Several years ago, while bowhunting elk in eastern Montana, I was sitting on a sandstone point glassing the valley below when I looked down in the sand and saw what I thought was a sardine can buried in the grit. Since I always pick up trash I encounter when I am hunting, I began to dig the can out of the sand so I could pack it back to my camp and dispose of it properly.
After exposing enough of the can to pull it out of the ground, I realized it was not a can at all, but rather a harmonica. It was clearly very old and had been buried out there for a long time. The outer shell was in near-perfect condition, but the brass and wooden “guts” were a little worse for wear. I could see remnants of the thin strips of wood that formed the channels the air flowed through to guide it over the brass reeds to create the sound. I put the harmonica in my pack and took it back to camp to clean it up.
Upon seeing its vintage, and how long it must have been buried, I developed a theory about how it got there and who might have lost it.
The harmonica is a
Clover No. 130. It has patent dates stamped in its metal: Sept. 27, 1892, and June 7, 1898. I’m guessing it was made around the turn of the 20th century. The area I was hunting was homesteaded by a local family who raised sheep and later cattle on the land. My hunch is that the harmonica belonged to one of the men hired to herd the sheep. The valley below the point still holds the remains of a sandstone corral. I can imagine a sheep herder sitting on the sandstone point one evening just as I had done. But instead of looking for elk, he was using the vantage to keep an eye on the sheep he was tasked with tending. What did he do to pass the time? I’m guessing he played the harmonica— until he lost it.