News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 14, 2013

Historical treasure: Musical stories at the Historical Museum

Chris Weber
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — While helping set up the newest exhibit at The Vigo County Historical Museum, “And the Band Played: Vigo County’s Music Scene Up Through the 1960s,” I started to wonder what other musical stories the museum had to tell. While I spend a lot of time in the building, and am a musician myself, the musical artifacts had never really caught my eye. There is of course the piano on the main floor, and the Paul Dresser exhibit, but I was surprised to find a number of other items hidden away in plain view. In fact, every room I explored had at least one item of musical interest.

One particular piece is tucked away in a corner of the Victorian Parlor on the second floor. This room has a number of different musical items, including an organ and autoharps; however, there is a roller organ on the side table that is a truly unique piece.

Technically this is a Musical Casket No. 2, produced in the late 1800s. The machine worked by turning a musical roll with holes of various sizes cut into the surface. Reeds similar to a harmonica played as the holes passed over them. For the time, it was a way of bringing music into the home without having to actually have musical aptitude; and advertisements of the era played up this point. Previously music had to be heard or played live in order to be enjoyed; however, popular songs were transcribed to the rolls and sold for the convenience and enjoyment in the home. In addition, this item was portable, and would likely have been used at many functions both indoors and out.

Today these roller organs are quite collectable. There are even online resources to hear what this little organ would have sounded like. When it was donated, three rolls of music were also included, and who knows how many more have been played on it. They were centerpieces of family and social life, and one assumes that this one had much use.

Take a minute the next time you are in the museum and find this piece of musical history. While you are at it, look around for all of the other musical treasures hidden throughout the building. Who knows what you will find.

Historical Treasure

• The Vigo County Historical Society’s museum is at 1411 S. Sixth St. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through