Loving that mountain music

Passion for folk music fuels business crafting dulcimers

Friday, Feb. 13, 2009

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Carl Gotzmer, founder of June Apple Dulcimers, plays a mountain dulcimer duet with his wife, Kathleen Gotzmer. Carl Gotzmer of Accokeek has been building dulcimers for about 30 years and has sold well over 4,000 instruments.


Making beautiful music together: When Carl Gotzmer and his wife want to play a song together on the dulcimer, the question isn't where they'll get one. It's which instrument to choose.

"What happened to the zebrawood one, honey?" Kathleen Gotzmer asked her husband, who was selecting a dulcimer from a room full of instruments. "I'm tuning them up for ‘June Apple.'"

Each eventually chose a mountain dulcimer, a slender, stringed instrument held across the lap, and began to play the song, one that inspired the name of their business.

June Apple Dulcimers is Carl Gotzmer's instrument-making company, and his Accokeek home is crowded with the dulcimers he and his co-workers have built.

A historical business decision: Gotzmer, 67, said he got his start making instruments more than 40 years ago and took an interest in dulcimers when Appalachian historian Ralph Lee Smith gave a presentation at his college.

"I enjoy the historical aspect. I think it's really cool that Americans invented this stuff," said Gotzmer, referring to the mountain dulcimer, which was first built in the United States.

But while the lecture inspired Gotzmer to start building dulcimers, his current business wasn't born for years to come.

"In the beginning, we gave them away as presents," he said. "We didn't get going in a big way until the '80s."

Since then, the company has made 4,088 mountain dulcimers, relying on word of mouth rather than on advertising to attract business. They've also crafted 363 hammered dulcimers, according to the meticulous records Gotzmer keeps on one of his workshop shelves. Mountain dulcimers are strummed and hammered dulcimers are played with a pair of small, wooden hammers.

June Apple Dulcimers is the only Maryland company that makes hammered dulcimers and the only ones in the United States to make the Welsh hammered variety, Gotzmer said.

"It's gone way beyond the hobby stage," Gotzmer said.

The science of music: Gotzmer's basement workshop is full of dulcimers in various stages of completion: hanging from the ceiling, pressed inside molds, held into shape by weights and clamps.

While he employs neighbors and friends to craft many of the dulcimers — after all, he's got a fairly hefty day job as a chief scientist at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head — Gotzmer has designed all of the instruments and created all the molds needed to build them.

His science background helps him grasp the physics behind the music, and Gotzmer even plans to patent one of his designs for a lighter, more durable hammered dulcimer.

He also helps craft the few-inch-wide rosettes that cover the dulcimers' sound holes. He can spend an hour and 15 minutes carving a Celtic cross rosette and up to 10 hours on a Gothic rosette.

"When we watch TV in the evenings, I knit and he carves," said Kathleen Gotzmer, 51, who is herself a folk music lover and is a musician with the Mill Run Dulcimer band.

Carl and his wife met each other at a folk music festival, and the first dulcimer song they played together was, naturally, called "June Apple."


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