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Organ museum celebrates legacy of one of Vermont’s most significant products

At the organ museum, they actually encourage visitors to play the instruments.
At the organ museum, they actually encourage visitors to play the instruments.James Sullivan for The Boston Globe

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — In our age of earbuds and all the music of the world at our fingertips, it can be hard to imagine. But it was only a century or so ago, before radio broadcasting and record collections in every home: If you wanted to hear music, you had to play it yourself, or have someone play it for you.

In those days, the name of the town of Brattleboro meant music to the four corners of the globe. From the 1850s until the mid-1900s, the Estey Organ Company engraved every keyboard instrument it produced — more than a half million reed organs and several thousand more pipe organs — with their shared place of origin, here in southern Vermont.

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At the height of their popularity, Estey’s elaborate organs filled churches, middle-class parlors, and silent-movie theaters with lush, complex, and sometimes overwhelming sound. The company also produced a portable “folding organ,” which took the music outdoors, to theaters of war or, in the hands of missionaries, to the most rural of outposts. Jacob Estey was the biggest name in organ manufacturing in the United States, and one of the biggest in the world.

But by the 1960s, the factory complex he built was shuttered for good, driven out of business by changing tastes and electronics. Less Bach, more Beatles.

The sound of Estey’s historic organs lives on in a humble museum in the company’s old engine house on the edge of the factory yard, a short drive from Brattleboro’s Main Street. “We’re probably the only musical instrument museum in the world that wants you to play the instruments,” says Barbara George, who owns eight of the slate-sided buildings — all listed on the National Register of Historic Places — in the former manufacturing complex. “That’s what it’s for.”

Ranging in size from miniature organs for children to a couple of thunderous beauties that tower high above the average tourist, the collection of the Estey Organ Museum celebrates the legacy of one of Vermont’s most significant products. Founded in 2002 by local restoration expert Ned Phoenix, the museum features a few dozen examples of Estey instruments, from the bellows-driven melodeon, or “lap organ,” that got Estey started in the business, to the pedal-powered reed (or pump) organs that made the company’s name, and the pipe organs that followed around the turn of the century.

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In a back room, there’s even a plastic electronic model, about the size of a carry-on roller-bag, which dates to the dying days of the business. Historian Dennis Waring says he stumbled on that one at a yard sale, hauling it home on the handlebars of his bike.

Waring, an ethnomusicologist, is the author of “Manufacturing the Muse,” a detailed account of the Estey story that places the company history in the context of America’s musical life and industrial development. He says Henry Ford once came to Brattleboro to compare notes on production line innovation. (Ford had an Estey organ installed at his Michigan estate.)

In addition to the restored organs and various ephemera, the museum currently showcases a series of portraits of latter-day Estey workers taken by the renowned photojournalist Clemens Kalischer, who died last year in Western Massachusetts at age 97.

The company, says Waring as he shows a visitor around the grounds on a recent spring Saturday, “is a slice of pure Americana.”

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With a staff of volunteers, the museum opens in mid-May for the season, which runs through Columbus Day. Hours are 2-4 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and by appointment. Barbara George will occasionally lead tours of the complex, which currently houses a blacksmith, a sculptor, a luthier, and an environmental consulting business, among other tenants.

Along the ridge above the factory buildings sits a neighborhood long ago dubbed Esteyville, where company employees once lived. At the height of production, Estey had roughly 700 workers on the payroll.

The company namesake was “a classic Yankee,” says Waring — a shrewd businessman who made the most of his ingenuity and instincts. Estey, who served in the Vermont state Senate, died in 1890, leaving the company in the hands of his son, Julius. (For years, the senior Estey’s vice president was his son-in-law, Levi Fuller, a polymath who would be elected Vermont’s governor in 1892.)

The Estey Organs, as Ned Phoenix has suggested, were the original synthesizers. With the exponential possibilities of their combinations of pitch, timbre, and volume, “you have all these choices.”

As in life: “You have to have some concept of the sound you want.”


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.