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Honoring heritage: Local flute maker sticks to the old ways

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

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When James Hilton started making Native American-style flutes on his back porch in Telford, after shelving the hobby years ago, he thought it was just a labor of love. But it has proved to be so much more than that.

“My dad taught me how to do it when I was young,” Hilton said. “I hadn’t made them in years, and then five years ago, I found out I had cancer. So I thought, ‘I’m going to get back into woodworking.’ 

“I did it just to keep my mind off stuff.”

Above, A finished flute made of pine wood awaits its new owner. Top photo, James Hilton prepares for a day of working on his flutes, including his walking stick flutes, as pictured. (Photos by Marina Waters)

Fast forward five years and Hilton now operates in a workshop at his home where he creates hand-crafted flutes that have been shipped all over the world.

“I’m sending some to Florida, Australia, Israel,” Hilton said. “I’ve sent them all over — Paris, France, England — just all over the place.”

Though Hilton started his hobby for his own peace of mind and after his retirement as a barber, his flutes soon turned into a lucrative business that can also be found at a shop in Gatlinburg and another in Arizona.

“I never thought about selling any of these and it just came about,” Hilton said. “This one guy, he said his brother had a shop in Gatlinburg. He asked if I would sell him some of my flutes. I sold him maybe five. 

“Then he called me a week later and said, ‘Hey, I need to get some more. I’m sold out.’ 

Hilton’s work has also caught the interest of David Williams, a former New York Mets pitcher who will soon make the trek to get his hands on his own Native American flute.

“He asked if he could come over personally and pick it up,” Hilton said. “I said, ‘Yeah! You come ahead! (laughs). I’m anxious to meet you.’”

Those flutes all started with Hilton’s father, who is Cherokee Indian. 

A gaggle of finished flutes set in Hilton’s workshop. Hilton sells his flutes locally and internationally. He also sells his flutes to a store in Gatlinburg and another in Arizona.

His father taught him how to hand-craft the flutes when he was a young boy. Now, Hilton and his “Spirit of the Wolf” flutes are a way to honor that American Indian heritage.

“Spirit of the Wolf, it’s mainly (about) the heritage. The clan in Cherokee is a wolf clan, the Eastern Band,” Hilton said. “I actually have a timber wolf and a half-black Canadian wolf, too. I’ve always loved wolves.”

It’s also a way to honor the “old stuff” Hilton is so fond of, like the antique washing machine engine Hilton restored and  was once used in rural homes without electricity.

“It runs about 15 minutes, which is when you knew your clothes were finished washing,” Hilton said. “And it’s a kick start. I rebuilt it and painted it and got labels for it. It runs like a new one. 

“I just love old stuff. Maybe it’s because I’m old, I don’t know (laughs).”

Hilton said there are roughly six people in the U.S. who still make hand-crafted Native American flutes. 

He said he’s afraid it’s an art form that will one day be lost amid technology and the new ways of the world.

“I just don’t want people losing (the old ways of creating things.) I keep thinking,” Hilton said, “after my generation is gone, something like this, no one’s going to do it anymore. It’s going to be gone.”

But he continues to keep the old ways alive, even down to the tools he uses on his flutes and walking stick flutes. 

He even uses tools from the 1800s that were once used to make wagon wheel spokes. 

“They work as good as the day they were made,” Hilton said. “I have to pop (the blade out) and sharpen it, but I’ve never had anything (on the tool) break.”

It takes more than just forming the shape of the flute. Hilton also works to tune his flutes to a certain pitch, which is determined by the length of the flute and the size of the holes in the top.

“You get the key of the flute from the length of the flute,” Hilton said. “The notes on the flute are determined by the size of these holes. 

“So I take these burner rods that are tapered and start out, but make these holes bigger as I go.” 

Hilton also does flute lessons for anyone who wants to learn to play, though the COVID-19 virus has put a temporary hold on lessons for the year.

While Hilton continues to create his flutes and teach the art of playing such instruments, the woodworker is also hoping the old ways he’s grown to love will return.

“I mainly do it because I like seeing the old stuff brought back, the old style,” Hilton said. “Everybody’s doing everything modern. 

“To me the older stuff, it was just better. It was when life was more simple.”

For more information on Hilton’s work, go to https://www.facebook.com/SpiritoftheWolfNativeAmericanFlutes.