“What kills me is they ask, ‘Do they work?’ ” says Ken Bose, playing his latest cigar box guitar. Bose’s shop on the Square, Skeeter Creek Fabricators, is home to an eclectic mix of antiques and art, but his handmade creations are everywhere you turn. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALD PHOTOSGuitars are among Bose’s newest creations.Bose inscribes “Matthew 6:26” on the bottom of every birdhouse he builds. “That will be on my headstone some day,” he says. It comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

Smokin’

Ken Bose’s cigar box guitars are so cool — and so is everything else he makes

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

The funky little riff was unmistakable — Creedence. 

Prime CCR.

On this day, Ken Bose actually could have passed for one of Willy and the Poor Boys as he plunked out the opening riff to “Down on the Corner” on a handmade bass guitar made from a wooden cigar box.

“They don’t sound too bad for a bass,” Bose, 66, affirmed, sitting in the corner of his store, Skeeter Creek Fabricators, where he displays each new guitar that emerges from his workshop.

There are guitars made from cigar boxes and license plates; guitars with beer bottle caps in place of tone and volume knobs.

As Bose would explain later, “When I get on a roll, I make several.”

The cigar box bass is Bose’s second — the first was purchased for someone in Washington state.

But it was most appropriate that he chose to demonstrate his cigar box bass by playing a snippet of “Down on the Corner” — it’s precisely the lack of activity down on his own corner that Bose is beginning to feel.

Angie’s Tea Garden two doors down at the corner of State Street and Wilson Avenue has been closed indefinitely since February, when more than 3,000 gallons of water gushed from a burst pipe in the empty upstairs apartment, trashing one of the most popular destinations on the Square.

“She sent a lot of people over here,” Bose said.

It’s another reminder of just how symbiotic brick-and-mortar retail is.

Bose is well-positioned to endure even the worst of times, though, considering that Skeeter Creek doubles as his home.

“I don’t have very far to go to work,” said Bose, a semi-retired Lutheran minister with just a year to go before full retirement.

He and wife Sue own the historic, Victorian-era building and retired a year ago to the apartment above.

“We just love it,” he said.

Bose is also Sue’s primary caregiver in her plight with MS.

But at present, Bose feels divided, unable to give his full attention to the store because he’s still giving 14 hours a week to Trinity Lutheran Church in Perry, which can’t afford a full-time pastor.

He recently launched an Etsy store as well, but can’t find the time to list and describe items for sale.

Bose has given notice that Easter 2020 will be his last sermon.

To look around Skeeter Creek now, it’s almost scary to imagine what Bose could do with 14 more hours every week.

The store has an eclectic mix of antiques and art as is, but Bose’s handmade creations are already everywhere you turn — jewelry crafted out of silverware, hanging globe lamps made from actual world globes, table lamps built with old meat grinders and metal colanders, decorative wooden butterflies painted by hand, birdhouses that look like barns in miniature, even grandfather clocks.

“She keeps time right on the money,” Bose said of his biggest grandfather clock, made from oak.

All of it comes from the same two hands, a selling point that is as timeless as it is timely. For a local retailer, handmade items may very well prove to be the weak spot in Amazon’s armor.

“People come in and are just amazed,” Bose said.

The cigar box guitars are among his newer creations, having discovered them by chance one night a few years ago on the internet. Since then, Bose has made 40 of them.

There’s definitely a cool factor to them.

But one person’s idea of cool can be another person’s source of confusion.

“What kills me,” Bose explained, “is they ask, ‘Do they work?’ ”

Oh, they work all right — these babies have even been electrified. Bose keeps an amp at the ready.

Other customers, he said, know exactly what they are. He’s had people who pluck one off the wall and start playing the blues as though they were sitting on the porch of a shotgun shack in the Mississippi Delta.

“Wish I could play what they do on them,” Bose lamented.

Cigar box guitars have been around for decades, the original poor man’s ax. The Delta bluesmen of legend only needed an empty cigar box, a broomstick and two pieces of baling wire to express themselves.

Cigar box guitars were so prevalent during the Depression that even Mickey Mouse was drawn in the early ’30s playing one.

Today, they may be the only kind of guitar to carry the Surgeon General’s warning about being hazardous to your health.

Most come with three or four strings; three strings are needed to make a chord.

Bose makes his necks — the most important part of the guitar — using braces from wood pallets.

“The neck is the guitar,” he explained. “This has to be straight.”

Bose has been a guitar player himself for years. A 1971 YJB grad, he played in a rock band in high school, giving his all on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” even though he was a country boy at heart.

Bose recalls falling under the spell of his uncle Walt’s guitar as a boy. On visits from California, his guitar in tow, Walt’s renditions of “Wabash Cannonball” and “The Old Rugged Cross” were mesmerizing to a kid.

Bose is thinking about playing daily at 3 o’clock, giving customers something to listen to and giving himself an excuse to practice.

Bose wouldn’t be where he is today, though, had God not spoken to him 20 years ago.

Back then, Bose was a down-on-his-luck auto mechanic with a shop located on his acreage, the first house into Guthrie County along Highway 4.

“I had more bills than money coming in,” Bose recalled.

He even diversified — selling and repairing bicycles — but neither venture seemed to cut it.

Out of desperation, he prayed.

“In the back of my mind came, ‘Build birdhouses,’ ” he explained.

“Pay bills by building birdhouses?” Bose thought to himself. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

As Bose now points out, it didn’t make sense to Noah, either, when he was told to build an ark on a day when it wasn’t raining.

“It’s a faith thing,” he said.

He nevertheless complied, taking his first batch of birdhouses to the farmers market in downtown Des Moines one Saturday.

Unbelievably, he sold $100 worth of birdhouses every hour — for a total of $500.

What’s more, the vendor next to him hawking additives for soup and salsa was, by day, a photographer at Meredith Corp., the Des Moines-based magazine publisher.

Before long, Bose’s birdhouses were featured in Country Home and Midwest Living magazines.

That publicity, in turn, led to a feature story in 2001 on the front of the Home & Garden section of the Chicago Tribune — as fate would have it, it ran on Easter Sunday.

For the next three years, Bose sold $30,000 to $35,000 a year in birdhouses.

“They classified me as a folk artist,” he said. “I thought, ‘Cool!’ ”

At the age of 40-something, Bose finally decided to pursue the ministry, attending seminary and serving Trinity Lutheran in Perry full-time for about 10 years.

“I wouldn’t change anything,” Bose said. “But son of a gun, I wouldn’t do it over.”

In semi-retirement, he’s back to building birdhouses again as well, selling four in the past two weeks.

“People ask, ‘What are you going to do next?’ ” he said. “Whatever comes to mind.”

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