“I learned how to do it the hard way,” Eugene Church says of making instruments. “Stafford told me, ‘We’re going to do it my way or not at all.'” Stafford Hartley was a dulcimer builder who did everything by hand, and he taught Eugene how to build dulcimers. Today, Eugene has expanded his instrument building knowledge, and he also makes guitars, banjos, and mandolins, which he sells through his business, Dulcimers-Plus, from his home in Lenoir.
Eugene grew up at the foot of Grandfather Mountain on an apple farm in Watauga County. After military service, he settled in Caldwell County, where his parents had moved. “I had seen a dulcimer, and I asked the person where it came from,” he remembers. The person directed him to Stafford Hartley in the Bailey’s Camp community, and Eugene began his apprenticeship.
“He agreed to help me build a dulcimer,” Eugene says, “and I visited him every day for three months.” Eugene recalls that it took about six weeks to build his first instrument. He continued until he had made about a dozen dulcimers. “Then one day, I went to see him and Stafford told me … he taught me all he could,” Eugene remembers. “So I went to experimenting on my own.”
Eugene made more dulcimers, and he also started building some guitars and banjos. He uses his own patterns and works from a shop behind his house. All of the wood Eugene uses for the instruments is from rough lumber. “I look for wood everywhere I go,” he says. He and a friend, Robert Coffey, have created Dulcimers-Plus, a business outlet to market their instruments. He has made about two hundred dulcimers, a dozen banjos and child-size guitars, and a few full-size guitars and mandolins. Eugene enjoys making custom-ordered instruments and experimenting with the different types of wood he collects from the Lenoir area. He makes several styles of dulcimers, guitars, and banjos, and he aims to please his customers with the product and the price. “We try to keep the prices down to where they can afford,” he says. Of their child-size instruments, he says. “I think a child should have a quality instrument to play that is not made of plywood.”
Eugene Church welcomes custom orders, and he is available to display his instruments at festivals and gatherings. He also welcomes interested craftspeople to visit his shop.