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Once flourishing, building reed organs now part of Townsend past

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TOWNSEND — In the middle of the 19th century, Townsend was home to farms and small industries.

During the long winter months, farmers looking for income took on other projects. Many made barrels to sell in the Boston market. This trade was the basis for what would become Townsend’s biggest industry, employing hundreds of residents into the middle of the 20th century.

The second-largest industry in town in the 1850s did not last so long.

Two makers of reed organs, Henry Smith in the center and David Haselton in West Townsend, employed 26 hands and produced $34,000 worth of musical instruments, according to a study done by the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1983.

The Haselton manufactory was shown on an 1856 map “in what is now Elsa William’s garden,” wrote Townsend historian Elsie Lowe in 1965 in a document at the Townsend Historical Society.

The business was doing well enough that in 1867, Haselton purchased land across the street beside the Legion Hall. He moved the building and added an ell in the back. The business did not have to be on the river, like Townsend’s many mills, because it did not rely on water power, Lowe wrote.

Just a few years later, in 1872, he sold the house and land to his father-in-law.

For a short while, reed organs were in vogue. They were used in homes and even small churches. The instrument and its close relatives were called different names including parlor organs, pump organs, harmoniums or melodeons.

Whatever their name, reed organs grew in popularity beginning in the 1840s. Fifty years later, they reached their peak, Robert F. Gellerman wrote in “The American Reed Organ” published in 1996.

Pianos became the instrument of choice for many households.

By 1890, the Chickering Piano Company claimed that 78,000 of their pianos were in American houses, according to sweeneypiano.com, the website for a piano restorer.

Chickering pianos have a local connection. Jonas Chickering, founder of the Boston company, was born in Mason Village, now known as Greenville, N.H. The son of a blacksmith, he grew up on a farm in New Ipswich, William P. Tewksbury writes in “A Tribute to the Life and Character of Jonas Chickering” in 1854.

From the outside, pianos and parlor organs look similar. They both have keyboards and can be a large piece of furniture.

The reed organs work much like an accordion. When a key is depressed, air is forced through a metal reed, sounding the note. These small organs did not have the ranks of pipes the larger church organs used.

Performers pumped air through the smaller instruments with their feet. In contrast, accordionists pump the instrument with their arms to draw air through the bellows.

Pianos are much more complex. Each key has a complicated set of parts to permit the hammer to strike the strings and sound a note. Most have a damper to mute the string once it has sounded. As mechanization progressed and mass production became possible, pianos and all their little parts could be built in factories, rather than one at a time.

The piano is heavier in weight. Beginning in the mid 1800s, cast iron plates were bolted into cases, allowing for higher tension strings and a louder sound, according to an essay on the production of the piano on www.piano.christophersmit.com.

Parlor organs are about the same size as contemporary pianos, but light-weight enough to be pushed around without calling a moving company.

Today, old parlor organs lurk in antique stores, waiting for restoration or repurposing. Some, including at least one made by the Haselton Company, have been turned into writing desks.

Countless others are gone.

A Haselton organ sits tucked in the corner of the dining room at the Reed House at the Townsend Historical Society. The ivory keyboard and the top of the case are in fine shape.

The bellows and pedals for pumping are in place but the ornate music desk that once held music for the player to read has broken in two.

A card in the case reads: “This Melodian used many years ago in the Baptist Church in West Townsend. It was manufactured by the late Milton Bruce of West Townsend. Gift of Mrs. Harding Brooks.”

The West Townsend Baptist Church owns an 1867 George Stevens and Company pipe organ that was restored last year. The organ was a gift to the church in 1912 when it was moved to its current home from the Townsend Congregational Church.

After discovering that the D. Haselton & Co. instrument hidden under a tablecloth was made in West Townsend, Jeannie Bartovics, Townsend Historical Society site administrator, is giving some thought to fixing it up and putting it back on display.

The rectangular instrument might not be the only Townsend-made organ in the building. A smaller reed organ occupies a corner in an upstairs room whose walls are adorned with Rufus Porter murals. The attached tag claims it may have been made by Haselton’s company.

The music desk is similar to the broken desk on the instrument downstairs but there is no decal with a manufacturer’s name. Perhaps a name is hidden, waiting to be discovered.

Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter and Tout @a1oconnor.

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