Music is a good addition to steam shows


There are various entertainments at the old engine shows and often music is involved. When I first went to shows, an old time fiddlers contest was common.

Several of the old timers, like Raymond Laizure, of Stumptown Fame, did a bit of fiddling and often got some friends to join in a competition. We never had any luck at Portersville because we had no resident fiddlers in our membership to lead the pack.

We have managed to hang on to the evening square dancing, which of course, requires an orchestra. The Milton show in Canada usually has a group play one evening and a talent show on another.

As one might expect, the steam Calliope is a favored music source at steam events, but someone has to have one and someone to play it. The late Clarence Fisher, of Stoneboro, Pennsylvania, had a nice one and his grandson, Bob Weaver, was very adept at making music with it.

Changing times

Alas, they are all gone from the area. Fisher required a hose to feed steam from a separate boiler, but I saw one out east with its own vertical boiler built in. It may have been self propelled, too; I’m not sure.

I do know they used it in parades. Clyde Lightfoot, of Beaver Falls, liked mechanical music and was a good enough mechanic to keep his machines playing, including a full size pipe organ rescued from a theater in Pittsburgh.

My wife and I were moving from the back room to the front on one visit and as we passed a door, she asked, “What’s in there?” To which I replied, “The Pipes.”

I opened the door so she could see and she about fainted. I wonder how many other folks don’t know what a set of organ pipes looks like?

Musical instruments

The bass pipes were so tall he had to raise a section of the roof for them. Clyde’s favorite unit was an air driven one small enough to be portable and called a calliophone, if I recall correctly.

Like the steam calliope, it was most enjoyable from a distance since it was quite loud.

The same was true for Lightfoot’s band organ, a Wurlitzer machine originally with a merry-go-round.

It sat in the front room of his building and when a gang gathered as it often did on a Sunday afternoon he would put a roll on and turn it on and we would all go out in the yard to chat since we couldn’t hear each other over the music.

He also had a piano-violin music machine and a thirty-six inch coin operated model of a Regina music box. I got introduced to mechanical music on my European tour in 1972, mainly in Amsterdam. Often along the streets we would encounter a small street band organ on a two wheeled cart which could be moved like a wheelbarrow. Most of them played with a cardboard “book” with perforated pages as opposed to the paper rolls similar to player piano rolls.

I presume the cardboard was more durable than the thinner paper on the rolls. I recall seeing the back of one machine which was powered by a small Honda power plant. Others were powered by hand with a man turning a crank to operate the bellows.

Giving donations

Another helper or two held small brass boxes into which the spectators could donate coins. The Dutch dimes were a tiny and beautiful coin of striking appearance.

I’m not sure if I saw a full size band on the continent, over there, but they are rather common at shows in England with names like Marenghi, Mortier, Gavioli, Leach, Gasperini, and Verbeeck — some with 88 keys.

They are the basis of a group called The Fair Organ Society, which encourages their collection, restoration, and display. They are prominent on the recorded British shows I watch on my computer. They are mostly fronted by a highly decorated panel with flowers and such and often include a statuette or two playing a triangle, bell or drum and keeping time with the music.

The street organs like I saw in Amsterdam are small but the fairground organs are as big as a truck in some cases.

They match the nice finish on most of the steam engines at their shows. I have wondered how many “Showmens engines” there were at a given fair back in the day when they were earning their keep. With all the polished brass, bright paintwork, and striping and the lights they were generating for, they make quite a sight, especially if there are eight or 10 in a row.

I think the most I have read about is thirty-nine at one show, probably at The Great Dorset Steam Fair.

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