The Music Man of Kenny

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By Steve Paquin

band organIf you hear the sound of carousel music playing in the Kenny neighborhood this summer, you might logically assume that the ice cream truck is on its way to deliver sweet treats to the local kids. If you follow the music to its source, however, you may be in for a pleasant surprise – although you won’t end up buying a Popsicle or push-up. Instead, you’ll find yourself peering inside the ten-foot trailer that houses a mechanical musical marvel called a band organ, which was painstakingly hand-built by Kenny resident Tom Logan a decade ago.

Describing a band organ is difficult because it’s such a unique machine. From the front it looks like a small church pipe organ with drums and cymbals attached, and adorned with decorative filigree, paintings, or figurines. But go around back and a band organ reveals itself to be a mind-boggling Rube Goldberg steam engine player piano driven by fireplace bellows. (Editor’s note: We told you it was hard to describe – please see for yourself at this year’s Lyndale Open Streets festival.) The one thing that is easy to describe is a band organ’s volume – this thing is LOUD! “There’s no volume control,” agrees Tom Logan, “so you get what you get. They wanted these things loud because in the amusement park the carousel is the centerpiece ride and they wanted to draw the crowd to it.”

Most commercially built band organs in the United States were made before World War II. At the time they first appeared, around 1900, there was no way to play music at a reasonable volume level for public events or large halls. Electronic amplifiers hadn't been invented yet and phonographs were not sufficiently loud; the only alternative was a live band or orchestra, which was not always practical or cost-effective. The band organ overcame many of these obstacles. Even in the late 1920s, when vacuum tube amplifiers, microphones, and electric phonograph pickups were introduced, the fact that band organs didn't necessarily need electricity to operate kept them in production into the 1930s. Tom Logan wasn’t yet born to experience the heyday of band organs, but he assumes that his initial interest in them dates to his childhood. “I could remember one of these sitting outside the hardware store when I was young, probably about 10 years old. I remember it was yellow and I would watch it, fascinated. The merry-go-round at the amusement park was also my favorite ride as a young kid, so the music from that probably has something to do with it too.”

Tom vividly recalls that his decision to build a band organ dates to a weekend in the mid-1990s when he lived in Indiana. “I saw a flyer hanging on the wall of a grocery store that said ‘Band Organ Rally’ and it had colorful displays of all the different organs that would be on display. I went there and discovered a field filled with about 30 organs whose owners had trailered them in from all over the country. I ended up spending all day Saturday, then went back and spent all Sunday as well! I was completely fascinated and immediately loved the sound of it. Of course these guys were all serious band organ enthusiasts and many were builders and engineers, so they could tell me everything I wanted to know. Most of them would find old band organs and restore them, but there were a few who had built their own from scratch. I just said to myself ‘I’m going to do that.’ Shortly afterward I bought a set of plans from one of the rally participants and started figuring out how to build my own.”

Tom set out to create a replica of the most common band organ, the Wurlitzer 105, which was designed for a smaller merry-go-round rather than a huge carousel. “Mine is based on a 1924 model,” explains Tom, “and it’s all as authentic as I could get it. It’s called a Military Band Organ because it also includes percussion - bass drum, snare drum, and cymbal - and is able to sound like a military band.”

A mechanical engineer by education and a design engineer by vocation, Tom’s experience equipped him to understand the band organ, but not to build it.  “Well, it’s basically made out of wood and leather, and I had never been a woodworker, so didn’t really know how to do it,” Tom remembers. “I started by buying a table saw, then a drill press, which let me get a good start. So the first thing I did was spend a year building pipes. After that I bought a planer and a router and pretty much learned the woodworking process as I was constructing this thing.”

To understand why Tom spent a full year building pipes, it helps to know that the Wurlitzer 105 features a total of 97 wooden pipes of varying sizes. It uses a punched paper roll similar to a player piano that can trigger 41 different notes from the pipes, plus snare drum and bass drum. One note from the paper may actually sound several pipes, each with a different timbre or sound quality. Different pipes are designed to mimic the sound of flutes, piccolos, trumpets, violins, and cellos. Fortunately, Tom didn’t have to train as a musician to build a pipe organ, just as an engineer and a woodworker!

During construction, Tom learned about the varying properties of different types of wood. “The wood that I used is traditional,” he explains. “The case is made of quartersawn oak, so it has grain on it that goes straight across and is specially built for stability. The air handling pieces like the bellows are built from maple. That doesn’t have much grain at all so you can pretty much machine it the way you’d work a piece of aluminum. The pipes are made out of ordinary pine boards, but when you put three coats of varnish on them it creates it a beautiful resonant sound. Each wood is specifically suited to the purpose it serves.”

The engineer in Tom emerges when he’s asked to explain how the band organ actually works, which is a challenge to articulate simply. “The real joy of this project was understanding all of the mechanisms and what makes it tick. A generator in the trailer powers a motor on top that has a belt that drives a pulley that spins a crankshaft with levers on it. On the bottom of the organ are two levers that pump a bellows that creates air pressure to blow the pipes, and two more cranks that pump smaller bellows that create a vacuum. That allows the paper with holes in it to be read, opening valves that trigger the pipes to sound. Things just aren’t done like this anymore; modern machines are all electronic but this is all mechanical so it’s amazing to me. I mean, the engineering I used on this had been all figured out at the start of the 20th century, at the same time the Model T was being designed and built!”

Asked how long it took him to build his band organ, Tom initially provides a shocking time frame but then clarifies it. “I started this thing in 1996 and finished it in 2008,” he recalls. “It’s not entirely fair to say it took 12 years though, because I worked on it for about 1-1/2 years and we moved a couple times so I had it packed away for nine years. When my youngest son went to college that triggered me to dig it out and finish it. My goal was to complete it in a year so I could enter it in the Minnesota State Fair.  I did, and in August 2008 I won a blue ribbon in the Creative Activities building.  That ribbon still hangs on the side of the organ along with the $10 check! Since I started construction I’ve kept a log book and write down each day that I do any work. So far it’s been over 3000 total hours.”

While sourcing the player piano-style song rolls for his band organ, Tom discovered that he had made a good choice with the Wurlitzer 105. He explains, “This is one of the most popular organ styles, so there’s a lot of music for it. I was really fortunate to get 80 rolls with 10 songs each so I have a repertoire of 800 songs. If I had made a different model there would be much less music available. Now I even know a guy who will take a punched roll and make a copy of it, so I have a source for more music when I need it.”

Once he had completed this massive project, Tom was ready to bring it out on the road and share with others what pioneering band organ enthusiast Ken Smith called “the happiest music on earth.” The weather from May to October is typically good for operating a band organ, and that corresponds to festival, fair, and parade season. “I pack it away around Halloween,” Tom notes. “It doesn’t work very well in less than 65 degrees, but warm weather is when people are outside wanting to listen to it anyway. When I pull it out in the spring I have to run it through the tuning roll that plays every pipe and gets thing loosened up, and I’ll have to tune it a little bit. There’s nothing worse for business than a band organ that’s loud and out of tune,” he laughs.

A lot of Tom’s appearances are as a stationary single attraction, like appearing at Lyndale Open Streets or at historical-themed events like threshing shows. He can also play parades because the unit is in a trailer running off a generator. Tom’s 105 has been featured in the State Fair Parade a number of years and he’s in Spicer for the 4th of July parade every year.

Some of Tom’s favorite band organ festivities are the large multi-organ rallies, like the one he attended in Indiana that sparked his own personal band organ odyssey. They provide him the opportunity to be surrounded by other band organ enthusiasts and talk shop for a weekend. “I try to get to a rally at least once a year,” he says. “I belong to three different national organizations, which will typically organize these rallies. The last local one was at Como Park around the conservatory when about 15 of us got together, but I’ve been all over the country. One memorable trip was in 2010 to Niagara Falls where the original Wurlitzer factory is. A bunch of us hauled out there when they had an event called The Great Wurlitzer Band Organ Recall.”

When asked who seems to appreciate his Wurlitzer 105 the most when he displays it in public, Tom indicates it’s often the youngest and the oldest members of the crowd. “I think everybody who sees it can appreciate the complexity of the mechanical system,” he opines, “but I was happy to see that modern kids are still fascinated by how the band organ works, even though it’s old-fashioned. The ones who come up and study it for a long time I can tell are the engineering-inclined minds. I told my own grandkids that it’s grandpa’s iPod. Of course it’s a ‘digital’ machine under the strict definition of the word; since it runs by reading the holes on the paper roll, that means it’s digital, either on or off.”

Tom clearly has a place in his heart for the generation of folks who have their own childhood memories of carousels and band organs. “I’ve seen older people stand there looking at it with a tear running down their cheek,” he notes. “One guy was so swept away that he kept telling me ‘You have to keep this out touring so everyone has a chance to see it.’ It was a great feeling to see the joy it brought him.”

Tom is still working full time as an engineer, so his band organ activities are a part-time hobby. Asked how long he thinks he’ll keep going, Tom hesitates. “I suppose that once I retire I could take it south in the winter and display it down there, then come back north for the summer. We’ll make those decisions when the time comes.”

One thing Tom has learned is that his family doesn’t intend to let him step away from his hand-built band organ and all it represents to them. “A couple years ago,” he reflects, “a guy from northern Minnesota wanted to buy the band organ from me and made me a fair offer. I went home and was talking to my daughter about it and she said ‘You can’t ever sell that to anyone. If you want to sell it then I’m the buyer, because we’re not ever getting rid of it.’ I guess it’s a little unusual as a family heirloom, but it looks like my old Wurlitzer 105 will stick around!” To appreciate his family’s mechanical marvel, visit Tom’s band organ during the Lyndale Open Streets festival. To find him, just follow the sound of the loud carousel music, exactly the way festival crowds did 100 years ago.

To see and hear Tom Logan’s Wurlitzer 105 replica in action, search for his YouTube channel, mnbandorgan