Ed Stilley

Gem of the Ozarks


Blue Brasher, Reporter

Ed Stilley is a gem of Arkansas, living much like the folks who originally settled in the Ozark hills. With a mule and a plow, a few chickens, and a garden, Stilley and his wife, Eliza, provided for their family. They lived simply and purely, getting their water from a spring and using all the resources of the land.

One day when he was working on the field plowing with his mule, he felt a heart attack coming on. There was no one in earshot to hear him, so he laid on the ground very much alone. As he looked up at the sky, a vision came to him. He saw himself as a giant tortoise swimming for his life in a raging river. His five children were baby tortoises clinging to his shell, and he knew he must deliver them to the other side. If he succeeded with that task, God would tell him his purpose for being on this earth.

He fought his way through the water, and made it to the other side, where he received a clear message from God: he was to make musical instruments and give them away to children.

Making a guitar proved to be a difficult task, especially for someone who had no prior experience building instruments.  “Someone in town told me, you can’t make guitars out of thick sawmill wood, but I remembered that the Lord never taught me the word ‘can’t’, so I went right ahead and started makin’ ‘em,”Stilley said. 

Each instrument was an invention of its own, created with love and creativity. Stilley used his resources; a tailpiece might be made from an old rusty door hinge. Nut and saddle may consist of a steak bone sitting on a stack of dimes. Within the sound box, one may find a myriad of treasures: door springs, saw blades, pot lids, metal pipes, glass bottles, aerosol cans, and anything else you could imagine.

On top of each instrument Stilley carved the words, “True Faith, True Light, Have Faith in God.” He wished for each owner to read those words and live by them as well.

He worked diligently for the Lord for 25 years, all the way until his hands could not continue. Over 200 of his unique instruments are scattered throughout the Ozarks. , “Got ‘em in most every state in the United States and some across the water,”Stilley said.

Stilley worked very hard. Which can be seen in his hands. He worked the land, and he made instruments the very same way. They will endure as great works of unintended art. He never meant to make art. His purpose was purely one of devotion to God. And in his pursuit of devotion, Ed made great art. “God only gives the spirit of love – he don’t give the spirit of hate,” Stilley said.



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