Log Cabin Chronicles


Just Folks: Howard Reed
Aviator, Stone Carver,
Maker of Fine Violins


[EDITOR'S NOTE: I wrote this profile of the late Howard Reed of Newport, Vermont in the early 1990s while he was still spending much of his day caring for his wife. Lena died in 1992 and Howard died 10 months later, at 89. His beloved violins remained in the family.]

The sky over the new Canadian Gateway Airport in Derby, Vermont, was filled with airplanes that late summer day in 1928, and young Albert Elliott of Beebe, Quebec, stood there in awe. Aviation was in its infancy back then and the fly-in being held to celebrate the new aerodrome was quite a sight for an 11-year-old farm boy.

Just as a Waco Whirlwind buzzed in from the south, he overheard a couple of old-timers say, "That's Roy Reed's boy, Howard, coming in now." Albert had no way of knowing then how large a role that romantic figure in the Red Baron leather helmet and flying goggles would play in h life.

Fourteen years later Albert married Enid Reed, the pilot's step-sister, and nearly half a century later - with his 73-year-old brother-in-law at the controls - had his first ride in an airplane.

Howard Reed, born in 1904 on a small family farm in Graniteville, Quebec, was one of four children - he had two brothers and a sister. During hiss life he would become a barnstorming aviator, a maker of exquisite violins, and a stone carver with a reputation for excellence.

Since 1945 he has lived in Newport, where for years he and his wife, Lena, owned and operated Howard Reed Memorials. He lives alone now in a neat red house, not too far from the nursing home where his partner of more than 60 years is confined with Alzheimer's disease. Twice each day, seven days a week, he drives to the nursing home to feed tier and bring home her laundry.

He's only missed three days in the past four- and a-half years, and that was when he was bedridden with influenza. His life is constrained these days and he gets little respite, although his son Robert, who lives in Burlington, Vermont -- and daughters June and Barbara -- they live in New Hampshire and Connecticut, respectively -- come when they can.

Between lunch and dinner trips to visit his wife, we talked recently of his flying days and his life.

"the only formal education I ever got was at the old Beebe Academy," Howard said. "When I finished school, I went to work in the sheds to learn the stonecutter's trade. After working about 18 months I moved to Barre, Vermont and went to work for Rock of Ages where I learned stone carving.

"One day as I walked out of the stone shed I heard an airplane. I looked up and watched it and thought: I'd like to do that."

Howard found an instructor over in Milton, about 15 miles north of Burlington. His name was Paul Schill and he was a WWI veteran of Kaiser Wilhelm's Royal German Air Corps. He once showed his new student a watch that the German Air Command had presented him after he had soloed his first 1000 future combat pilots.

"I took my first instruction in a bipIane, a wallow:' he said. "Paul soloed me in four-and one half hours, in a Curtis-Wright J-1 Standard. All the regulations they have now, the radio stuff, we didn't worry much about those things back then.

"Paul took me on a flight to Burlington, and we landed in a pasture where cows were grazing." He paused and smiled. "Today that cow pasture is the [Burlington] International Airport."

Once Howard had soloed and got a little experience, he tried his hand at barnstorming. One of the stunts he did in 1928 was to help Barre Motor Sales introduce the "new All-American 1929 Oakland Six-, by General Motors." He and his step-brother, Ivan "Ike" Lee, who was also born in Graniteville, flew at tree-top level down Main Street.

"Ike was in the front cockpit; I flew the plane from the rear cockpit. We just dragged over Main Street and Ike tossed the automobile announcements over the side. You couldn't do that today you have to fly at least 1000 feet above populated areas."

He and Lena were married that same year and in their flying gear they were a handsome couple. Here they are, standing next to their bi-plane. They're wearing high boots and flared flying breeches, white shirts with ties; she has her hands behind her back; he's holding his leather helmet in one hand, the other is on his hip and he's looking directly at the camera, smiling. They look young, healthy, confident. They had no idea what 1929 would bring '

It was the year that Vermont began licensing pilots, and Reed was issued license #9.

The world also went bust that year.

"There was a bad strike in the granite industry," Howard said. "The state government sent in troops. The company, made me a foreman and transferred us to Waterbury, and we lived there for 12 years. By 1940 the granite business went bad there, and I had to commute every day to Northfield. I got sick of, that in five years.

He knew about a quarry in Derby and a building. in Newport where a wholesale granite business had been operated back in the mid-1930s.

"It was just what I wanted and I got it pretty reasonable," Howard said. "My brothers Lyell and Willard became partners in the quarry business."

He and Willard had flown together over the. years and had several adventures.

"Once he and I were forced down in a cornfield in South Barre when the engine lost power. It was a 180 horsepower Mercedes -- twice the horsepower that the old Curtis-Wright usually had. It would climb right up to 3000 feet pretty quick. Paul Schill finally discovered- what was wrong -- the new. sparkplugs I had put in didn't work so well with that engine."

He and Lena continued flying after they had moved to Newport and started their new business. Howard speaks fondly of the aircraft he has owned and flown over the years -- his original 14 Standard, the J-6 Waco Whirlwind that he flew into Derby in 1928, his Canadian Fairchild (the RCAF used them as trainers), the Skyrangers, the Piper Tripacer in which Albert Elliott took his first flight.

In 1979, when he was 75, Howard packed it in. He had flown down to Claremont, New Hampshire, and it was getting dark by the time he left for home.

"I was up over Lyndonville, Vermont, at about 4000 feet, in the Tri-pacer and heading for Sheffield Heights when I finally saw the beacon at Newport. It was dark when I got home but I made a good landing.

"But, I realized my eyes were beginning to go. I didn't have the accuracy I used to have. When coming in I couldn't tell if I was six inches or a foot off the ground "

So he turned to making violins.

"I've always been soft on violins," he explained. "I had my first one when I was 12, and I took lessons in Beebe and in Barre, where I had an Italian teacher. I learned to play by note -- I never could get to be a fiddler. But when I got to flying, I put the violin up. It stayed in my closet for 25 years.

"Then I met Arthur and Hermenegilde Chamberland, who made pretty good violins. They were old men when I met them, but I had 10 years with them and I learned the craft of violin making. I got so I could make a pretty good violin.

Howard made 40 violins with lovely matched mapled backs and fine spruce tops. Several years ago the "big book of violins" -- The Violin Makers of the United States -- was published. It is the biographical documentation of the violin and bow makers who have worked in the nation, and there are 3000 craftsmen listed in the book.

Of all these dedicated craftsmen, 175 were considered outstanding enough to have photographs of their instruments published. Both Chamberland brothers are represented in the "big book," and so is Howard Reed. When you pick up a Chamberland or Reed violin, you know you have magic in your hands.

He has good memories of his years in the monument business: "I always felt I was accomplishing something. When I was finished a piece of work, I could step back and look at what I had done and take pride in the craftsmanship." And there were the years of service on the Newport City Council.

In Howard Reed's basement workshop there are four unfinished violins, but these days he has other obligations.


Copyright © 1999 John Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/8.99