William Duke Tester - Beech Mountain Dulcimer Maker

10/12/19 03:25:19PM

According to Lucy Long in her dissertation on the dulcimer traditions of Beech Mountain, North Carolina in the early years of the 20th century there were seven known dulcimer makers living in or near the Beech Mountain Community: William Wiley Proffitt (Frank Proffitt's Father), John Benjamin Hicks, Roby Monroe Hicks, Nathan Talbert Hicks, Windsor Canada Hicks, Edd Presnell, and Duke Tester.  Long's informant was Nettie Hicks (Presnell), the wife of Edd Presnell and daughter of John Benjamin Hicks.

I was unfamiliar with the dulcimer making of Duke Tester, so I did a little research and found out the following:

William Duke Tester

Born - April 23, 1862 in Watauga County, North Carolina

Married - Alice Adelaide Presnell c. 1887 in Watauga County, North Carolina

Died - April 17, 1947 in Laurel Creek Township, Watauga County, North Carolina

Buried - Presnell Cemetery in Watauga County, North Carolina

According to Nettie Hicks (Presnell), Duke Tester was married to Nettie's maternal aunt, Alice Adelaide Presnell (Tester).  Alice was the sister of Julie Ellen Presnell, John Benjamin Presnell's wife.  Although I am unaware of any surviving dulcimers made by Duke Tester, the best bet is that he used a pattern similar to the one used by the Hicks Family.  According to the 1920 Watauga County, North Carolina Census, Duke and Alice Tester lived in a home near both John Benjamin Hicks and Nathan Talbert Hicks and they appeared to remain in Watauga County for the rest of their lives.

Another possibility is opened up by Duke Tester's connection to Smith Talbert Oliver and Millard Colfax Oliver, the two brothers often mentioned in the oral history surrounding the inter-family connections.  Duke's son, Nathan Calloway Tester was married to Cora Lee Hicks (Tester), Cora Lee was the niece of both Millard Oliver and Smith Oliver.  Her mother was their sister, Nancy Magdalena Oliver (Hicks).

A third possibility is opened up by Duke Tester's connection to Eli Taylor Presnell.  Duke's daughter, Lue Creta "Loucretia" Tester, was married to Ninevah Vance Presnell, the son of Eli Taylor Presnell.  Ninevah was an uncle to Leonard Lucky Glenn.  Ninevah and Leonard's mother, Kimmie Presnell (Glenn) were siblings.

So there you have it.  Duke Tester had connections with the Presnell Family's dulcimer tradition through his daughter's marriage.  He had connections to the Oliver Family's dulcimer tradition through the marriage of his son.  And he had connections to the Hicks Family's dulcimer tradition through his wife's sister, Julie Ellen Presnell (Hicks).  He also lived on Beech Mountain near the extended Hicks Family. 

Duke was a contemporary of the Hicks brothers.  It is not known when he started to make mountain dulcimers, but he married into the community's tradition in 1887.  Did he make his dulcimer(s) near the end of the 19th century after seeing one of the Hicks Family's dulcimers?  Did he begin in the 20th century, learning directly from his neighbors John Benjamin Hicks and/or Nathan Talbert Hicks?  Did he pick up his pattern after his son married the niece of Millard and Smith Oliver?  Or did he copy Eli Taylor Presnell's pattern sometime after his daughter married Ninevah Vance Presnell?

Like Ralph Lee Smith has said on numerous occasions - This is one of those mysteries the mountains are keeping to themselves.  

By the way, I have no idea whether or not Duke Tester built just one dulcimer or multiple dulcimers.  Just that Nettie Hicks (Presnell) was quoted as saying that he made dulcimers.  

If you have any additional information on dulcimer maker William Duke Tester, feel free to add it to the discussion.