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Mid-American Chapter of Musical Box Society International plays at 45th Annual Band Organ Rally

Garrett Reese
The Mid-America Chapter of the Musical Box Society International is composed of older, retired men and women who use their free time to engage with their musical hobby.

Last month, Carillon Historical Park hosted the 45th Annual Band Organ Rally. The Mid-American Chapter of Musical Box Society International was there to play their instruments that have a rich history.

The organ is an old, mechanical instrument. You manually turn a crank and it produces music. The faster you turn, the faster the music goes!

“The medium for the organs to play range from punched cardboard books that are folded and go across a tracker bar,” Rob Pollock, the chair of the Mid-America Chapter, said. “You also have paper rolls similar to what a piano player would use. Or early computers with cards.”

Organ grinder at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio
Garrett Reese
Organs were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the men who played the instruments, used to stand on street corners and play their music during festivals in towns.

The Mid-America Chapter of the Musical Box Society International is composed of older men and women like Rob. They’re all retired and are using their free time to engage with their musical hobby.

The chapter is the largest, composed of the states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Michigan, Western Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arkansas. A couple of times a year, the group will meet up at places like Carillon Park in one of these states. They bring their organs with them to play together, swap and trade parts and organs, and to just be with each other.

“We refer to it as the happiest music on Earth, and we enjoy it greatly, and it's a great group of folks,” Pollock said.

Organs were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Organ grinders, the men who played the instruments, used to stand on street corners and play their music during festivals in towns.

“It’s all music that you would have heard on a carousel or on a street corner back in 1920, 1930, all the way through the 1970's,” Pollock said.

Eventually, however, the organ lost popularity. The organ grinders began to be seen as panhandlers constantly asking for money. What really killed the organ, however, were record players and jukeboxes. They made music more accessible and were relatively cheap.

When I found the Mid-America Chapter playing in front of the Carillon Park entrance, a small group of families were dancing to the chicken dance.

One of the things that immediately stood out to me was the mannequin with a monkey’s head that appeared to be “playing” a tuba. The closer I looked, the more monkeys I saw. There were stuffed ones hanging from and sitting on organs, and one that blinked and moved as the organ grinder turned their crank.

Organ grinder at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio.
Garrett Reese
According to Dean Shepard, the stuffed monkey represents the monkeys that were trained to steal or solicit coins from patrons depending on whether the organ grinder was honest or not.

Eventually, I asked Deane Shepard, one of the organ grinders, what was up with the monkeys.

“The organ grinder would distract people,” he said. “The monkeys would steal their coins or solicit their coins, depending on whether he was honest or not.”

When the organ was in its prime, organ grinders all had monkeys. Like the stuffed ones, they would sit on or near their owner’s organ and interact with the audience. If the organ grinder was honest, as Shepard said, the monkey would shake a cup and ask for money while the grinder played.

If they weren’t quite so scrupulous, the monkeys would instead pick people’s pockets to steal their coins. This fun fact about the history of monkeys eventually took a life of its own: the annual meeting of the Mid-America Chapter is sometimes called the “Annual Monkey Organ Rally.”

The stuffed monkeys, the mechanical one, and the strange mannequin with a monkey’s head on were just the modern interpretation of the monkey tagging along with the grinders. It’s a lot cleaner this way, too, Shepard said with a chuckle.

The mannequin monkey playing the tuba was actually part of an elaborate system that these organ grinders came up with. Most of the organs the grinders brought to Carillon Park were the old, mechanical kind. Two of them, however, were electric and part of a wireless system.

“It’s a wireless system,” Shepard said. “I can’t tell you if it’s wi-fi, Bluetooth, or what. It’s just a wireless system that they have.”

The first person to start playing becomes the conductor. All of the other wireless instruments, including two organs, two accordions, and the tuba, all sync up with the first player. As soon as the first player begins to play, the other instruments automatically begin to play together.

Organ grinders at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio
Garrett Reese

In fact, Pollock said, they’re not the only music group to utilize this setup. He said that sometimes when they go to events with other organ grinders, all of their wireless instruments end up connecting and playing together. They do this even if the groups are on opposite sides of a park like Carillon.

Much like the organs, Pollock and Shepard have histories related to their mechanical instruments.

“Started for me with my mom and dad got a player piano,” Pollock said. “We got it in Troy, Ohio. And from that we got hooked by the hobby.”

You know, one of the folks in our group long had a hobby of working on player pianos, and he built the small white organ you see out there,” Shepard said, pointing at the instrument. “And I would go to see it at various places. And at one of the places that I went, I saw the automatic accordion. So I ordered the automatic accordion from Germany. And then I decided I should have an organ. And then my sister and her husband decided that they would like to have an organ. So we got them an organ and it just has grown and grown and grown.”

What keeps Rob and Deane coming to these gatherings is how their music can impact the people they play for.

“Yesterday we had some elderly veterans that came through. And when we did the when one of the people did the service music, they were very happy,” Pollock said. “And one of them was having his 96th birthday. And so one of our organs had a happy birthday roll. And so they played it for him and he was crying so that we do something for him like that.”

This joy created by listening to the organ music made me think of the families dancing to the chicken dance. Something so simple and pure sparked joy in so many people that the Mid-America Chapter meets in their travels.

In Carillon Park that day, one young father had brought his family all the way from Connecticut. Earlier in the week, he and his wife had bought their young daughter a stuffed monkey. When she saw the organ grinders and their monkeys, she was enamored.

She danced to the music, fawned over the monkeys, and had a great time. And Pollock, Shepard, and the rest of the Mid-America Chapter were having just as much fun.

Garrett is a WYSO intern and graduate of University of Dayton. He spent time covering the Dayton area with WDTN Channel 2 News after the 2019 Memorial Day Tornado outbreak. It was around this time that he began listening to NPR and fell in love with radio-based journalism. Garrett graduated from UD in May of 2021 with his Bachelor’s in Communications with a focus in journalism and graduated in May of 2022 with his Master’s. While not working at WYSO, Garrett is an avid reader, loves to play video games, and hanging out with his friends.