Mortlach Fiddler's Legacy
By Sean Trembath
As you turn off the Trans-Canada Highway toward Mortlach, you are greeted by a sign proclaiming the village, “Home of the Mortlach Fiddlers.” For over 20 years the Fiddlers played in Mortlach and throughout Saskatchewan. They remain a proud part of Mortlach's history.
Vernon Rowe is the last surviving member of the Fiddlers. He was one of the group's founding members. Rowe's family first moved to Mortlach in 1921 and he lived and worked there for almost his entire life. Now living in Moose Jaw, Rowe was happy to share of his fiddling past.
Rowe got his first violin in 1925, at the age of 12. He was interested in fiddling because of his cousin, Percy Rowe. “He was the best fiddler in this part of the country. He was a cracker jack,” said Vernon. Vernon's mother saw he was interested in playing, and bought him a violin during a trip to Ontario. He enrolled in a correspondence course and taught himself to play.
Although Rowe was very busy throughout his adult life with work and community projects, he continued to play violin, usually with his wife, Marion. She was a piano player and also composed the music and lyrics to several hymns. After Vern came home from a long day's work, he and Marion would sometimes play while their two children went to sleep.
“That's really one of the good memories I have,” said Elaine Haukaas, their daughter. “In my bedroom there was a great big register that the heat would come up, and I could look down there and see them playing.”
It wasn't until Rowe and his friends were retired that the Fiddlers came together as a group. “It was Haldon Hodgins' idea,” said Rowe. The two of them had known each other since their school days. Hodgins invited several friends to come play in his basement. What began as a jam session quickly developed into regular rehearsals and eventually performances.
Aside from Hodgins and Rowe, there were many different Mortlach Old Time Fiddlers through the years. They included Walter Cumming, Bernard Hooper, Joe McIntyre, Elwood Peterson, Garth Campbell, Benny Mercado, Jack Brownlee, Al Schmidt, Clive Campbell, Arnold Torguson, Margaret Garner, and even Percy Rowe, the cousin that originally piqued Vern's interest in fiddling.
The Fiddlers travelled all over Saskatchewan to play. They played at every nursing home in Moose Jaw. They went to Swift Current, Maple Creek, Lloydminster, and beyond. At one point they played 106 times in a 12-month span. Twice they had the honour of playing at the Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts in Regina. One of these performances sticks out in Rowe's mind.
“A Regina band played, and there wasn't a soul that got up and danced,” said Rowe. “When the Mortlach Fiddlers got up and played, the dance floor was full.” The Fiddlers sold $800 worth of cassette tapes at the Centre in one night.
As much as they loved to travel, the Fiddlers spent a lot of time playing in and around Mortlach. For 13 years, Rowe and Hodgins organized a three-day fiddle jamboree in Besant Park, located just outside of town. "We got a list of every fiddle group in Saskatchewan and sent them an invitation," said Vern. As many as 21 fiddle groups from as far away as Thunder Bay, Ontario would come to perform at the annual event.
One jamboree sticks out in Kelly Sapergia's mind. Being from Mortlach, Sapergia had heard the Mortlach Old Time Fiddlers on many occasions and was a fan of their music. He was at the jamboree playing accordion with another group. After he got off the stage, Sapergia was approached by Haldon Hodgins. The Mortlach Fiddlers had no one to play accordion for them at the jamboree. Hodgins asked Sapergia to join them on stage. “It was a real thrill,” said Sapergia.
Elwood Peterson, the original pianist for the Mortlach Fiddlers, died in 2002. Although the group found a replacement and kept playing for a while, Rowe feels that Peterson's passing was the beginning of the end. “We just got so we wanted to quit. We'd played long enough,” said Rowe.
After moving to Moose Jaw, Rowe played for several years with a group of folks who lived with him in the Bentley Retirement Community. He has since moved to another facility, and had to hang up his fiddle. But he still keeps in touch with the situation on the farm. Last year, at 96 years old, he even managed to get up into a combine during harvest season.
The Fiddlers' music lives on in the eight albums they recorded in Haldon Hodgins' basement. They are still available for purchase in Mortlach.
Listen to a medley of tunes from The Mortlach Old Time Fiddlers