Ask Me

Well-crafted violins, saddles have Valley roots

Q: I purchased a violin at a thrift shop. It was made in 1909, which is stamped on the inside, along with “W.J. Lucas, Fresno, Cal.” Can you find anything about this violin maker?

Randy Clifton, Fresno

A: William J. Lucas was born in Missouri in 1846 and came to California in about 1870. Lucas settled first in Santa Rosa and was living in Fresno by the late 1870s, but he also lived in Visalia for a time. An 1894 story in the Visalia Weekly Delta said, “It is not generally known that Visalia has an expert violin maker  W.J. Lucas, this violin maker, lives on East Street and is a comparatively young man, but he has devoted his life to repairing violins.” Lucas would have been about 48 at the time.

A Fresno Morning Republican story, also in 1894, said Norwegian violin virtuoso August Aamold examined one of Lucas’ violins and “pronounced it first class and in some points as good as his own, for which he paid $800.”

At one point Lucas had a shop at 511 P St. in Fresno, where he made and repaired violins. He also patented a caliper that could be adjusted with one hand, which he used in crafting violins.

Lucas’ 1938 obituary in The Fresno Bee traced his skills to his boyhood hobby of whittling wood. “His violins were in demand everywhere they were known,” the obituary stated. “One violin, made from wood taken from an old water tank which had stood in the Fresno sun for 40 years, received a prize at the Panama Pacific Exposition and (was) later sold for $1,000, an unheard-of price for a new violin.”

Q: What is the history of the Visalia Saddle Shop? They’re well known for their saddles.

Manuel Madrid, Reedley

A: While most sources place the origins of the Visalia Stock Saddle Co. in 1869, retired owner Bill Cutting of Morro Bay says the business is even older. According to Cutting, Juan Salazar opened a saddle shop in about 1865 and is credited with designing the saddle tree – the wooden frame around which a saddle is built – that became the signature of the Visalia Stock Saddle.

Cutting said three saddlemakers from Sonora, Mexico, bought out Salazar in 1869 and opened the Visalia Stock Saddle Co. According to a 2010 story in The Mercury News of San Jose, each man contributed his specialty to crafting the saddles: Saddle trees were carved out of oak by Ricardo Mattley; leatherwork was done by Juan Martarell; and Alsalio Herrera was the silversmith.

According to a 1935 Fresno Bee story, their saddles quickly gained a worldwide reputation: “Since 1870 this fine creation for handling stock has been recognized from Calgary, Canada, to the back country of Buenos Aires.”

Most sources agree on the progression of the company ownership. David E. Walker bought the company in 1870 and kept on the three founding saddlemakers. “Walker was a skilled businessman,” the Mercury News story said, and built the company’s brand with promotions, advertising and a mail-order business.

When Walker retired in 1887 he sold the business to his nephew, Edmund Meeks, who closed the Visalia shop and moved the business to San Francisco. The company’s records were lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

After Meeks died in 1930 the company was taken over by Leland Bergen, who sold it to Sheldon Potter in 1945. The business moved to Sacramento in 1950, where a major fire in 1951 destroyed the company’s archives for a second time.

The company changed hands three more times over the next 24 years. Potter sold it to Kenneth Coppock in 1958, who sold it to William Majors in 1964, who sold it to David L. Stidolph in 1977.

Bill Cutting took over the business in 1983, which wound up in Fresno. His son, William L. Cutting of Salem, Ore., now operates the business, which still makes bits and leather belts. He said there are plans to resume making the iconic saddles in the near future.

In 2010 a silver-mounted saddle made in about 1930 for Dr. Gary Burke of Alameda was offered at auction with a presale price of nearly $4,000.

(South Valley staffer Lewis Griswold wrote recently about the Visalia Stock Saddle Company history in this column.)

More about: After answers to two questions were published about the Fresno County centennial celebration, Mary Eurgubian of Fresno wrote to share some thoughts.

“I remember the centennial and somewhere I have a photo in a historical costume. But I do not remember the ‘Song of Fresno County’ by Charles L. Palmer,” she wrote. “At the time of the centennial I was in the ninth grade at Washington Junior High. Thank you for  reminders of our social changes.”

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.

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