Band organs making a return to Niagara

A Band Organ Rally is coming to Krull Park. Picture above is the largest organ that will be at the rally; a Gavioli Fairground Organ built in Paris France in the late 1800s. It was found in pieces in England, restored and now resides in Wayland, Massachusetts in the collection of Roger and Jean Wiegand who will be bringing it to Olcott. The event is completely free and includes 30 band organs, old and new. (Photograph by Dan Wilke)

A Band Organ Rally is coming back to Olcott this weekend after a year of silence for “The Happiest Music On Earth.”

The Carousel Organ Association of America (COAA) plans to once again ignite the imagination of spectators with more than 30 – both antique and newly made – mechanical creations in and around Krull Park from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Dan Wilke, an organizer for COAA, said he first saw a band organ by the carousel in Olcott when he was a child.

“I developed an interest in these things when I was 3-year-old, and coincidently, in the ‘60s there were still two operating amusement parks in Olcott,” Wilke said. “They both had band organs, and the one, in which the skeleton of the merry-go-round is still sitting across from the Lion’s Pavilion in Krull Park ... there was a band organ on that. I was absolutely fascinated with it and developed an interest in these things when I was three years-old and it was nothing my parents were interested or collected, I just developed this interest on my own.”

Wilke said he loved the music that came out of the front of them, that the drums playing by themselves were “neat” and on the back there was “this big wheel turning around.”

“To a 3-year-old who was fascinated with moving belts and pulleys and wheels and things like that?” he said. “That was just the cat’s meow.”

Niagara County has a special relationship with the band organ industry because it was a major manufacturer of them from the 1890s through the 1930s. Five band organ producing companies called North Tonawanda home, the biggest being Wurlitzer, which had an interesting story, as well.

In 1908, Wurlitzer approached de Kleist, owner of the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory, about selling them the business and the result was Wurlitzer moved to North Tonawanda to where the Wurlitzer building can still be seen on Niagara Falls Boulevard.

“Wurlitzer were purchasing instruments from de Kleist in North Tonawanda,” Wilke said. “Long story short, de Kleist ran for mayor in 1906 and his organ business took a back seat and production was falling off and Wurlitzer wasn’t getting the instruments it needed to fill their orders. … That’s what brought Wulitzer to North Tonawanda.”

What can band organ fans look forward to?

“The organ owners are thrilled when people come and they’re interested. Talk to the organ operators, talk to them about the organs, ask them any questions, ask about the music – if there’s anything in particular that you want to hear – they just love that!” Wilke said. “The fact that we travel so far, we pay our own way, the big ones are trailer mounted. … To pay for all that and do that pretty much for free – just because we enjoy getting together to entertain the public – we either love it or we’re crazy. Or both!”

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