Loud and melodious

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 15, 2014

SALISBURY — Not many people own a calliope. Ed and Paul Brown have two, and they are beautiful things to behold and incredible to hear.
Play one, and it’s hard to carry on a conversation without shouting. Play both at the same time, and it’s a good idea to wear earplugs to prevent deafness.
Calliopes were steam-powered, pipe-organ instruments encased in carriages and pulled by horses. They could play automatically, much like a player piano, or just as often someone would sit at their small keyboards punching out joyful tunes.
Circuses used the attention-grabbing, high-powered music of calliopes to lead people of the town from the trains to the big tents.
They were intentionally loud and melodious.
“I think we have both of those covered,” Paul Brown says.
Fairs and carnivals also liked to depend on calliopes for promotion, but they likewise found homes on river steamboats in the Midwest.
“They became popular with the people on the river banks,” Paul Brown says.
The calliope itself dates back to 1855 when it was created by Massachusetts inventor and beekeeper Joshua C. Stoddard, who first played a calliope on the Worchester common.
“Calliope” is Greek for “beautiful voice,” and it also was the Muse of epic poetry and eloquence.
The Browns’ calliopes date to 1887 and 1923.
Some years ago, while he was on vacation to Hawaii, former Rowan County Parks and Recreation Director Jim Foltz found the 1887 calliope encased in vines and sitting in someone’s front yard.
It apparently had been neglected for about 13 years.
Foltz negotiated a purchase with the owner and persuaded the Browns (of W.A. Brown & Son) to sponsor its shipment back to the States and a restoration. Foltz then made it one of the attractions at Dan Nicholas Park.
Paul Brown thinks the 1887 calliope, first restored by Larry Graves and Andrea Gardner, made its Rowan County debut as part of the county’s 250 Fest parade in 2003.
The calliope played for a couple of years at the park, but the budget, interest and upkeep for it waned. Again, it became neglected — something you shouldn’t do with a calliope.
The mechanically minded Browns, also known for their impressive collection of antique fire trucks, eventually asked the county whether they could purchase the calliope.
Given all the money the Browns had spent previously in bringing the calliope here and having it restored the first time, the county sold it for a nominal fee.
“Our intent is for the public to enjoy it,” Paul Brown says.
You could hear the rejuvenated calliope’s music for about a half mile when it emerged again for the recent “Touch a Truck” event downtown.
The big sound comes from a Miner Co. calliope out of West Point, Iowa. Each fluted, brass pipe of a calliope represents a different note, and the pipes’ sounds come from high-pressured air being forced into them.
The air-powered units are called “air calliopes” or “Calliophones,” a registered name with the Miner Co.
Pressing on the keys activates a vacuum, pulling notes down and determining how much air goes into the pipes. In the days of steam and water, the pipes’ pitch was constantly subject to change, and adjustments had to occur regularly.
For historical and educational purposes, the Browns made sure to keep the original boiler, which once produced the steam to run the calliope. (The boilers were dangerous and could be explosive.)
Today’s organ relies on a gas generator to create the air pressure needed, but for appearances, the Browns incorporate a smoke machine to push smoke out of the top of the boiler stack.
The restoration back in the early 2000s installed a church organ into the carriage. Because it didn’t have proper amplification, you really couldn’t hear it on the streets, Paul Brown says.
That was all corrected — and then some — when the Browns replaced the church organ with the calliope from Miner and installed the air box and air-pressure system.
They bought their 1923 calliope in late October 2009. It supposedly had been on the Ocean City, N.J., boardwalk at one time and reconfigured so you could drop in a quarter for the calliope to play a tune.
Larry Graves restored the 1923 model to operating shape, and it debuted locally in the Holiday Caravan parade in 2010.
“We did a complete color change and restoration of internals in 2010 through March 2011,” Paul Brown says. He recalls it was supposed to be only a two-week project.
The new-look calliope then appeared in the 2011 Christmas parade.
Ed Brown can’t hide his boyish love for both calliopes as he points out their different attributes.
“I’m enthusiastic about this kind of mechanical music,” says Ed, a member of the Automated Musical Instrument Collectors’ Association and the Carousel Organ Association of America.
Again, not many people own calliopes, and few people make trips across the country and over to Europe to see them on display and meet with other collectors. Ed Brown does routinely.
But the bashful Brown also tries to stay out of any photographs, joking that people might confuse the “1887” date in the mirror of one of his calliopes with the year he was born.
His love for these types of instruments probably goes back to his days as a youngster when his aunt played a player piano and he would sit on the bench next to her.
“I’ve just had this as a hobby for years,” Ed Brown says. “… It’s just for the love of it. It’s just the excitement of it.”
He passed on that affection to Paul, who loves the mechanics associated with the calliopes and played a major role in bringing them both back to life.
“I do it because I like to take stuff apart,” Paul says.
Both calliopes have 43 pipes and keyboards that play 43 different notes.
“You have to tune it, just like a piano,” Paul Brown says, explaining how he tunes the pipes — up and down — off a middle pipe.
As for loudness, the high, squeaky notes make your teeth rattle, while the lower bass notes aren’t so bad, the Browns say.
The 1887 calliope, with its iron wheels, weighs a whopping 5,000 pounds. It features carvings out of solid wood, steel decking and heavy springs for the undercarriage.
The Browns purchased a heavy-duty 1954 brush truck from the Locke Fire Department to pull the calliope.
Eddie Brown (no relation), who is known for his detail work in NASCAR, did the pinstripes.
Every side, corner and sound coming from the calliopes take you back in time.
“They are labors of love, I’ll tell you that,” Paul Brown says. “We want to share them with the public — that’s what we do. And not many people have calliopes sitting around.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.