Richter, The Plainsman, end '30 - Fred Kirby


Richter Mfg. Co
The Plainsman
The Story Behind


About the Maker:

The Richter Mfg. Co. was founded at Chicago, IL by Carl H. Richter in 1926 to market instruments under the Sweetheart brand name. Richter also made Buckeye Brand Guitars. The company vanished around 1944.

Instruments made by Richter include parlor and classical guitars. Richter also made cowboy guitars with brands "The Plainsman" featuring a scene from a Gary Cooper movie (1936) of the same title. "The Plainsman" was sold by Montgomery Ward 1938-1943.

About the Guitar:

This Plainsman guitar was used by Frederick Austin Kirby (July 19, 1910 Charlotte, North Carolina – April 22, 1996). He was an American country-and-western recording and performance artist. He also was a song writer. Among Kirby's better-known works are "Atomic Power" (1946) and "When That Hell Bomb Falls" (1950), both inspired by the emergence of nuclear weapons during and after World War II. During that same war, Kirby performed to raise money for the American effort to the extent that he became known as the Victory Cowboy.

This guitar was found in the back corner of the back room of Karo's back office in the back building of Karo Guitar Store. That means it meant something to him. Mr. Karo Smith (named after the syrup) started in the guitar business, according to him, after he bought a "load of coffins" back in the summer of 1940 down in southern Georgia. He was 15 and ready to do anything to get out of the tobacco field. A man came through the town next to him with a wagon loaded with pine coffins that he had just built. He was planning to go up north to sell them but his mule had hobbled and he had decided to shoot him so he wanted to sell the wagon and the coffins on it for $2.00. Karo made a quick decision to go into the coffin business and went straight back to his granddaddy's house and stole $1.50 from him and enough chickens to sell to get the rest. Once the deal was done, Karo made a second deal to buy the hobbled mule for another 25 cents with payment due in two months when he got home. Karo headed north with the mule, Pres. Roosevelt-named so because his owner considered the new President and the mule both to be real asses. As Karo then tells the story, he went all the way through Georgia, S.C., and part of N.C. without sell a single coffin. He says "it was hot that summer, won't nobody dying". Finally in a small N.C. town, he gave up and offered the mule, trailer, and coffins for trade for the first thing somebody brought to him. That first thing was a guitar that a widow woman brought to him. Her husband had just died and she needed a coffin so she got a load of them for a guitar. Karo doesn't remember the name of that first guitar but he swears it was a Martin. He sat right down in the street and started playing that guitar. Soon a fellow came along who was passing through with a carnival who took him to be a real musician and hired him on the spot to play music for his "hootchie coo" show. Karo took right to that job and to the star of the show, Miss Camellia. After a few years on the road traveling through the south, Karo and Miss Camellia settled down in a small town in the western Virginia. He converted to Primitive Baptist and started preaching and playing guitar in a small wood church there. After a while, he started selling guitars, mandolins, banjos etc. that were made by local folks. Then he went on from there and ended up with a store that soon had people coming from "up north" to buy his stuff. In the meantime Karo has retired. Buying, selling, and trading was his passion and his stock of over 200 guitars (and pieces of guitars) shows that. For the past 20 or so years, his grandson, "Jetson" ran the shop (straight to hell according to Karo). About two years ago, Jetson got a job as a "underwear sniffer" as Karo calls it. He works for TSA at an airport in DC. Now all the remaining items were on sale.

Coming back to the guitar found, here's is the story behind the guitar as told by Karo:

"I met Homer Briarhopper sometime in the late 40's or early 50's when he was playing on a morning TV show in North Carolina-first in Charlotte-then in Raleigh. He even had his own club in Raleigh that he called a 'Supper Club' which only meant that he had a wood floor with sawdust instead of just dirt under the sawdust. This guitar came from a fellow named 'Fred' (Mr. Fred Kirby) who played mostly cowboy songs and wore cowboy clothes but couldn't ride a horse or yodel worth a crap, but could bang on a guitar. I'm thinkin' he played with Homer real early in their careers as one of this Briarhoppers or somesuch. They both got on TV later home and this Fred ended up on the kiddie railroad. He played harder than most country cowboy singers when he was young so that's why it is so beat up. I traded him a square shoulder Gibson that didn't have a bit of personality and I made him give me some money to boot. But I found out this bastard was haunted so I ain't touched it since. Now, this is what you folks would call an AR-TI-FACT."

That's Karo's story as best he could spill it out.

Now, here's what is really WEIRD and COOL about this guitar. Look carefully at the front. There are four "lights" glued in the corners of the guitar: red, green, blue, and orange. Karo says they are "old amp lights". As the story "grows", Karo says that these were "Freddie's mood indicators". He "recalls" that the blue light was for, what else but, the blues and the red was for "red hot rockin'". From the looks of the strum pattern, the red light must have stayed on most of the time. But, the lights are not connected to anything. They are just dummies. Now, look at photos. That red light seems to be glowing. Yes if you believe in guitar ghosts then there's one claiming this one.

And for that reason, Karo and no one else, has played this guitar since it came to him "possessed". Sometimes, you could swear hearing it playing itself... "When That Hell Bomb Falls"....

On the photos you can see that the tuners on one side of this guitar have been replaced with old style wood tuners. Again, according to Karo, "ole Fred" did this himself only because nobody else would touch it once the "ghost" story got around. It's hard to carve metal with your Barlow pocketknife so Fred used wood (according to "the history") from a tree that had been struck dead by the "Devil's Lightning".

This is some weird stuff.

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