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The Arne B. Larson Collection

Arne B. Larson (1904-1988)

As important as collecting was to him, conducting was the overwhelming passion in Arne B. Larson's life (b. Hanska, Minnesota, 1904-d. Vermillion, 1988).   He is seen in the picture above, at age 78, conducting the Dalesburg Community Band for the 113th-annual Midsummer Festival at the Dalesburg Lutheran Church, 13 miles north of Vermillion, in 1982.

The Arne B. Larson Collection of Musical Instruments & Library, the largest collection still in private hands when it was donated to the Museum in 1979, is the nucleus of the Museum's holdings.   Unlike other such collections, which specialize in only one or two of three broad areas--American, European, and non-Western instruments--the Larson Collection has substantial holdings in all three areas, with particular strength in American and European winds.   It contains more than 2,500 instruments, plus an extensive supporting library of books, music, periodicals, photographs, sound recordings, and related musical materials.

How it all began: Arne's youth...

Arne B. Larson was born in 1904 in a southern Minnesota farmhouse built by his grandparents a few miles from the small town of Hanska.   One of nine musically-inclined sons and daughters of Adolf and Barbara Larson, he began playing instruments at age six and was soon performing Sundays with the family orchestra at the Nora Church, a Unitarian enclave which still stands "on the hill" near Hanska.   Later he organized the Searles Silver cornet Band to provide entertainment for area residents.   In the 1920s he began collecting instruments made obsolete by Congressional legislation lowering the pitch standard for A to 440 vibrations per second.

"Just a nickel in his pocket and cardboard in his shoes..."

Initially, Arne's choice of careers was a source of contention between him and his father.   The elder Larson was a fine musician, but believed that those who tried to make their living that way ended up playing in taverns "and all that lowdown stuff."   In any case, as the oldest son, Arne was simply expected to take over the family farm.   However, disagreements about old and new agricultural practices--Arne wanted to try hybrid seeds and other "newfangled things"--furthered the rift between father and son.   During the Depression of the '30s, Arne set off, literally with a nickel in his pocket and cardboard in his shoes, for the Minneapolis College of Music.

The collection comes to South Dakota...

Earning a degree there (later he also earned an M.M. degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois), Arne landed a teaching job in Little Falls, Minnesota, where his bands and orchestras won state championships.   Later he moved to International Falls; then, in January 1943, Arne brought his young wife, family, and collection of instruments to South Dakota and accepted a job as Head of the Music Department in the Brookings Public Schools.

Bartering tea and canned peaches for instruments...

Meanwhile, old instruments were a continuing passion for him.   "I would read about old instruments and always wanted to know what they sounded like," he explains.   During the years surrounding World War II, he found that many people in devastated European countries were eager to exchange instruments for tea and canned goods.   Unable to travel to Europe on a teacher's salary, Arne made contacts any way he could through journals and by letter.   In fact, his modest teacher's salary was always turned over to his wife, Jeanne, to sustain the family.   Arne earned everything he spent on what was then his "hobby" by tuning pianos on weekends--often traveling to neighboring towns by train.

The Lowell Thomas connection...

Gradually Arne developed a network of contacts to help him locate obscure instruments.   Missionaries traveling in Africa, India, and the Orient brought back unusual pieces.   In the early 1950s Arne wrote to world traveler and commentator Lowell Thomas, who was preparing for a journey to Tibet, and asked him to watch for exotic instruments.   He had all but forgotten about the letter when a carefully-boxed instrument--a unique, serpentine Indian horn--arrived months later from the famed journalist.   Go to description of this horn.

Treasures piled up to the ceiling...

Eventually the collection amassed in the Larson home numbered more than 2,000 instruments.   "Of course the neighbors thought he was nuts," say Arne's children of their father's obsession.   "It was a big house, but there were rooms you couldn't walk into because of all the instruments--you would open a door and stuff was piled to the ceiling."

The famous "Arne B."...

Arne B., as everyone in Brookings called him, rarely paid more than a couple of dollars for an instrument, but he loved each of them--repairing those in need and learning to play each as he got them, even the most esoteric.   As the collection grew, he also developed a public program during which he would demonstrate 50 or so of the instruments for church, school, and civic groups.

Looking for a home for the collection...

Meanwhile, Arne's reputation as a band and orchestra conductor grew.   Brookings consistently brought home top awards from musical competitions.   In 1962 the community sent Arne B. and his students to the Seattle World's Fair.   By 1964 most of the Larson children were grown and the house was nearly filled to capacity with valuable musical instruments.   Ready for a career change that would involve his overwhelming hobby, Arne began looking for institutions interested in his collection.   Several colleges and universities in urban centers distant from South Dakota responded, but Arne had no desire to leave the Midwest.

Arne moves to Vermillion...

I. D. Weeks, President of the University of South Dakota (1935-66), expressed interest in the collection and invited Arne to come to Vermillion as Professor of Music.   Usher Abell, Chairman of the Department of Music, joined Weeks and Warren M. "Doc" Lee, Dean of the College of Fine Arts, in lobbying for Arne's move to Vermillion.   In 1966 he accepted the position, and that summer a number of fully-loaded grain trucks rolled down the highway, each carrying hundreds of instruments from the Larson home in Brookings to the University in Vermillion.

Arne and Jeanne donate the collection to the State of South Dakota...

On April 6, 1979, Arne and his wife, Jeanne, officially donated the collection--which, by then, numbered more than 2,500 instruments--to the State of South Dakota.  Governor William Janklow presided over an impressive ceremony held to honor them for their extraordinary generosity.

They were honored again in 1983, when the Museum's Board of Trustees established the Arne B. & Jeanne F. Larson Endowment Fund from proceeds from the sale of the 160-acre Minnesota farm (where Arne was born), which had been owned by the Larson family for more than 100 years.

New York to Vermillion or Vermillion to New York?

Arne, a natural entertainer, delighted countless Museum visitors over the years by performing tunes on various instruments, telling stories, and giving tours.   For years he was the personality of the place.   Being a great collector is not always the same, however, as being a museum person.   His collection developed as an extension of his ego.   One of his most memorable remarks, when questioned about the Museum's location, was to say, with a twinkle in his eye, "It's no farther from New York to Vermillion than it is from Vermillion to New York."

Excerpted from André P. Larson, The Shrine to Music Museum: A Pictorial Souvenir (Vermillion: The Shrine to Music Museum, 1988).

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Most recent update:  March 1, 2014

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