Jour­ney into the un­known

Book traces ef­fort to iden­tify the 150 au­to­graphs on 1926 North Pole ex­pe­di­tion stow­away ukulele

The Morning Call (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By John J. Moser JOHN STER­LING RUTH/ C.F. MARTIN AR­CHIVES

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.

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