PORTRAITS OF MAINE HISTORY: Franklin Richardson, violin maker

By Dale Potter-Clark

Franklin Richardson was born in Mercer in 1825 where he learned to play the fife at a young age from his father.
At 14, Richardson heard the violin played for the first time and became enamored by the instrument. He was offered that violin, and his father agreed to buy it if the boy could learn to play within a week.

Richardson was able to play “Auld Lang Syne” in less than an hour. He soon learned to make violins as well.
To make a living, Richardson became a tailor and set-up shop in Norridgewock at age 21. He continued in that trade for more than two decades, except for three years in the Union Army and one other hiatus in Milwaukee, Wisc.
In 1848, Richardson and a brother went to Milwaukee, where he opened a dance studio. He also played in an orchestra on “The Empire State” — the largest steamer on the Great Lakes until it sank in July 1849. Whether Richardson was on board and escaped is not known, but it is known that he returned to Mercer soon afterwards and returned to tailoring.
He married Parthenia Chapman of Mt. Vernon in 1852 and moved to Mt. Vernon village, where he continued tailoring and making violins. After his wife died a year later, he wed Mary P. Neal of Vienna. They had seven children born from 1857 to 1872. All but the youngest two were born in Mt. Vernon, including daughter Mary Neal Richardson in 1859.
Richardson enlisted in the Union Army in 1863, where he organized and led the brass band for the 10th Maine Regiment under General Ulysses S. Grant. Soon after his discharge he moved his family to Canton, where he bought a farm on Canton Lake and continued his trades.
Following the Civil War, pre-made clothing became popular, and Richardson’s tailor business steadily declined so he began a photography business — all the while making violins. He also played his instruments at special events and gave dance lessons. Richardson was an old-time dancing master until age 70. By age 83, he had made more than 200 violins. At the time they fetched a price of anywhere from $25 to $100. In the recent pastm a Richardson violin sold at auction for $3,375.
Although his children grew up in a creative home it appears that only Mary entered the arts as a profession. She became a nationally renowned artist who painted portraits and landscapes for decades at Fenway Studios, in Boston, and at her summer studio in Canton. In 1909, Richardson was interviewed for a Lewiston newspaper article titled “Canton’s Famous Old Violin Maker.” He was making four violins for his great-grandsons at the time and still farming his homestead on Canton Lake. Six years later, the”Who’s Who in New England: A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men and Women” listed both Richardson and his daughter Mary. He died the same year of senile dementia. His death certificate gives his occupation simply as “violin maker.”

Dale Potter-Clark writes about local history and old families. She co-authored “The Founders and Evolution of Summer Resorts and Kids’ Camps on Four Lakes in Central Maine.”

PHOTO: Violin maker Franklin Richardson of Mercer, Norridgewock, Mount Vernon and Canton. (Submitted photo)