Published in the October 2014 issue of the Kerby News
“Take a bow, Mr. Jackson”
Robert Jackson, Bow Maker Story and photographs by Tim Johnston
The old Bank of Montreal building in the village of Acme, Alberta is located on the southwest corner of Bennett Avenue and Main Street. It sits up from the road, surrounded by a low cement retaining wall and verdant grass. The Maple Leaf waves gently from its pole on the front lawn. It’s an attractive building with white clapboard siding and green trim. But what might draw one’s attention today is the name of the current tenant, discreetly set above the double front doors, “Robert Jackson Violins.”
I was visiting Acme in the service of another bank, looking at heavy trucks that were destined to haul livestock and grains for their new owner. After my inspection, I drove slowly around the village looking for photographic opportunities. When I saw Mr. Jackson’s shingle, I knew a stop could not be avoided. Visiting stores that sell musical instruments always piques my interest.
Bert Jackson was in and invited me to come inside and see his wares. Rows of violins and violas marched down one side of the main showroom, interrupted now and then by a bass fiddle or a cello, the latter under repair. There were lots of bows as well, probably more than violins. I wondered about that. “This all started with my grandfather’s fiddle,” Jackson said. “I started collecting violins seriously once I became familiar with the Internet, and E-Bay in particular.” He would find a violin he liked, buy it, fix it up in his workshop (on top of the washer and dryer at home) and then either sell it or add it to his growing collection of instruments.
We walked into the bank’s main floor vault and Jackson took down a violin and selected a bow. “This is my grandfather’s fiddle.” After a little tuning, he started in on “Ashokan Farewell.” He explained that several years ago, he became interested in bluegrass music and taught himself to play both the fiddle and the double bass. “I joined up with four friends and we called ourselves the Prairie Pie Pickers. We played at venues around Calgary and just jammed for fun.”
Putting down the violin, Jackson picked up a long, flat case and opened it before me. Inside were several violin bows, each carefully fitted into velvet-lined slots. “This is what I really like to do,” he said, selecting one of the bows and passing it to me for closer inspection. In my hands I held a remarkable piece of artistry, beautifully shaped from exotic woods with pearl and silver inlays. While learning to repair violins, Jackson had tried to replace the horsehair on a violin bow. “That was a very frustrating task,” he said. He wanted to learn from a master bow maker and so he signed up for a couple of courses offered by Michael Vann, an accomplished bow maker (archetier) based in Victoria. He also enrolled in bow making courses at Claremont College in Los Angeles over a three-year period under the tutelage of Lynn Hannings. Additional studies have since been carried out at Oberlin College in Ohio. Lessons learned from these experiences were combined into Jackson’s own design and crafting of bows.
As his interest in violins and bows expanded, Jackson’s wife decided that his workshop on top of the washer and dryer had to go. “I needed more space and we already owned the bank building so we decided that would be where I would set up shop.” His collection of violins, along with a stock of exotic woods, tools and materials, was installed on the two floors of the bank in 2006. Mrs. Jackson regained free and easy access to her appliances.
As an outlet for his growing skills, Jackson approached Vicki Hill, owner of V A Hill Fine Strings in Calgary, and asked who repaired bows for the shop. Jackson and Hill came to an arrangement whereby he would try out on a volunteer basis. That was eight years ago and Jackson continues to travel into Calgary one day each week to carry out bow repairs. His photograph and a brief biography are included on the V A Hill website. His bows are available for sale in the shop.
Curious about the kinds of life experiences that would lead one to become an archetier, I asked Jackson about his past. “My life began with a flurry of celebrity,” he said. “I was Calgary’s 1941 New Year’s Baby.” His family farmed near Acme on land homesteaded by his grandfather. He attended Acme school and helped work the family farm. By 1973, the farm consisted of ten quarter-sections and his father wanted to sell the land and retire. Jackson moved to Calgary and hauled gravel for the Burnco Company. In 1978, his family moved to Linden where Jackson worked with his cousin in a contracting business until 1982 when he purchased a chicken farm. For the next five years, his new business produced approximately 120,000 birds per year.
After the chicken farm, the family moved once again, this time to an acreage near Acme where Jackson established an engine rebuilding shop. The shop prospered but with a decision to move into Acme in 1995 and with his growing interest in violins and bows, the shop never made the move and was closed.
In addition to his business activity in the area, Jackson has been deeply involved in the community. He was elected as a village councilor in 1996 and subsequently served nine years as councilor, deputy mayor and mayor. He is proud of his civic contributions during that time that saw the establishment of a new residential subdivision, a light industrial subdivision, improved equipment for public works and, most importantly, the development of a water line from Drumheller through Kneehill County, a $35 million project that brought fresh water to communities in the region.
Finally, I asked about the radio attached to his belt. He told me that it was an emergency measures unit that links the community’s volunteer firefighters. Jackson is a lieutenant with the Acme Fire Department with the responsibility of driving and tending the pumper truck. I found it reassuring that if a call came through on the radio, Bert Jackson, unlike the notorious Nero, would put down his fiddle and bow and head out to help extinguish the flames.
With the approach of harvest season, Bert Jackson is looking forward to his annual vacation. “Each autumn, I go out to the land homesteaded by my grandfather and drive a combine for the current owner,” he told me. I could picture him in my mind, pausing to have dinner in the field with the rest of the harvesting crew, and maybe breaking out his fiddle and bow for an impromptu performance of “Ashoken Farewell.”