America’s Shrine to Music Museum, at the University of South Dakota, harbors a fascinating, renowned collection of instruments that span centuries
By Marion Amberg
One might expect to find the world’s finest collections of musical instruments in Paris and Vienna. But would you believe Vermillion, South Dakota, also belongs in this category? America’s Shrine to Music Museum, located in Vermillion, a small town in the southeast corner of the state, doesn’t miss a beat. It comprises more than 7,500 musical instruments (3,500 more than New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art), and that’s only the beginning.
These are not all ordinary instruments, either. Imagine a crocodile-shaped zither, a violin created from a cigar box, and a rare Stradivarius guitar — they’re all here. You can listen to the zany music of a 1930s “corn band” and the haunting melodies of Tibetan conch shell trumpets all at this one location.
Music-producing items from all over the world have their home here. Some tell stories of war, such as the Schellenbaum, a tree of bells carried on horseback by German military bands. Others are not only instruments but works of art. In one gallery, an 1810 Viennese piano has legs carved with impish-looking Moors, and Italian violas have peg boxes topped with carvings of people wearing blindfolds.
This outstanding collection is located in Vermillion at the University of South Dakota, where the state’s southeast corner borders Nebraska and Iowa. Vermillion is a small college town with 10,000 residents that overlooks the Missouri River. The story of how the museum came to be here would make quite an interesting tune.
The museum’s founder, Arne B. Larson, was the oldest son of nine children. He was born in 1904 to gifted musician-farmers in southwestern Minnesota and began playing different instruments at age 6. Soon he was performing with the family orchestra at a nearby country church.
Making music wasn’t enough for young Arne. In the 1920s he began collecting “musically uninclined” instruments — those made obsolete in 1920 when Congress set the standard pitch for A at 440 cycles per second. A career in music also began calling, but, as the oldest son, Arne was expected to take over the family farm. His ideas about good farming practices weren’t exactly in perfect harmony with his father’s — Arne wanted to try hybrid seeds and modern methods, but his father saw no need for such new techniques.
So, despite the fact that the Great Depression was under way, Arne set off for the Minneapolis College of Music. After earning his bachelor’s degree (he later received a master’s degree from Northwestern University), he began directing the Little Falls, Minnesota, high school band and orchestra, leading them to the state championships.
In January 1943, Arne and his family moved to Brookings, South Dakota. Even with new duties as head music teacher at a school there, Arne couldn’t refrain from collecting instruments. He turned his modest paycheck over to his wife, Jeanne, and headed for neighboring towns on the weekends to tune pianos and gain extra cash. Even at that, Arne seldom paid more than $2 for an instrument.
Arne didn’t simply collect; he learned to play even the most esoteric of instruments. He said he always wanted to know what the old instruments sounded like. Did he have a favorite instrument? His son, current museum director Dr. Andre Larson, said, “That’s like asking a father who’s his favorite kid. He loved them all, but for different reasons.”
Missionaries returning from India, Africa, and the Orient added instruments from those regions to Arne’s growing collection. One day, the music lover received a package from famed broadcaster Lowell Thomas. Inside was a Tibetan horn.
The end of World War II provided another fine opportunity for collecting. In devastated Britain, impoverished musicians were eager to make trades. Arne sent them tea and Spam; in return, they sent crates of horns — nearly 200 instruments in all.
With his collection scaling upward, Arne decided in 1964 to find a home for it all. Offers came from Eastern universities, but Arne didn’t want to leave the Midwest and his rich musical roots. In 1966 he scored a hit: the University of South Dakota at Vermillion offered to house the collection and to appoint him a professor of music. Like 76 trombones in the big parade, grain trucks loaded down with his instruments made the two-hour march from Brookings to Vermillion. When Arne officially donated the collection to the University of South Dakota several years later, it included 2,500 instruments valued at more than $1 million.
Many people said that the collection belonged in New York City, where more folks could see it. But Arne often countered: “It’s no farther from New York to Vermillion than from Vermillion to New York.”
The instruments that he gathered formed the nucleus of the museum, which was founded in 1973. Today the collection includes more than 7,000 items from North America, Europe, and countries around the world. Visitors explore eight galleries in a restored Carnegie library building on the university campus. Approximately 750 of the instruments are on display.
The instruments that Arne didn’t collect include some that have been donated and others that were acquired for a pretty song. The Witten-Rawlins collection of 75 stringed instruments alone costs more than $8 million. It includes some of the earliest known violins, violas, and cellos from northern Italy. One cello is called “The King,” named after King Charles IX of France. Another stringed beauty is the “Rawlins Guitar,” one of two Stradivari-made guitars that can be seen in a museum setting. One of only two Stradivari mandolins known to exist is also on display.
Evoking mystery and suspense, a 9-foot-tall, two-headed slit drum from the South Pacific stands sentinel in the gallery of non-Western musical instruments. African talking drums, circa 1896, once mimicked speech, and a kettle gong from Siam (now Thailand), dated between 1630 and 1680, was worth seven elephants.
The museum also is a repository for hundreds of band instruments made by the C.G. Conn Company, and for an important saxophone collection. In addition, hundreds of music-related items, such as violin makers’ labels, are on display.
They may look stuffy now, but the European parlor instruments that were in vogue a couple hundred years ago also were lighthearted. “Not unless struck do I sing,” reads the motto on one harpsichord. Unfortunately, many harpsichords were struck another way: during the cold winter of 1816, a number of them became firewood in France, never to sing again.
In a gallery devoted to American music, over-the-shoulder cornets and tubas date back to the Civil War. Of historical note, very few horns survive from the South, because the Confederates lacked the resources and factories to make the brass instruments.
During the 1930s and ’40s, “corn bands” were popular. These ensembles used such instruments as thimble-strummed washboards, auto horns, doorbells, woodblocks, whistles, and Klaxons — strategically timed to produce a heady sound. Even cornier was a spittoon with a bell ringer, and a trombone that squirted water.
America’s Shrine to Music Museum has been recognized as “A Landmark of American Music” by the National Music Council and is operated entirely by the University of South Dakota. The museum also is an international laboratory for the conservation and restoration of instruments. Its existence makes it possible for the university to offer a master’s program in the history of musical instruments — the only such course in the country.
More than 35,000 tourists make the musical pilgrimage to Vermillion each year. Visitors can take an audio tour using a CD player that provides fascinating historical notes that bring instruments to life. And children are no “treble” at all. Musical treasure hunts and games are scaled to kids’ interests, but the whole family will enjoy participating in some of them — for instance, finding a guitar’s “moustache” or the likeness of a revered monkey on a Burmese harp.
For sheer musical pleasure, nothing beats the up-tempo tunes of the 1913 Orchestrion. An “orchestra in a piano,” this nickelodeon belts out a cheery tune, still for only a nickel. A player piano on display includes two ranks of organ pipes (flute and violin), plus a mandolin, a bass drum, a snare drum, a timpani, a cymbal, and a triangle.
Musical performances at the museum’s Arne B. Larson Concert Hall are presented periodically, during which the musicians use period instruments. And each Friday at noon during the academic year, brown bag lunch programs provide opportunities to explore the museum’s many aspects. Contact the museum before your visit to learn about upcoming events, or check the calendar posted on the museum’s Web site.
You’re likely to exit the place humming a tune and thanking yourself for exploring this amazing collection of “musicana.” Make your pilgrimage soon to America’s Shrine to Music Museum.
America’s Shrine to Music Museum
University of South Dakota
414 E. Clark St.
Vermillion, SD 57069
The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. Signs directing visitors to the museum are well posted and easy to follow. Admission is free, but donations are gratefully accepted. The self-guided audio tour also is free.
Vermillion Chamber of Commerce
906 E. Cherry St.
Vermillion, SD 57069
The chamber can provide information about in-town campsites and other campgrounds in the area.