Tag Archives: music

“How the Good Times Rolled” provides insight, evidence for leisure activities of the past

Sheet music cover, from Liz Bannister Music Collection, Traverse Area District Library.

“Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” is the phrase the old folks tell me is appropriate for the morning attitude (ugh), but despite how you tackle the day, each of us has our hours to fill. Perhaps you will accomplish some daily chores, get in a little of your paying gig, and generally let the time go to waste. Or, you can take a cue from the new book, How the Good Times Rolled by author and Grand Traverse Journal editor Richard Fidler, and live it up like we once did.

Nostalgia is a driving force behind this work, as well as Fidler’s typical curiosity for the things we take for granted. Fingering modern technology as the culprit, Fidler discusses briefly in the introduction a common lament that is heard on the street, that people seem to have lost the ability to engage in conversation, to have spontaneous fun, or to make time for new activities.

This lament begs the questions, “How were things different ‘way back when’? How did people enjoy themselves?”

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on parade, Traverse City, 1898. Image from the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Using a variety of sources, including diaries and other personal accounts, contemporary newspapers, and the archives of various clubs and social groups, Fidler sought to answer these questions. Each chapter provides some brief history about the given subject, from outdoor sports to celebrations. I found his writing to be read easily with children as well, rather lively and engaging. Interestingly, Fidler found “the Traverse region does mirror the social milieu of America generally,” despite the region’s relative isolation and lack of diversity.

The real beauty of this volume is the quality and quantity of photographs used to illustrate this social history. A passing familiarity with photographs taken in the late 1800s to the early 1900s leaves one with the impression that people Just. Didn’t. Smile. But Fidler has plumbed the depths of several amazing collections, from the Benzie Museum and Historical Society, the Leelanau Museum and Historical Society, and the Traverse Area Historical Society collection held at Traverse Area District Library, to reveal a significant truth: people of the past loved having fun!

Ladies drinkin’. Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Some especially notable images are those of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a traveling attraction that visited Traverse City in 1898; images of people enjoying libations and other vices (even during Prohibition); sheet music covers from the famed Liz Bannister collection, depicting popular dances; and amazing action images of horse racing, bicycling, and sailing (and ice boats, too!)

“Speedboat Race” at Grand Traverse Bay, Orson W. Peck colored photographic postcard. From the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

I recommend treating yourself to the hardcover edition, which contains both color and black-and-white images. Again, this is fun to read with others or alone, and any age group will find something within to marvel at. If you have a summer home around these parts, this would be especially nice to take back to your winter residence as a coffee table book.

Whether you want to learn more about the past, or reminisce about how it was “way back when,” How the Good Times Rolled: What We Did for Fun Before the Digitial Age is the book for you! Available at local booksellers and Amazon.

Cecil H. Dill, Hand Musician and Celebrity of Traverse City

Meet Cecil H. Dill (27 October 1900-3 November 1989), “The Farmer Who Makes Music with His Hands.” Dill was an aspiring radio performer, who had an interesting talent… the ability to squeeze his hands together and play melodies, mostly of popular tunes of the day.

His parents, Jennie McEwan (d. 22 January 1960) and William H. Dill (d. 22 July 1966), were married in Grand Traverse County in 1899, and spent most of their married life alongside their children Cecil, Dorothy (d. 22 December 1972) and Joan, in Traverse City. According to census records, William briefly operated a farm in Blair Township, probably about 1930 to 1938 or so.

In 1939, William purchased Novotny’s Saloon on Union Street in Old Town, Traverse City, and renamed the establishment “Dill’s Olde Towne Saloon,” which became a favorite watering hole for locals and visitors alike. William had a long career in bartending, with only his brief farming career as the exception.

Like his father, Cecil usually made his living with his hands. During the holidays, he often sold balsam and cedar wreaths, and began taking orders in the end of October, showing the popularity of his work. Over the years, he offered junk removal and other light draying services to the community as well, sometimes partnering with Goldie Wagner (d. 16 April 1986).

But, before his father opened Dill’s Saloon, Cecil was still working the family farm when he discovered his unique musical abilities (I’ll let Cecil tell you in his own words in the embedded video exactly how he developed his talent). Cecil was able to sell his talent to various performers, most notably Ted Weems, the bandleader who would provide Perry Como his first national exposure. Cecil played with the Ted Weems Orchestra in Chicago, and was thoroughly applauded by all those present. According to a Chicago Tribune article of the event, Cecil stole the show.

The years of 1933-1934 saw the height of Cecil’s popularity. He played with Ted Weems, as well as bandleader Hal Kemp. He made appearances at other venues in Chicago and in Hollywood nightclubs. His performances were written up in Chicago and Detroit newspapers, as well as Vanity. He palmed his fame all the way to the National Farm and Home radio hour, and a Universal Pictures newsreel (below), both of which provided Cecil with national exposure.

Although his fame was short-lived, Cecil would continue to play throughout his life, showing up various variety events in Traverse City. Cecil’s Universal Pictures newsreel is the earliest known recording of Manualism, that is, the art of playing music by squeezing air through the hands. By all accounts, that makes Cecil the first “Manualist,” although I suspect this musical style has a long and varied history, as least as old as clapping.

The last of Cecil’s life was plagued with health problems. The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported of his ill-health several times. On Tuesday, October 10, 1961,  Cecil, living at 229 Wellington, was admitted to Munson. He had been dining at Bill Thomas’ Restaurant at 130 Park Street, when he fell ill. A “resuscitator unit” from the fire department was called to his aid, and the newspaper report stated he “suffered from an apparent heart attack.” He suffered additional bouts of illness that required hospitalization in 1970 and 1973, but ultimately lived to the ripe age of 89.

Enjoy Cecil’s rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and the story of his talent, made available by the Internet Archive. This video is in the Public Domain, meaning there are no copyright restrictions, so please share out.





Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Inside the Music House Museum’s Roofing Project

Recognized by Forbes.com as one of the ten reasons to visit Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the Music House Museum offers a unique collection of instruments that provide guests with a walk through the history, the artistry, and the engineering of automated music.

In the off-season winter months, local historical societies spend time regrouping, or reroofing in the case of the Music House Museum. In preparation for their upcoming project to replace the roof of the 1910 barn that houses major pieces of the Museum’s collection, volunteers have been busily erecting protective scaffolding and plastic sheeting to minimize potential damage to the larger, unmoveable instruments, in addition to the regular winterizing of the building.

The General Store display is temporarily closed and under wraps for protection.
The General Store display is temporarily closed and under wraps for protection.

Bruce Ahlich, Vice-President of the Board of Directors and Chairman of the Collections Committee, invited Grand Traverse Journal back (see our first article in the December 2014 issue) to see exactly how the Museum is managing such a huge undertaking. The Board of Directors has been planning this project for over two years, which includes working on raising the necessary funding, estimated as potentially reaching $160,000 for the roofing ($116,000), structural repairs, removal of waste, cleaning and reassembly of the displays. Fundraising efforts for the reroofing project thus far have included several grants.  Further donations are being accepted through the donation site Go Fund Me at


“For the well-being of the collection, it is imperative to replace the 30 year old roof now, before leaks develop and put the instruments at risk,” explains Ahlich. “We believe there are at least two, possibly three layers of roof that needs to be removed first. These include a couple layers of asphalt shingles and the original 1910 cedar shingles”. Next time you are at the Music House, look up at the rafters for a little history; The rafters and beams still showing bark are from the original barn, built sometime in the 1880s and incorporated into the 1910 structure. The insulated new roof will pay the Museum back in time by reducing heating and cooling costs.

The Museum plans to take full advantage of the removal of most of the displays for the roofing project to also improve the visitor experience. “We will be selective in returning some of the decorative pieces to their place in the Museum while being mindful of the history of the area and the era we are trying to capture”. All of the instruments will be returned to the displays.

Wondering how you can help beyond monetary donations? Volunteers will be needed upon completion of the reroofing to help clean-up the dirt and debris left after removing the roof and reassembling and cleaning the displays. This work will need to be done quickly, as the 2015 season starts off with a bang with the Museum opening on May 1st, and on the third weekend in May hosting the Musical Box Society International’s regional convention.   If interested in helping, please contact the Museum at 231 938-9301 or via e-mail at info@musichouse.org.

then-mortierfacadeOne of the pieces receiving special preparation and protection is the crown jewel of the Museum’s collection, the 1922 “Amaryllis” Mortier Dance Hall Organ, shown here with scaffolding built and covered with plastic sheeting to surround and protect its 30 foot wide by18 foot high facade. Of the approximately 1000 plus similar instruments crafted and used in Northern and Central Europe from 1908 to the 1930s, the Amaryllis (originally built for the Victoria Palace in Ypres, Belgium) is one of two known Mortier survivors with their original facade and specification of this particular size and design. Many dance and fairground organ were casualties of the immediate post-World War II era; The devastation and poverty of war-torn western Europe and the advancement of the phonograph and radio led many of the larger instruments to be simply burned as firewood to heat homes after salvaging the metal pipes from them as scrap.

The Amaryllis plays by perforated books of "music" and a hand-cranked flywheel.
The Amaryllis plays by perforated books of “music” and a hand-cranked flywheel.

The Amaryllis had been stored unplayable for decades, and required months of meticulous restoration work in 1983, and again in 2013, to restore it. The 97 key organ plays folding, perforated cardboard music books, using hundreds of pipes and other instruments (snare and bass drums, whistles, cymbals) to play its library of lively waltzes, polkas, foxtrots, and other popular music of the 1920s and later eras.  The huge flywheel which is used to play the organ was originally turned by hand; The use of a vintage electric motor to turn the flywheel now is one modern concession.

then-bruderGrand Traverse Journal will feature the Music House again in the spring, when the 1913 Bruder Fair Organ “Columbia” will be back from Ohio, where it is currently undergoing an $11,000 professional restoration that could not be done in-house. A generous $5,000 matching gift, some Endowment monies and many private donations have enabled to Museum to fund the project, as well as acquire some new music book stock by which to play it. Other newly refurbished instruments to be featured in the spring will be a 1910 Welte-Mignon Vorsetzer and an 1830 Black Forest organ clock, as well as the completion of the Wurlitzer organ project’s original toy chest and glockenspiel.

Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. Special thanks to Bruce Ahlich, Vice-President of the Board of Directors of the Music House Museum.

Music House Museum: History and Artisanship Always on Display

Phonographs on display at Music House Museum, October 2014.
Acoustic phonographs on display at Music House Museum, October 2014.

Acoustic phonographs and electrically amplified jukeboxes face each other from across the walkway of the Museum gallery, not unlike an alley scene straight out of “West Side Story”. If they had fingers, they would be snapping them menacingly in time with the beat projecting out of their horns and speakers, respectively. The heightened drama of this standoff, one audio technology superseded by another, shouldn’t be lost to visitors of the Music House Museum in Williamsburg, Michigan. Although the display is fantastic, it is hardly the most impressive sight to be seen and heard.

The Music House, a 30 plus year old non-profit museum, is home to one of the larger publicly accessible automated musical instrument collections in the United States, and it is sitting in your backyard. “Automated”, meaning that they are instruments that literally play themselves! Visitors are welcome to explore the vast collection of music reproduction technology found within the 1910 dairy barn and gallery that comprises the public space of the Music House Museum located on the remaining 7 acres of the Stiffler Family farm.

In addition to the instruments already named, you’ll find examples of early radios, 200 year old barrel organs and Turkish and Spanish barrel pianos, American reed pump organs,  two pipe organs, European fairground and dance organs, a Bavarian organ clock, Milton and Duo Art player  and reproducing pianos, several example cylinder and disc music boxes, a rare Lochmann Original 450 disc piano, European and American nickelodeons, and other examples of instruments “featuring mechanical music reproduction some of which predate electricity, Bruce Ahlich, Board Vice-President and Collections Committee Chairman states that  “an important aspect of the Music House Museum, unlike some similar venues, is that if the instrument was not originally electronically amplified or powered, it normally remains so in our collections”.

Estey pipe organ acquired in 1988 from St. Andrew's in Saginaw.
Estey pipe organ acquired in 1988 from St. Andrew’s in Saginaw.

Not only does Ahlich and  his Committee oversee collections maintenance and acquisition of new items, he is also an accomplished local organist who played the dedication recital on the Estey pipe organ acquired in 1988 from St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic church in Saginaw, now located on the raised deck at the Museum and used to demonstrate a Wagnerin organ roll player.  Much of the maintenance and minor restorations of the Museum’s collection of unique instruments takes place on-site in its Workshop.  Larger projects are usually contracted out to outside specialists who engage in that particular type of work.

“Our goal is always to seek to restore the instrument as close as possible, given available materials, to its original condition, which can be a time consuming and expensive proposition”, further states Ahlich.    “Electronic sound reproduction can never replace the experience of an acoustic instrument being played”.   

“We could put CD players with hidden amplifiers in the instruments at a lot less expense, but what kind of Museum would we be and what type of musical experience would our guests have”?   The Music House Museum prides itself in having a majority of the displayed instruments playable with the major instruments demonstrated on every tour to its patrons.

Not ready for inspection! Military chaplain's portable reed organ, World War II-era; Currently undergoing restoration in the Workshop.
Not ready for inspection! Military chaplain’s portable reed organ, World War II-era; Currently undergoing restoration in the Workshop.

Local restoration and repair of instruments is done in a workshop off to the side of the main building by hired and volunteer staff.   Among projects underway is work on the Museum’s Seeburg KT nickelodeon and restoration of an Estey chaplain’s portable reed organ probably used in World War II. The Workshop also stores other automated instruments waiting for funding to be restored.  The workshop construction was paid for by a Rotary Charities grant in the mid-90s, and the volunteers remain grateful for that and other bequests to the Museum. Without this kind of assistance, and funding from individual donors, the Music House could not be what it is, a truly unique museum of musical craftsmanship dedicated to the preservation and education about a type of music that lifts the soul and gives a window to the listener to the past.  Earnings for a Museum instrument purchase/repair endowment fund assist with restorations, but often do not cover their full costs.

Rare 1830s Bavarian Black Forest clock, currently undergoing restoration in the Workshop.
Rare 1830s Bavarian Black Forest clock, currently undergoing restoration in the Workshop.

A fun piece currently being restored is a scarce Bavarian Black Forest floor cabinet organ clock, not yet ready for display that dates from the 1830s.   The principle challenge in this restoration project has been finding a suitable clock mechanism as the original had been long removed before it was received by the Museum.   The piece has stood silent for several decades on display in the Museum galleries.  An English clock mechanism has been found and will be installed by local and nationally known clock artisan, Nathan Bower, together with a new clock face this winter.  When reassembled, the clock will chime the hour and then trigger a small two-rank barrel pipe organ to play.   Ahlich states, “we are really looking forward to have this piece greet our visitors in the lobby when we reopen in for the 2015 season in May.” This project will cost approximately $2,500 to complete.

While the restored clock will be impressive, the original assembly was equally remarkable, as Bruce describes: “In slow winter months, a   village collective would develop between neighbors in the Bavarian region of modern Germany, and a cottage industry creating these intricate clocks was born. Each farmer or craftsman would work on his part; some would be responsible for the wood cabinet, others would build the clock, others craft the face and others build the organ and its mechanism, and finally a last person would assemble the whole clock together.” We might pride ourselves on being a do-it-yourself culture, but I’d say those Bavarian artisans have us beat without the benefit of electricity or computers.

A 1904 Lochmann Original 450 disc piano. The perforated disc pictured here, along with other mechanisms, plays the piano strings seen behind the disc.

That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate beautiful craftsmanship when we see it! Take the Lochmann Original 450 disc piano from 1904 on display in the Hurry Back Saloon, a section of the barn restored to appear as an old-timey watering hole and general store. This piece, among the rarest in the Museum’s collections, represents an innovative step in automated instruments and a natural evolution of the disc music box. Before, craftsmen would (expensively) create music boxes by inserting hundreds of pins individually on to metal cylinders; The pins would pluck pitched combs as the cylinder rotated, and the box would play the inscribed melody. The disc music box uses stamped steel discs to achieve the same effect at a much reduced price tag. The Lochmann Originals takes the next step by moving the technology to play a 44 note piano and 12 note chime mechanism.   These instruments were built for a relatively short period of time (less than a decade) and as such are scarce and rare to find in playing condition. They, together with other disc instruments,  were replaced by the player piano and the developing phonograph by 1908-10.    Also silent for many years, the Lochmann is now tuned and playing.     Bruce played a waltz for us using one of the original discs, to show how the hand cranked 150 lb. stone in the back of the cabinet   powered the disc movement to create the music.  Worth the 10 Pfennings this coin-operated machine would have cost you? You bet!

An admirable, if amateur, attempt to build an organ, ca. 1844. Pictured here are the cow-bone keys of that organ... notice anything missing?
An admirable, if amateur, attempt to build an organ, ca. 1844. Pictured here are the cow-bone keys of that organ… notice anything missing?

Not every piece in the Music House is a miracle of invention. Acquired by the Music House in the 1990s, stored for over a decade on the top shelves in the Workshop and finally rediscovered and reassembled and largely restored in the fall of 2013, the cabinet organ pictured here is a fantastic amateur effort to build a home pipe organ. How amateur? Well, the maker forgot to build a place to rest music on.

In addition to that revelation, Museum restorer (Jim Gruber) determined that whoever built the organ was likely a skilled European cabinet maker living in the Southern United States about the time of the Civil War. How did he get all that information from boxes of disassembled parts and cabinetry? The type of wood used to build the cabinet was grown in the South, tulip poplar and gumwood; the keys are made from cow bone, which also places its manufacture in the United States; the maker was not a professional organ builder, as scrap wood and leather was used throughout and the interior shows many efforts at reworking the placement of the organ in the cabinet.  Pages from an old atlas  were used to seal the bottom of the wind chest; the paper in question was taken from an atlas (Olney’s School Geography and Atlas), and have been dated to circa 1844 by the edition numbers found on them. Finally, the maker was likely European, as the notes inscribed on the pipes for their pitches and the cabinet measurements all fit European standards. Restorers and sleuths, the volunteers at the Music House display a variety of talents.

Grand Traverse Journal will feature the Music House again in the spring, when the 1913 Bruder Fair Organ “Columbia” will be back from Ohio, where it is currently undergoing a $12,000 professional restoration that could not be done in-house. A generous $5,000 matching gift, some Endowment monies and private donations have enabled to Museum to fund the project, as well as acquire some new music book stock by which to play it.   

Hurry, the Music House Museum closes January through April, so enjoy the sounds of the season any weekend in December! Decorated for the Christmas season, as docent Becky Gagnon says, “There is a magical feeling every time you walk in!”  The Museum is also open the week between Christmas and New Years from 10 am to 4 pm with continuous docent led tours.  A community open house with refreshments and reduced admission ticket prices is planned for Sunday December 21st 12 noon to 4 pm, where all of the instruments will be demonstrated on a rotating basis playing Christmas music if it is available for them.

Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. This article could not have happened without the generosity of Bruce Ahlich of the Music House Museum. Thanks Bruce!