By Scott Campbell
Those musicians who favor the autoharp do not constitute a large community.
But it is an international one.
And the epicenter for the production of quality autoharps lies a few miles north of Newport, Pa. There, in an unpretentious workshop, 80-year-old George Orthey assiduously fabricates each instrument, the beauty of which rivals the sound that emanates from it. His customers have included Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Mike Seeger and John Sebastian.
The seeds for Orthey’s avocation were planted years ago, as a youngster growing up in the metropolitan New York area.
“I listened to WWVA out of Wheeling, W. Va., and KDKA in Pittsburgh,” he recalls. “They played country and western music, and that was my introduction to the genre. Plus, I always wanted to live in a rural area. I had relatives who had a farm in N.J., and I spent some time there as a boy.”
Orthey’s rustic ambitions were derailed by college; he eventually earned a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. But he never practiced.
“I was in the ROTC at school and found that I liked being in the service,” he says. “So, after graduating, I stayed in the Army for the next 28 years.”
His wife, Mary Lou, who was from Newport, passed away seven years ago. She was an accomplished professional musician and influenced her spouse to pursue his interest in the art even though, according to Orthey, he has no musical talent.
“In 1964, we were in Washington,” he says, “and a friend introduced me to the curator of The Smithsonian’s stringed instrument collection. That got me started. The first instrument that I made was a dulcimer. I ended up producing 1,629 of them.”
Many were sold at crafts events over the next 20 years, one of which was the prestigious Rhinebeck show in New York.
“I made a rather distinctive product, which I believe favored my acceptance into the show, which was very competitive,” he says.
“We eventually decided to get off the road and market instruments from our Newport residence,” says Orthey. “My mother had a small autoharp that served to kindle my interest. A trip to San Antonio for a music educators’ conference introduced me to assembly-line autoharps manufactured by the Oscar Schmidt Company. I believed that there was a market for high-quality, hand-built autoharps and set about the task of producing them.”
There were some bumps along the road. Anything made of wood is subject to the elements. Orthey and apprentice Greg Schreiber have fine-tuned, if you will, the construction of autoharps. The sound board, or top piece on the instrument, is made of Sitka spruce from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The side and bottom pieces are usually cherry or walnut, most of which is harvested locally.
“The sound board grain must be vertical,” says Orthey. He strikes a piece of spruce with a pencil and the board rings. “You can only get boards with vertical grain from a large tree,” says Schreiber. “That’s why our supplier is from the Northwest, where spruce trees grow to enormous size.”
Since entering the business full time in 1982, Orthey has produced 1,500 autoharps, 80 being the most in one year. With the addition of Schreiber, a machinist by education and experience, the enterprise will continue after Orthey passes from the scene.
In cooperation with the Perry County Council of the Arts, Orthey underwrites the Mini Mountain Concert Series. Host sites are in Lewistown and at Highland Presbyterian Church in Newport.