North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory

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North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory


Architect's rendering of the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory, Tonawanda News, 1893 Architect's rendering of the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory (Tonawanda News, 1894)
(1893-1903) The North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory is built in the spring of 1893 by merry-go-round innovators the Armitage-Herschell Company to make organs for their rides. It is the first of its kind in America.

To oversee operations, Armitage-Herschell recruits a German organ maker from London with whom they have been acquainted: the talented Eugene de Kleist. With a small crew of workers culled from England and the surrounding Martinsville farms, the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory makes organs for carousels and churches, offers repairs on existing organs, and makes the pinned barrels that contain the music the organs play. After about a year, Armitage-Herschell sign ownership of the enterprise over to their capable superintendent.

Business is middling until 1897, when de Kleist meets a decades-old musical retail concern from Cincinnati that will prove a valuable partner: the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. The story goes that de Kleist was looking to interest the U. S. Army in buying his bugles, which were made as part of many of his band organs. de Kleist is told that the Wurlitzer company already has that business, so he approaches Wurlitzer, and is able to sell them some of his bugles. He also tries to interest Wurlitzer in his band organs, but they ask if he coud instead produce a coin-operated piano for use in taverns and restaurants. After over a year in development, the first "Tonophones" are ready in 1898, and are an immediate success. (Hear Farny Wurlitzer tell this story himself in this remarkable speech from 1964).

Similiar instruments, such as the Pianino, follow, and the small factory begins to grow, and over the next few years establishes the northwest corner of the massive Wurlitzer plant still standing in North Tonawanda today.

The de Kleist Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company

In 1903, the Barrel Organ Factory incorporates as the de Kleist Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company, with investment from banker James Thompson and some new top brass. Wurlitzer's interest in the North Tonawanda plant increases as Eugene de Kleist's seems to wane (see de Kleist's bio for more on this). In 1905 a group of workers leaves to form the Niagara Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company; within a year another wave of defectors forms the North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works.

1908 begins auspiciously: in January, de Kleist (now mayor of North Tonawanda) lavishly fetes 700 employees and their families in the new music department building. His superintendent, Paul Von Rohl, delivers a speech in his honor, and they dance and carouse until morning light begins filtering over Sawyer's Creek.

The following months will not be as good. de Kleist files a $50,000 infringement lawsuit against the aforementioned Instrument Works, but loses. In March, he leaves the aforementioned Paul Von Rohl in charge of the factory while he is off racing powerboats in Florida. de Kleist returns to suspect there has been rampant theft in his absence, and brings charges of grand larceny against Von Rohl, which are dropped, replaced by petit larceny charges, and then found unproved by a jury. In April, Mayor de Kleist accuses eight employees of stealing valuable machinery and plans from his factory, and of conspiring to start another rival factory. The summer brings more powerboating and politicking.

Perhaps fearing for the security of their investment, Wurlitzer buys Eugene de Kleist out. The Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company is organized in December of 1908 with $1,000,000 capital.


The Realm of Music, North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory, article and transcriptions (Tonawanda News, 1894-01-04).jpg


Transcription by Dana Johnson: The Realm Of Music Where harmony producing instruments are manufactured Home of the organ…

de Kleist, Eugene Frederick.jpg

Eugene de Kleist portrait (Landmarks of Niagara County, 1897 PD).jpg

(1853–1913) German-born Eugene de Kleist settles at Sawyer's Creek in Martinsville in 1893, having been recruited by the Armitage-Herschell…