Brattleboro group establishes Estey Organ museum

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(Host) For the past year, a group in Brattleboro has been working to launch a new museum to celebrate the legacy of the Estey Organ Company. The company made organs from 1846 to 1960 and is credited with putting Brattleboro, Vermont on the map.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more:

(Keese) There was a time, before radio and television, when a popular source of entertainment was the parlor organ. Many of these instruments were made in Brattleboro, by the Estey Organ Company. Estey produced several types of organs, but the one that made the company’s fortune was the reed organ. (Sound of organ pumping and a few notes playing.)

Reed organs work something like accordions or concertinas. The music comes from brass tabs that vibrate when wind is pumped over them. The pumping was done with treadles or a crank, and later, electricity.

(Ned Phoenix) (Sound of pumping, then music.) “Aha! That’s all we’re getting out of that.”

(Keese) Ned Phoenix of Townshend restores old reed organs. He’s been instrumental in the effort to create a museum to celebrate the Estey chapter of Brattleboro’s history.

The organ he’s trying to play is a rectangular-shaped instrument, with elaborate woodwork and mother-of-pearl keys. It’s one of a dozen antique organs in the museum’s startup space behind the slate-shingled Estey complex on a terrace overlooking downtown Brattleboro.

(Phoenix) “This is an example of an early instrument, a house type instrument for a very fancy place. The other Estey & Green instruments are mostly smaller and many of them are portable. The legs fold up underneath and you’d slide it under the buggy seat and take it to the next church or dance job or whatever.”

(Keese) Next Phoenix tries a high-backed organ, dated 1889, with spindled shelves and carpeted pedals. Phoenix’s interest in organs inspired him to launch the idea of a museum last November. It caught on quickly.

John Carnahan is a member of the Brattleboro Historical Society. He’s one of about 20 volunteers now moving the project forward. Carnahan says Estey was the biggest thing that ever happened to Brattleboro.

(Carnahan) “It was just the right combination of people and interests, and transportation. The fact that the railroads had come into town in the late 1840’s made it possible to ship these instruments out. And to give them credit, the Esteys knew how to take advantage of the opportunities that were offered.”

(Keese) Parlor organs became a symbol of middle class prosperity and culture. Estey shipped half a million reed organs, to almost every continent. Starting around 1900 it also made pipe organs. The company branched out into electronics in the 1950’s. Every instrument Estey shipped had the name Brattleboro, Vermont printed above the keyboard.

After Estey closed in 1960, inquiries about the organs often found their way to the Brattleboro Historical Society. Finally, the society placed a listing in the Brattleboro phone book under the name Estey Organ Company. Carnahan has taken calls from England, Japan, Australia and all over the United States.

(Carnahan) “There are still a lot of these instruments around, there were so many of them made. And they show up, whether it’s in an antique place or somebody just cleaning out a grandmother’s house. And if they find this instrument and don’t know what to do with it, why they would give a call.”

(Keese) Most of the organs the society has collected are in storage in the Estey complex. Brattleboro businesswoman Barbara George owns about half the factory buildings. She’s been fixing them up as office space. She’s enthusiastic about having a museum on the site.

(George) “The buildings are an Estey artifact, too.”

(Keese) The museum isn’t open yet. But it has a web site, and more than 200 paying members. One Sunday this fall, many of them turned out for an open house at the museum’s temporary headquarters. Some people had donated instruments, old photographs or tools. Some, like Richard Green, played a part in the Estey story:

(Green) “I used to work on the second floor way down the other end there, and I worked in the tuning room.”

(Keese) John Wessels is a retired pipe organ builder:

(Wessels) “I started in Holland when I was still 13 in the pipe organ business. After 17 years, in 1954 I came over here to Estey. Estey sponsored me to be a voicer, voicing the pipes.”

(Keese) John Carnahan sees a lot of fundraising and hard work ahead.

(Carnahan) “But it does seem to have a dynamic at the moment and some momentum, which we hope will keep going.”

(Keese) The museum could open as early as 2005. In the meantime, volunteers plan to keep enthusiasm high with temporary exhibits, concerts and events.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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