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Berkeley County man a cigar-box guitar hero

Journal photo by Jenni Vincent  Hedgesville artisan Steve Reneker, owner of Hillbilly Cigar Box Guitars, plays the special one he handcrafted to be raffled off as a fundraiser for the Berkeley County BackPack Program.
Journal photo by Jenni Vincent
Hedgesville artisan Steve Reneker, owner of Hillbilly Cigar Box Guitars, plays the special one he handcrafted to be raffled off as a fundraiser for the Berkeley County BackPack Program.

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. — Steve Reneker has been playing the guitar for about 50 years, and loves performing solo as well as jamming with others who share his love of music – especially when it’s for a good cause.

His passion reached a new level in 2007, when he began making cigar box guitars – handmade creations that have a place in American history, but are also still beloved today by music lovers as well as some well-known performers like rocker Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, he said.

“Slaves were some of the earliest to design cigar box guitars, which are named for the empty boxes that are used for the resonator. They would use something else that was handy, like a broom stick or a board, to place the string on,” Reneker said, smiling as he gestured towards a small cubby hole that’s been converted into his workshop where it takes approximately 30 hours to craft each instrument.

“It started out as a hobby for me, because the history of them really hooked me. But now it is so much more – it really is a labor of love,” he said.

“I really can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent right there on that bucket working here,” Reneker said with a laugh, pointing to a nearby white plastic container topped with a small cushion.

In this small space, Reneker has also crafted a variety of jewelry cases and purses made from cigar boxes as well as a special, trapezoid-shaped guitar for his wife Susan.

Saturday was the perfect day, according to Reneker, who said he got to combine his love of cigar box guitars and reaching out to help others.

That’s when he took part in The Woods yard sale – an annual event which donates its share of the proceeds to the Berkeley County BackPack Program – and also displayed several of his guitars.

Reneker said he was happy to spend part of the morning with BackPack Executive Director Jennifer Yeater, especially since he’s decided to help raffle off one of his guitars as a fundraiser for this feeding program that helps county school children throughout the year.

He used a Brick House Cigars brand box, a product of Nicaragua that’s difficult to obtain.

“These are very hard to come by because each cigar costs between $9 and $11, so it takes a while to sell – especially if someone is selling the one at a time,” he said.

“Almost every box I use here comes from Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic – someplace in Central America – and they are made out of Spanish cedar,” Reneker said.

It is nearly complete, and Reneker said he’s just waiting for a special, engraved plaque to put on the back of the guitar.

“That will be the finishing touch,” he said proudly.

Part of his goal is to also help draw additional interest to the 9th Annual North Mountain Arts Festival, which will be held June 6-7 and has been moved to Orr’s Farm Market, located at 682 Orr’s Drive, Martinsburg,

The festival had formerly been held in Hedgesville, but will still feature fine arts and crafts, farm market items, refreshments and musical entertainment, said Reneker, who is a member of the event’s organizing committee. Reneker will also be offering some of his guitars, which are priced at $65 to approximately $200, depending on the individual instrument.

No stranger to even international outreach efforts, a wall in his home has a framed certificate and American flag that was sent to him after Reneker sent a cigar box guitar to a lieutenant in Afghanistan.

“I’m a part of Cigar Box Nation, and different people do different things. And as a veteran myself, I’m one of the ones who build these guitars to send to our military members overseas. We build the guitars and ship’em to them, so there’s not a penny of expense for them,” he said.

Even though he doesn’t personally know the soldiers or area school children who benefit from his artisan craft, Reneker believes it’s important to always be reaching out to others.

“We’re all a part of the community, whether at the local or global level, and so much good has come our way that this is just my way of giving a little back. Helping make music in the world is never wrong,” he said with a chuckle.

Nearly 200 raffle tickets have already been purchased and are still available at Orr’s Farm Market, said Reneker, who is also selling them and can be reached at 304-671-7750 or [email protected]

– Staff writer Jenni Vincent can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 131.

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