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Fall 2011

Hall of Fame fiddler turns 100

Still playing toe tappers

by Charlene Scott

You might say that Fred Voelker has fiddled his life away for 86 years.

Voelker, who at age 14 received what he calls "a cheap violin" from his adopted dad, fiddled his path to fame all the way to the National Fiddler Hall of Fame.

"I carried around that first fiddle in a burlap bag 'cause I didn't have a case for it," he recalled.

"A fellow I knew would take me to barn dances in Missouri, and I learned on that first fiddle. I never took lessons, just learned by ear. I picked it up pretty fast, I guess. I can hear a piece and start right out playing it."

Voelker, who will turn 100 years old October 26, brought the joy of music into a life that began with sadness and rejection -- and might have ended in bitterness.

"I came up through the hard times," he said without a hint of self-pity in his voice.

"I was born in 1911 in Cleveland, Ohio and put into an orphanage. My mother and father didn't want me, and I had no name until 1914 when my real dad's brother adopted me and gave me his name."

His new father, who also went by the name Fred Voelker, was a U.S. marshal. His wife's name was Maggie.

"She became my mother," Voelker said. "They never had no children. I seen my real mother one time, but I never did talk to her. I knew my real dad, but he wasn't a dad to me."

When he was older, Voelker learned that he had a brother and a sister.

"My brother was adopted and lived in Dodge City. He had the name William Clark," he explained. "My sister also was adopted and went to Colorado. Her folks were named Sneedham. So I knew where my brother and sister were all the time."

Voelker moved to Kansas in 1921, and later married a woman named Annie with whom he fathered three sons and a daughter. Annie died in 1979. Voelker spent 33 years in law enforcement, serving as undersheriff and deputy sheriff of Ford County. He also was hired by George Nielson Motor Company in Dodge City, where he worked for 45 years.

"I was foreman in the shop, and when I quit five years ago [at age 95], I was selling cars," he said. "I had to have two jobs to make a living."

But all that time he still was a fiddlin'.

Voelker played with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys at the Cain Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, and at Branson, Missouri with the Mickeydilley Band.

"I was named champion fiddler in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Nebraska," he said with a wide grin.

He had 54 trophies at one time (he has gifted many of them to friends and relatives). "I have trophies scattered all over the south."

And finally in 1980, he received his highest honor of all: he was named to the National Fiddler Hall of Fame.

"That was quite an honor," he said. "I received a huge trophy this high," he exclaimed proudly, pointing to his knee. "It was too big to keep in the house, so I gave it to one of my sons."

Voelker fiddles in jam sessions in Halsey Hall at Fort Dodge from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and after dinner two Saturdays a month. The sessions are open to the public.

"We started jamborees here in 1979, and have had them going ever since on the second and third Saturdays of each month. After dinner, we play until we get tired."

He and his current wife Allie, who plays the French Horn, often have performed together. Voelker still travels statewide to bring forth lively, toe-tapping tunes from his fiddle.

"I like all country music, the old time waltzes, and hoedowns," he said. "I've won quite a few contests with Ragtime, and I've composed a tune: Piccadilly Ragtime."

Voelker owns a vintage fiddle created in 1742 by a man named Glass, "who worked for Stradivarius," but his favorite fiddle is Japanese.

His answer to the inevitable question of how has he lived so long?

"I run with wild women and drink rot-gut whiskey!" he said, with a hearty chuckle.

"No," he corrected himself for the record. "As long as I've lived, I've never been drunk, so help me God!"

 


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