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Virtuoso Museum
Bob Brooke


Where can you go to hear the lilting strains of beautiful music from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries? Believe it or not, Franklin, Pennsylvania, home of the DeBence Museum. With 100 antique mechanical musical instruments—most of which still work and are the last of their kind—it’s a truly unique museum.

Instead of just wandering around looking at the instruments, you get to hear them on a guided tour. These old instruments—the oldest dating back to 1850—still make beautiful music.

You’ll marvel at the range of sounds coming from these grand old players, from the tinkling of a Swiss music box where little enameled bees strike saucer bells to the roar of a Wurlitzer band organ.

If you’re a history buff, these machines will take you back in time to the Gilded Age. Imagine Queen Victoria listening to music like this with the ladies of her court.

Some of these innovative musical instruments have animated parts. As the disk turns on a hand-cranked phonograph, Billy Banjo dances. And if you like mechanical gizmos, you’ll have a ball trying out how they work.

Simple Beginnings
This amazing little museum began simply. Jake and Elizabeth DeBence, dairy farmers from Grove City, PA, went to an auction in the 1940s and came home with two Tiffany- style lamps that they bought for very little. This was at a time when country auctions were full of all sorts of treasures.

They got hooked on auctions and kept going and their collections continued to grow. At the same time, they began to buy Tiffany lamps. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1965, they retired to Franklin in Venango County and displayed the collections in their barn. When Jake died in 1992, Elizabeth put the collection up for sale. She turned down a $13 million offer from a Japanese interest because she knew Jake would have wanted his collection to stay near home.

Local residents stepped in—raising $1 million in a matter of months—and purchased the collection. It's now housed in what was once the town's five and dime on the main street. It has one paid staffer and a group of volunteers who repair and care for the instruments. Forty Tiffany-style hanging lamps shed light on it all.

One of a Kind
The rarest instrument—and the only one of its kind in working condition—is a 1912 Berry-Wood A. O. W. Orchestrion. It was the largest orchestrion built by the Kansas-based BerryWood Piano Player Company and was probably used in a motion picture house.

The equivalent of a 10-piece orchestra, it's played by a paper roll. Beautifully crafted of teak and stained art glass panels, the instrument has 34 wood flute pipes, 34 violin pipes a kettle drum, castanets, cymbals, triangles, snare drums, a tambourine and a mandolin.

Loud, Strange and Breathy
The loudest piece in the museum is a 1928 Wurlitzer merry-go-round organ that spent most of its life in Cabana Beach Amusement Park in Washington, PA.

There's a self-playing violin from 1911. It's said that President William Howard Taft thought it was so special that he got Congress to declare it one of the eight great inventions of the year.

The museum has quite a few player pianos whose keys play in ghostly isolation, directed by perforated paper rolls. But there's also a piano player that looks like a heavy bench with wooden fingers. You push it up in front of a regular piano and it plays the keys from its own paper roll. This isn’t a player piano, but a piano player with wooden fingers.

Calliopes get their power from compressed air. Music erupts from the Air-Calio Calliope’s brass pipes. Only three of these instruments were made in 1927. This one spent some time at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and is the last one still playing.

Then there’s the horse race piano which began life, without music, as a betting machine in the 1920s. When gambling became illegal in Pennsylvania, its inventor added the piano component. Customers dropped money in and got music and a horserace. Betting took place on the side, probably in a speakeasy.

The museum is still adding to its collections. The lower level has a mix of radios, organs and juke boxes. The second floor houses more pianos and organs and the shop where volunteers work on the instruments. On the third Sunday of each month, except August, there's usually a concert on the third floor.

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