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Fonda man made violins, grew ginseng

By Bob Cudmore
Monday, July 18, 2011

Arch Kested was a violin maker and ginseng grower from Fonda. One of his violins is now part of a Capital District man’s collection.

The collector, who wants to remain anonymous, purchased the Kested violin from a woman originally from the Fonda area. The instrument is playable but has a small crack on the back. Inside is a label indicating it was made by “A. Kested, Fonda, N.Y.” in 1893.

The fiddle’s back and sides are made from maple and the front is made from a tight-grained spruce. The peg board and other parts are ebony. It is likely that the ebony parts were ordered from a catalog.

Born in Broadalbin in 1861 to Henry and Lydia Lansing Kested, Arch Kested married Charlotte Craig in 1891. He became proficient in “hand wood turning,” according to his 1940 obituary. For years he was a woodworker at “the old steam mill” in Fonda. His obituary stated, “For many years he was recognized as an expert in the art of violin making and was consulted by many people who possessed violins of various makes.”

GINSENG KING

Kested also was known as the Ginseng King. Ginseng is a root crop that is processed and used to treat male sexual dysfunction and as a general health tonic to this day, especially among the Chinese and other Asian people.

Cornell University has pictures from 1903 posted on a website showing Kested’s ginseng farm on the Johnstown Road north of Fonda. Kested was reported to be shipping ginseng in two tin-lined hardwood barrels to China in 1905. In 1911, Kested and a partner were said to have a $10,000 ginseng crop on hand but were unable to sell the product in China because of a war there.

In 1915, Kested reported his ginseng beds were raided twice within a month and about $500 worth of the roots were stolen on each occasion. The story reported that Kested sold ginseng in New York City for $3 to $8 a pound. Kested’s ginseng farm was estimated to be the largest in the United States in 1917.

NO VERDICT

Kested was the plaintiff in a politically charged assault case in 1922. Kested alleged that J. Hooker Cross and his son Irving Cross came to his barn and berated and beat him. The Crosses were upset at stories Kested allegedly was spreading about them and the Crosses contended Kested started the physical fray with his pitchfork. The Crosses left the scene when Kested’s wife appeared.

A jury in Fonda could not agree on a verdict in the case against the Crosses that June, according to the Recorder. The trial attracted attention as all three men were prominent (the elder Cross was superintendent of horses at the previous year’s Fonda Fair) and involved in Republican politics.
When Kested died, his wife survived as did three sons and three daughters. Kested’s obituary stated, “His genial personality and his kindness endeared him to a large circle of friends and acquaintances.”

ANOTHER VIOLIN MAKER

John S. Hull of Fort Hunter also made violins by hand. A 1966 Leader Herald picture feature reported that at age 11 Hull started to learn violin-making from his father, John Justin Hull, a violinist and instrument maker in Kingston, Pa.

The younger Hull trained to be a classical violinist at Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania and also studied with the Spanish master Raphael Todo. However, Hull ultimately focused on making and especially repairing violins in Fort Hunter. He was especially good at repairing bows. He was reported to have “a large clientele of musicians who rely on his ability to keep their instruments in the peak of performing condition.”

Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact Bob Cudmore at 346-6657 or bobcudmore@yahoo.com.

 
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