The Making of the Huss and Dalton Monticello 00-SP

Posted by Jason Witt on

The Provenance

"On April 16, 1807, Thomas Jefferson noted this in his Weather Memorandum Book: “Planted 1. Laurodendron in margin of S. W. shrub circle from the nursery.” The meaning of TJ’s shorthand? He had planted a poplar tree just outside his bedroom. Flash-forward to about 1870: In the earliest known photograph of Monticello, wintry conditions are ravaging Jefferson’s home—and the aforementioned poplar can be seen towering overhead. That tree would grow to 22 feet in circumference and live nearly 200 years, until 2008. That year the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) took down and milled the diseased poplar, concerned that it was threatening the restored mansion it once shaded.

Huss & Dalton Guitar Company

Enter Staunton’s top-shelf guitar builders, Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton, whose clients include Paul Simon, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Molly Tuttle, Albert Lee (and more) —and now Betsy Baten, a former assistant to Joan Baez who is currently a Monticello tour-guide. Poplar trees are not terribly popular with luthiers, but when Baten contacted Huss and Dalton offering pieces of the historic Monticello tree, they hustled over for a look. The first boards the men saw were underwhelming, says Dalton—hard and dense, but ordinary looking. The two got excited later when they went to a wood turner’s shop at the eastern foot of Monticello Mountain and saw burls and boards being fashioned into bowls. They were “exploding with color, reds and browns and spalting, all kinds of character” Dalton says.”  (Excerpt from Virginia Living, by Ned Oldham, read more here:


Thomas Jefferson, the man

As you first behold this astounding instrument, undeniably your thoughts turn to the legacy of the man himself…Our country’s founding fathers, their path, and Thomas Jefferson’s role in particular.

Known best as the principle author of our Declaration of Independence, he planted the seeds which became the fabric of this great nation.  He also planted the tree from which this guitar was built.  Your senses are immediately reverent to the significance of the historic legacy of Monticello.

Most notably Jefferson had written, "We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable..." Benjamin Franklin changed it to, "We hold these truths to be self-evident."  A final draft was presented to the Congress on June 28, 1776. The title of the document was "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America.

On July 4, 1776, the Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence and the delegates signed the document.  The Declaration would eventually be considered one of Jefferson's major achievements; his preamble has been considered an enduring statement of human rights.  All men are created equal has been called "one of the best-known sentences in the English language", containing "the most potent and consequential words in American history".  The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive. This view was notably promoted by Abraham Lincoln, who based his philosophy on it, and argued for the Declaration as a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.

The historic tree at Monticello

The poplar tree by the southwest corner of the house was taken down in June 2008. Normally, aging a tree is relatively simple. It can be determined by taking core samples from the trunk and counting the growth rings, but this tree had been hollow for over 100 years and the live wood comprised only 17% of the trunk's 22’ circumference at the base of the tree.

Researchers always "considered" the tree on the southwest side original to Jefferson's lifetime because of a Garden Book notation on April 16, 1807: "Planted 1. Laurodendron in margin of S.W. shrub circle from the nursery.", (which is believed that he intended to communicate Liriodendron, the Tulip Poplar just outside his bedroom window).

This places a tulip poplar in the general area of the present tree. A plan composed by the Garden Club of Virginia for the restoration of Monticello's flower gardens identified the tree as "original" in 1941. This tree, along with a companion also on the west front, stands around 120 feet high. This southwest Poplar was removed; by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.  (read more about the history of the Jefferson’s Tulip Poplar here)

Tulip Poplar

Liriodendron tulipifera — known as the tulip tree, American tulip tree, tuliptree, tulip poplar and yellow poplar — is the Western Hemisphere representative of the two-species genus Liriodendron, and the tallest eastern hardwood. It is native to eastern North America from Southern Ontario and Illinois eastward across southern New England and south to central Florida and Louisiana. It can grow to more than 50 m (165 feet) in virgin cove forests of the Appalachian Mountains, often with no limbs until it reaches 25–30 m (80–100 feet) in height, making it a very valuable timber tree.

The Builders

Virginia natives Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton began their passionate heritage in 1995, founding Huss & Dalton Guitars in Staunton, Virginia.  True artisans dedicated to the bench-built style of luthiery, among their arsenal of pre-war guitar models, their traditional 12-fret 00-SP slotted peghead is the equivalent of a 45 caliber derringer.

Bracing exclusively of Red Spruce Adirondack, they have developed their distinctive signature voicing that maximizes the responsiveness of every guitar they build.  You can learn more about the secret ingredients in their recipe by paying them a visit during regular shop hours… Be prepared to stay a spell… visiting with their crew is like spending time with family you haven’t seen for awhile – you won’t be in any hurry to leave.  Generous with their time, your visit may incite a spontaneous jam session... (visit the Huss & Dalton website for more information)

The Monticello Guitar

Light and aromatic, a delightful combination of warm color hues - From the Virginia native Persimmon fingerboard & pyramid bridge, to the wide grained Adirondack soundboard – All carefully selected, with an eye toward subtle design appointments that bow to the glory of the Tulip Poplar back & sides.

The bass response is earnestly well defined, a surprise that instantly brings a smile to your face, as it can be so unexpected from the lighter colors of the Poplar (think of the first time you played a Brazilian Rosewood guitar).  Bold mid-range and bell like trebles compliment the bass register, yet most profound is that it sounds old.  Prior to arrival, I had numerous conversations with Mark Dalton, who couldn’t emphasize enough that after more than 200 years of growth, this Tulip Poplar was “As hard as rock.”

As loud as the ringing of the Liberty Bell, the decibel of volume defies its parlor size comfort, and plays a magic trick on your experience.  This is far more instrument than a collector edition of historic value.  It is obvious that the tight knit crew at Huss & Dalton were personally inspired by the challenge bestowed on them… Simply put, this may be the finest instrument to ever wear their moniker – Jefferson would have been delighted.

It is estimated that Huss & Dalton will only have enough wood from the Tulip Poplar at Monticello to create just 5 or 6 of the museum quality 00-SP legacy instruments.  At the time of this post, Huss & Dalton have completed three of these limited editions.  Please contact us for more information about how to reserve your special part of history.

Huss & Dalton

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