Journey into the unknown
Book traces effort to identify the 150 autographs on 1926 North Pole expedition stowaway ukulele
In 2014, Larry Bartram, a software company founder and archaeologist, was at C.F. Martin & Co. in Nazareth to have a guitar repaired. While waiting, he strolled into the factory museum.
Tucked among the many displays, Bartram found a nondescript little ukulele covered with autographs.
Bartram found it stunning that recognizable among the signatures was that of one of his college teachers, the late Laurence Gould, a professor of glacial geology who inspired him.
When Bartram returned to collect his guitar a couple months later, he met with Martin archivist Dick Boak, who explained the ukulele belonged to Richard Konter, an integral part of the team of famed explorer Adm. Richard Byrd when he became the first to reach by air Richard Byrd’s signature (near the right-most string) and others adorn the Konter Ukulele.
both the North Pole in 1926 and, later, the South Pole.
Boak told him the instrument was secreted onto the North Pole plane — the only nonessential cargo aboard — by Konter, a scientist who, as No. 3 in command on Byrd’s expeditions, guided those planes and predicted the weather conditions for exploration. Konter also was an accomplished ukulele player who wrote instruction books, arranged music for Broadway plays and led the Ukulele Chorus, a group that played throughout New York City.
Gould, Bartram’s professor, also was a member of the Byrd expeditions.
It was that connection that started Boak and Bartram on a four-year journey to trace the provenance of the ukulele — which the Martin factory owned since 1952, but about which little was known — and to identify the nearly 160 signatures on it.
Through the journey, Boak and Bartram not only learned about Byrd and the crew members of the expeditions, but how President Calvin Coolidge, legendary explorer Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindburgh, Thomas Edison and even the last queen of Romania also came to sign the instrument.
That story of that quest is the subject of a new book, “A Stowaway Ukulele Revealed: Richard Konter & The Byrd Polar Expeditions,” by Bartram and Boak. The book not only tells the story of the ukulele, but of the people who signed it.
“After the story we found, we couldn’t not write the book,” Boak said in an interview.
“As unlikely as it seems, Konter’s ukulele had become the ultimate souvenir of an important era.” — ‘A Stowaway Ukelele Revealed’
Richard Konter plays the ukulele to entertain members of Adm. Richard Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole — reserve pilot Joe de Ganahl (left); airplane mechanic K.E. Bubier; G.H. Black, who watched over the tractors; and oiler and electrician Frank Fritzson (right) — as they gathered Aug. 13, 1928, at the Hotel Biltmore in New York.