In the music area of the Buffalo Island Museum is an instrument that you don't see very often. It is an Oscar Schmidt autoharp. The autoharp is a chorded zither. It is a musical stringed instrument with a wooden body having a series of chord bars attached to a damper. When a bar is depressed, it meets all of the strings other than those that form the desired chord. There are usually thirty-six or thirty-seven strings. Autoharps are mostly used for bluegrass and country music. Some of the more famous people who played the autoharp are June and Maybelle Carter, John Mellencamp, Janis Joplin, and Led Zeppelin.
Most say that the autoharp was invented by Charles Zimmerman in Philadelphia in 1887, but his invention was very similar to one that was patented in Germany a few years earlier by Karl Gutter. The autoharp is considered the only Native American instrument. The only skill required to play it is the ability to push a button and strum a string.
Oscar Schmidt has made musical instruments since the company was founded in 1891. They sold the autoharps in rural areas where there were no music stores. You could buy an autoharp in general stores, dry good stores, and even furniture stores.
Because they were easy to play and available to buy they soon became popular in the South and Appalachia area. Most autoharps are made from maple, mahogany, or spruce. These woods provide a pure, rich tone.
Oscar Schmidt instruments are still made today, but the company is now owned by the U.S. Music Corp. in Illinois. These days they mostly make guitars and amplifiers.
Buffalo Island Museum will open in April on Saturdays from 12:30-4:00.
Beginning in May, we will be open Friday and Saturday. Check out our Facebook page for our new contest: "BIM Mystery Artifact".
Each month we will picture an artifact from the museum for you to guess what it is. You may visit the museum with your guess or post it on Facebook. April's winner will receive a BIM t-shirt.