Hind Musical Instruments
Beautiful, handcrafted wooden ocarinas by Charlie Hind
Skip to Navigation

The Potato Bugs

including:   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…

1939 "Popular Science" magazine article shows the boys making ocarinas in their shop.

  The boys at school

  The boys playing their ocarinas at school

  Original pictures taken for the 1939 "Popular Science" magazine article 
1-Stewie    2-Dick    3-Ollie

  Performing at the Oriental Theater- 1939
  Performing at the Oriental Theater- 1939

1942 Minneapolis Tribune-April 16, 1942

  Minneapolis Star Tribune-April 26, 1942

1951 Minneapolis Tribune article (part 1) - July 8, 1951
  Minneapolis Tribune article (part 2) - July 8, 1951
  Minneapolis Tribune article (part 3) - July 8, 1951

  Formal portrait of Ollie and Dick- 1951

  Curly Satterlee and his new bride

1978 Newspaper article about John S. Sumner- 1978

1991 Sumner visiting ocarina makers in Italy-1991

1993 John S. Sumner killed in plane crash- 1993

  Recordings of The Potato Bugs

2005 Photographs of four Sumner wooden ocarinas- 2005

2006 Denny Johnson playing his original potato bugs ocarina- 2006

  Denny's ocarina- 2006

2007 Dennis Johnson and Charlie Hind Meet- June, 2007

Hind Musical Instruments
Site design by CompWright Enterprises | Powered by