The Vagabond – Local piano tuner not what he appeared to be


By Danny Crownover
One of the most oddball characters to ever reside in Gadsden was Darwin DeWolf, an itinerant piano tuner who was somewhat of a mystery because nobody really knew much about him.
Once or twice a year, DeWolf would come back from a trip through several nearby states to stay for a month or two in town. He made his headquarters in this city for a number of years and was a familiar local figure for a quarter of a century. DeWolf roamed around Etowah County in a two-wheeled cart pulled by a small pony, with the pair doing most of their traveling at night.
DeWolf slept mostly along the roadsides in warm weather and spent his night in barns and outhouses during the winter, occasionally putting up in farmhouses where he had established some sort of friendship.
DeWolf wore corduroy suits that reeked of kerosene due to a lantern strapped to a wide leather belt worn around his waist. He carried a hand lantern around him which at times was used as a headlight for his cart. DeWolf was an odd-looking man walking the downtown streets with a lantern fastened to his belt.
DeWolf must have been a great piano tuner, for he worked for the best musicians in town. He must have made a lot of money. Most of which he apparently did not spend.
It was usually necessary to open all the windows of a music room where DeWolf worked due to the smell of kerosene. He was not a neat dresser but would have been a distinguished looking man if he had been. He had a heavy shock of iron gray hair and a heavy beard of the same color. He never talked about himself or his family.
One day DeWolf showed a photograph of a very beautiful girl, saying that it was a picture of his daughter who was attending a finishing school in New York State. He said that she was all he had to live for he said, although he rarely saw her.
DeWolf spent most of his idle time hanging around Joe T. Fulcher, a local mechanical wizard who had a cornet that the DeWolf liked to blow. The instrument was left over from the days when Fulcher was a member of the first brass band ever to be organized in Gadsden.
DeWolf frequently visited the office of stockbroker Sam Gentry in order to hear telegraph reports on the stock market. DeWolf confessed to owning stock in a cobalt mine and some oil wells.
DeWolf was absent from Gadsden for several years in the 1920s, and it was taken for granted that he was dead or had moved to another section of the country. About 1925, the New York World carried a story about DeWolf’s death in that city.
DeWolf had gone to New York to see his daughter, and they stopped in one of the city’s best hotels. A day or two after they checked out, DeWolf was found dead in a discarded box used for shipping pianos in a vacant lot in the rear of a music store. He had gone there to sleep and died a natural death during the night.
Police found $4,000 on DeWolf’s person, some of it in gold coins that he had probably hoarded for years. Papers in his pocket led to the discovery that he had been stopping at the hotel, and there was found the address of his daughter, who was probably DeWolf’s sole inheritor. She did not discuss anything about her father’s history, and no one ever discovered where he came from or what his nationality was.
However, The Vagabond was able to find out more about this man. DeWolf actually died in a hospital due to injuries suffered while experimenting with a combination water and kerosene burner of his own invention. It also was discovered that DeWolf made his home in a piano packing box in the yard of a factory, had $6,000 deposited in a Chattanooga, Tenn., bank and owned 27,000 shares in valuable Colorado mining properties. DeWolf may have lived like a hobo but he apparently was a very wealthy man for his time. He was born August 22, 1838 and died December 29, 1916, both at Vernon, Ohio.
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