulcimer builder/enthusiast. Out of this meeting, tune swapping began, along with the dream of starting a dulcimer club in the Kansas City area.
Prarie Dulcimer Club was founded by Lilah Hickok Gillett and Harvey L. Prinz. The organizational meeting was held March 27, 1977 with about 45 people attending. It was established as a Chapter of the ORIGINAL DULCIMER PLAYER’S CLUB to carry on the traditions and purposes already firmly established in Michigan, with the same goals of encouraging, preserving, and promoting dulcimer music.
To lend expertise and moral support to the Prairie Dulcimer Club, the president of the ORIGINAL DULCIMER PLAYER’S CLUB and his wife came (at their own expense) for the first festival.
They did multiple performances and in that role were the first guest artists of the Prairie Dulcimer Club. The club’s first festival was held at Missouri Town near Lake Jacomo, Missouri in June 1978.
Mountain dulcimers were unknown in the Michigan area until 1973, when at the first Dulcimer Fun Fest sponsored by the ORIGINAL DULCIMER PLAYER’S CLUB, a lady from West Virginia attended and played her mountain dulcimer. Now there are many mountain dulcimer players and builders in the Michigan area. Conversely, hammered dulcimers were generally unknown in the Midwest when Prairie Dulcimer Club was founded in 1977. At the first club meeting there were three hammered dulcimers and about thirty-five mountain dulcimers.
The Prairie Dulcimer Club has grown in numbers and prestige. To the degree that the differences in the instruments allow, we have encouraged mutual participation in public appearances and club jam sessions. We are proud of our growth and accomplishments and our ties to the ORIGINAL DUCLIMER PLAYER’S CLUB . . . the first, oldest, and largest dulcimer club in America, with over 400 club members and attendance at their annual Fun Fest consistently around 12,000.
The ORIGINAL DULCIMER PLAYER’S CLUB of Michigan has indeed been a worthy role model for the Prairie Dulcimer Club.
Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas
Lilah Hickok Gillett, Historian, Prairie Dulcimer Club