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Turnbull Homemade Banjo

Curated Submission
Kindersley, Saskatchewan
Circa 1935
DIMENSIONS in centimetres
96 x 36 x 10
Materials & techniques
Birch, oak, aluminum, steel, calf skin, wire, cord, china silk, imitation leather, metal; Inlay, wood joinery
Made by Olaf Turnbull
Saskatchewan Western Development Museum WDM-2003-S-650
Olaf Turnbull learned from his father a love of music, a thirst for knowledge, and a willingness to serve his community. Music was a big part of life on the Turnbull farm near Kindersley, Saskatchewan, as friends gathered around the piano while his father sang. For Turnbull music would be a lifelong love. In the mid-1930s, when the Canadian prairie was in the grip of the Great Depression, someone gave Olaf an old banjo head that he decided to finish using materials he found around the farm. For the neck he scrounged pieces from a wagon tongue. Parts of a barrel formed the resonator, and the aluminum inlay on the back was salvaged from his mother’s cooking pots. Using a darning needle across the neck, Turnbull figured out where to put the frets and tuned the banjo with the help of the family piano. Turnbull and his homemade banjo joined the party at many a community dance.
In 1937 Turnbull saw a picture of a saxophone in a catalogue and decided that mastering the sax would be his next challenge. But $60 was far beyond what he could afford. The resourceful Turnbull found another saxophone and convinced the owner to part with it for $25. The following year, Turnbull and five musical friends borrowed a car and struck out on an Alberta tour. However, fame and fortune eluded them, and the band was left with barely enough money to get home.
Following his studies at the University of Saskatchewan, Turnbull returned to the family farm where he got involved with the Saskatchewan Farmers Union (SFU). His work there led him into the world of politics, and in 1962 Turnbull was elected to the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly where he became a cabinet minister and was part of the government that introduced medicare to Saskatchewan. Years later, after retiring from a teaching career, Turnbull joined The Most Amazing Hobby Band, playing gigs around Saskatoon until his death in 2004 at the age of 86. Just months before his death, Turnbull quoted this Chinese proverb: “Life without music would be a mistake.” He no doubt treasured the banjo he built when he was 17.
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