Devin Johnson had no idea the value of what he found in a Twin Cities scrap yard a year and a half ago. He knew it was some sort of tuba and he knew it was pretty beat up.
“There’s a lot of pieces missing from it. There’s one part where it looks like someone stepped on it,” Johnson said.
As a metal artist, Johnson often buys scrap instruments to use in the artwork and jewelry he sells at his shop on Division Street, MakeShift Accessories. For about 18 months, this particular tuba hung on the wall in Johnson’s workshop — a project to be cut up at a later date.
At least, the tuba hung there until the Vintage Band Festival came to Northfield this year. On a whim, Johnson put the old horn in his storefront window.
“I thought it would make a good conversation piece,” Johnson said.
Of course, with more than 400 brass players wandering around Northfield over the past weekend, the old tuba inspired a lot of conversations.
“Two of our players saw an instrument in a window and recognized it as a kind of instrument that we play,” said Dan Woolpert, a musician and instrument curator with the 1st Brigade Band, one of the Civil War era bands that played in the VBF.
The two players, Doug Condon and Elsa Arnold, recognized the horn as a rare over-the-shoulder marching tuba, also known as a form of saxhorn. With Woolpert and other instrument restoration enthusiasts from the 1st Brigade Band, the band members were able to discern the makers mark read “A. Heinzmann” — a maker none of them had ever heard of before.
“They got this ghost-white look on their faces when I told them I was going to cut it up,” Johnson said.
Upon hearing Johnson’s tuba was destined to be cut up into rings and bracelets, Woolpert and his fellow band members tried to save it.
“Dan basically told me I had three options: I could sell it to them, I could donate it to them, or I could loan it to them. Either way I wasn’t cutting it up,” Johnson said with a laugh.
“Instruments come alive when they make music,” said Woolpert, who has been with the 1st Brigade Band for nearly 40 years. “When we take them out in front of an audience, they’re doing what they’re meant to do.”
Johnson wasn’t entirely convinced at first. He said that he thought the horn was too broken to be restored. Woolpert said that he had seen worse.
“It’s in terrible shape. The lead pipe is missing. The valve cluster is separated from the instrument. One of the valve rotors is missing and has to be handmade,” Woolpert said of the tuba’s ailments. “But we have had others in bad shape and have made them whole.”
After hearing the 1st Brigade Band play, Johnson decided to loan the band the tuba.
“I’ve entrusted it to them for 10 years, at the end of that time I can decide if I want to take it back, but I will probably let them have it,” Johnson said. “I paid $25 for the weight of the metal, they’ll spend more than $2,000 restoring it and it could be worth $10,000 in the end.”
Woolpert said that the band has 29 instruments on loan with them at the moment, with an additional 96 instruments donated. The 1st Brigade Band is the oldest Civil War brass bands in the country and will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.
“Performing for an audience with these antique instruments, we tell a story,” Woolpert said. “We make a connection.”
Reach reporter Cristeta Boarini at 333-3135. Follow her on Twitter.com @FDNCristeta