1892 Roller Organ Brought Back to Life

A family heirloom which was donated to the Garnavillo Historical Society Museum in 1966 has found new life thanks to the determination of David Beck and Jack Niewoehner of Elkader. The 1892 Concert Roller Organ became a source of musical entertainment in the Herman and Wilhelmina Schaefermeier home south of Garnavillo in the 1890’s. It was then passed down in the family to their daughter Augusta (Gusty) and Otto Siebrecht. Their daughters Alice (Siebrecht) Downing and Naomi (Siebrecht) Klinge then received it and eventually donated it to the Garnavillo Museum.

Over the years it deteriorated to the point that the metal parts had rusted, the bellows fabric had torn away from the wood frames and dirt and grime had built up to make the organ unplayable. The little roller organ looks like an oversize bread box. Sound is created by means of bellows which are moved by the turn of the crank handle on the front of the organ. Valves cover holes which lead to a reed box similar to a harmonica. A wooden cylinder with pins called a cob also turns with the turn of the crank handle and as the cob turns on a spindle the pins push on the valves opening the holes to the reed box. The combination of the bellows creating air movement and the valves opening and closing as the cob turns, allowing air movement across the reeds, creates the tune.

The Disassembled 1892 Roller Organ

Historical Society board member David Beck saw the roller organ on display and saw its generally poor condition and decided to take the restoration on as a winter project. In November 2021, he took the organ home to Elkader and consulted with Jack Niewoehner who was in the player piano and clock repair business for many years. Jack had repaired several similar roller organs years ago and offered his assistance in the restoration.

The first step was disassembling the player which David did at his home. Rusted parts were then soaked in a chemical which dissolved the rust, new felt and leather pads were cut to be glued onto the valves, and general clean-up of parts was done including extracting the 20 reeds in the reed box one by one and cleaning the holes in which they were seated.

Roller Organ Reassembled and Ready to Play

With Jack’s expertise in bellows restoration, that part of the job was done at his shop in Elkader. Proper fabric and strong glue were a necessity. Little by little the bellows were restored and when completed David brought the rest of the parts over to Jack’s shop where it was reassembled on January 15. For the first time in many years the familiar tune Home Sweet Home was heard once again from the little Concert Roller Organ.

Restored 1892 Concert Roller Organ playing “Home Sweet Home.”

The roller organ will be back on display in the Garnavillo Museum, June through September, Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4 PM.

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