Is it furniture or is it art? A musical instrument or a curio cabinet? Parlor organs like this 1909 Beckwith Cottage Organ from Sears, Roebuck & Company were the ultimate status symbol for the Victorian household. With increasing affluence and leisure time across the nation, even the most modest home could afford to invest in a bit of culture and a reed organ was a must.
From the Royalton area, this reed pump organ came to the museum last year in good aesthetic condition but refusing to play. After doing a bit of research and consulting with Dr. Charles Echols, professor emeritus of organ, piano and music history at St. Cloud State University, the organ was determined to be an exemplary example of local cultural history. From church music to music schools such as the St. Francis Music Center to musical organizations like the Musical Arts Club to the numerous community bands, including the Royalton Municipal Band and the Elks Saxophone Band, music pervades Morrison County’s history.
The Beckwith Cottage Organ is a “free” reed or brass reed organ. Free reed or brass reed organs produce sound from air blowing across reeds that are fixed at one end and allowed to vibrate at the opposite end. The reeds do not strike a surface like in a “beating” reed organ, which are typically pipe organs. The air is sent from bellows operated by foot pedals. Reed organs use a suction air flow, versus forced air, which allows for what is often described as a sweeter and more pipe organ-like quality to the tone. (Knupp, Kristina. (accessed 2018, August 1) The Physics of the Pump Organ. Retrieved from http://www.pumporganrestorations.com/physics_of_the_pump_organ.htm).
Free reed organs were first used in churches across the United States in the early 1800s to accompany hymn singing. This influenced the use of reed organs in private homes as hymn singing was a socially acceptable means of entertainment. Many reed organ industry pioneers were leaders in the church and some preachers even sold organs on the side to supplement their often meagre pastoral income. (Gellerman, Robert F. The American Reed Organ…Its History; How It Works; How to Rebuild It. Vestal, NY: The Vestal Press, 1973. Print.)
By the time of the Civil War, approximately 15,000 reed organs were being manufactured per year (Gellerman, 45). The parlor organ intended for private homes was produced in the largest quantities. These typically had an upright case with a fixed or removable high back that had a mirror and artificial pipes or shelves, much like that found on the Royalton organ. Quickly becoming the showpiece of the American parlor, reed organs dominated home entertainment for almost the entire length of the 19th century.
When the Royalton area Beckwith Cottage Organ was manufactured in 1909, reed organs were declining in popularity and the piano was taking its place. Though still produced in large quantities, the market value of reed organs had been decreasing since the 1890s. Most sales during the early twentieth century were in rural areas, possibly due to the cost of shipping. Freight rates were determined by weight as well as distance and reed organs are quite light, especially when compared to the much heavier piano. The Royalton organ, for example, weighs a mere 350 pounds compared to the 750- to 1000-pound Beckwith pianos advertised during the same time period.
Beckwith organs ordered from Sears, Roebuck & Company were shipped by train from the Beckwith Organ Company plant in St. Paul, Minnesota, traveling through Minneapolis and St. Cloud to various stops in Morrison County. The railroad reached Morrison County in 1877 and by 1890 had extended north to Motley on the border with Cass and Todd Counties. Royalton, Little Falls, Belle Prairie, Randall, Cushing, Motley and Lincoln were among the many communities that had railroad stops or depots, allowing most county residents convenient access to shipping by rail. Royalton’s depot was located along the west side of what is now Highway 10, north of the main intersection (now Nature Road and East Centre Street).
There were over 650 known organ companies in the United States between 1850 and 1930, including the two “immense” Beckwith factories that were dedicated to producing Beckwith organs (1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue: A Treasured Replica from the Archives of History. Northfield, IL: Digest Books Inc., 1971.) The Beckwith facilities, which were located in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Louisville, Kentucky, served as the exclusive organ manufacturing plants for Sears, Roebuck & Company. (New World Encyclopedia. (2015, July 7) Reed Organ. Retrieved from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Reed_Organ) The location of the two plants presents an interesting question. Could there have been a connection with a group of businessmen known as the Louisville Syndicate who had such a significant influence on early Little Falls, the seat of Morrison County?
The Louisville Syndicate was a group of investors from Louisville, Kentucky, who built the third dam on the Mississippi River in Little Falls. The third dam was the first to cover the full width of the falls, bringing industrial-strength power to the area. The organization successfully attracted new businesses to the community, including the Hennepin Paper Mill and the Pine Tree Lumber Company, and was instrumental in transforming Little Falls from a village to a city (Warner, Mary E. (2009, July 10) Four Dams at Little Falls. Retrieved from http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?page_id=178; Johnson, Ann Marie. (2008, July 2) Morrison County Influentials: 36-40. Retrieved from http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?p=134) The businessmen involved with the Syndicate were also heavily involved with railroads and many had offices in St. Paul. It’s hard not to wonder about a potential connection.
By World War I, reed organ production had virtually come to a standstill. (Gellerman, 14.) Pianos had taken over as the reigning musical instrument in most American homes and new forms of entertainment such as the radio and phonograph were the leisure time devices of choice. Much like the touted demise of the vinyl record or the belief that paper documents will cease to exist, reed organs will most likely never completely go away. Vinyl records, for example, quickly became highly sought after items by sound purists and avid music collectors and paper documents are making a comeback in some seemingly surprising ways. Think of the recent issues with elections security and a return to paper ballots.
The reed organ is one of a family of musical instruments that have been around in one form or another for over 2000 years. The earliest known organs were Greek and Roman and used hydraulic pressure (water rising and falling) to create the flow of air. (Hoffman, Miles and Renee Montagne. (2006, June 5) Organ Music: Pulling Out all the Stops. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2006/06/05/5448985/organ-music-pulling-out-all-the-stops) The organ clearly has a deep place in history. The Royalton area Beckwith Cottage Organ has found its place at The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum. All it needs now is a little TLC and restoration in order to serve as a working museum piece showcasing the rich history of music in Morrison County. Once it is restored, watch for future events featuring exclusive parlor concerts in the museum’s exquisite R. D. Musser Library.
– Ann Marie Johnson, Curator
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, Volume 31, No. 3, 2018.