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Originally published August 1, 2011 at 6:53 PM | Page modified August 2, 2011 at 6:37 PM

'Canjos': Man turns Cougar Gold cheese cans into musical instruments

Once home to almost 500 people, Elberton was known for its sawmill, its flour mill and its claim to having the largest prune dryer in the world. Now it's known mostly for its honorary mayor and the stringed instruments he makes.

Seattle Times staff photographer

quotes Waiting for Eddie Vedder's solo canjos tour... Read more
quotes Always inspiring to learn about an artisan at work. Thanks for this article. Read more
quotes Would this conversion turn Cougar Gold into ... string cheese? :-) Go Cougs! Read more

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27th in an occasional series

ELBERTON, Whitman County — For being a ghost town, there's a lot going on in Elberton in the Palouse.

Once home to almost 500 people, Elberton was known for its sawmill, its flour mill and its claim to having the largest prune dryer in the world.

Now it's known mostly for its honorary mayor and the stringed instruments he makes.

John Elwood is one of the disincorporated town's 10 current residents. That's not counting his dog, Barkis, named after a Dickens character.

As a luthier, Elwood has branched out from dulcimers and the wheelbarrow-and-shovel bass he once made for the Palouse Empire Fair.

He can now be found in his workshop crafting used Cougar Gold cheese cans into three- and four-string Canjos. They're about the size of a fiddle, with a sturdiness that comes from using Osage orange and black walnut woods.

He knew the instrument would have a good sound, having experimented "with a tuna-fish can before."

And the remarkable quality of the sound Canjos produce, "I attribute to the excellence of the [Washington State University] cheese."

A full two days of work go into each Canjo. "There's no fun in doing something quick and shoddily.

"In rural America, there's a long, unbroken tradition to use what's at hand," Elwood said. "From empty tortoise shells to gas-can guitars," history has shown how people improvise stringed instruments.

He takes commissions to construct Canjos from people who have discovered him by word-of-mouth.

If you want to actually find him, though, you head north to Garfield from Pullman, take a left at Grumpy's Tavern, then it's two blocks to a right on Elberton Road, then five more miles. Look for the old Peugeot or the International pickup outside.

Or you can write him at jelwood1@lycos.com.

Alan Berner: aberner@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8133

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