The Potato Bugs
Stewie Sumner, Ollie Engebretson, Dick Fjellman, Curly Satterlee, Denny Johnson
Before the 1930s the sweet potato shaped ocarina had been known only in clay, and occasionally in metal. As the instrument became more popular in the thirties, more durable plastic ocarinas began to come onto the scene, but they were not up to the standards of serious musicians.
Around 1936, in Minneapolis, MN, a young high school boy named John Stewart Sumner began to design and create the very first wooden sweet potatoes ever made. He invented a novel method that used a jig saw to cut the middle out of thin pieces of wood. These pieces were then glued together in layers, creating the hollow chamber of the ocarina. The outside was then shaped and finished and the finger holes drilled and tuned.
Finding that he couldn't keep up with demand for his new high end sweet potato, he enlisted the help of his friends to work with him after school and on weekends. In his father’s workshop they perfected their skills and made hundreds of wooden ocarinas, many of which ended up in the hands of radio stars and popular acts of the time. They formed an ocarina group called The Potato Bugs and traveled extensively, playing with bands and orchestras, winning talent contests, and appearing on big name television and radio broadcasts. They recorded for RCA and Columbia records, and eventually performed in the original cast of the new Broadway musical “Call Me Madam” starring Ethel Merman.
The links below tell more of their story…