In 1807, TJ planted a poplar at Monticello that lived nearly 200 years. Now guitar-makers Huss and Dalton are turning its wood into noteworthy instruments.
Courtesy of Huss & Dalton Guitar Co., Inc.
Regal Tree, Historic Sound?
From left: Jeff Huss, Betsy Baten and Mark Dalton with the sizeable stump from the Monticello Poplar tree.
On April 16, 1807, Thomas Jefferson noted this in his Weather Memorandum Book: “Planted 1. Laurodendron in margin of S. W. shrub circle from the nursery.” The meaning of TJ’s shorthand? He had planted a poplar tree just outside his bedroom. Flash-forward to about 1870: In the earliest known photograph of Monticello, wintry conditions are ravaging Jefferson’s home—and the aforementioned poplar can be seen towering overhead. That tree would grow to 22 feet in circumference and live nearly 200 years, until 2008. That year the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) took down and milled the diseased poplar, concerned that it was threatening the restored mansion it once shaded.
Enter Staunton’s top-shelf guitar builders, Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton, whose clients include Paul Simon and Mary Chapin Carpenter—and now Betsy Baten, a former assistant to Joan Baez who is currently a Monticello tour-guide. Poplar trees are not terribly popular with luthiers, but when Baten contacted Huss and Dalton offering pieces of the historic Monticello tree, they hustled over for a look. The first boards the men saw were underwhelming, says Dalton—hard and dense, but ordinary looking. The two got excited later when they went to a wood turner’s shop at the eastern foot of Monticello Mountain and saw burls and boards being fashioned into bowls. They were “exploding with color, reds and browns and spalting, all kinds of character” Dalton says.
Provisioned with one of these distinctive boards, Huss and Dalton visited an adjoining TJF-owned farm, once part of the estate. And there they found “big, wide, quartered billets of some of the most striking, colorful wood,” says Dalton. The pair left with about 35 board feet with which they will make five or six guitars. The wood cost them nothing, though 30 percent of the profits from the sales will go to TJF. The plan is to use the Monticello poplar for necks, backs and sides, with other parts made from different native Virginian woods—Appalachian red spruce for the tops, and persimmon for bridges and fingerboards. Though it is early in the design stage, Dalton predicts that the relatively “tone neutral” poplar, paired with the bright and responsive red spruce, should produce a beautiful and “woody-sounding” guitar.
Jefferson himself played the violin, but his wife, Martha, and his daughters and granddaughters, all played guitar. Huss and Dalton expect to complete the first Jefferson poplar guitars, which will be priced somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000, this May. Hearing them resonate through Monticello’s halls should prove an uncanny experience.