Magnolia organ collection a 'working piece of history

There's a lot that goes into music. There's the sound itself, the patterns of notes and rhythms, the melodies and harmonies that make up a song. There's the artistry of musicianship, the study, discipline and the incessant practice.

And then there's mechanical engineering.

"When I was in high school, I thought that I was going to be a musician," says Robert Wilson, the owner of Magnolia Ace Hardware, "but at the last minute I decided that it was a hell of a way to make a living.

"I've always enjoyed music, but I've never found enough time to learn how to play an instrument properly. I just have too many other interests that get in the way."

Ironically, one of those interests all but negates the need to become a musician in the traditional sense. Inspired by his love of music, history and mechanics, Wilson, 74, has built a collection of instruments that literally play themselves.

"I've been collecting street organs and other automatic instruments for about 15 years," he says. Wilson's adventure started when his family was down in Orlando, Fla., at Disney World. They were making the rounds of local antique stores when he noticed a little cart with an instrument on it that looked like a child's piano.

However, instead of being played, the sound on the keyboard was generated by a hand crank that turned a small metal barrel.

"I looked at it and thought, 'Gee, we oughta have something like that in our street fair parade in the summertime," Wilson says.

Wilson bought the instrument and brought it back with him to Seattle. He then set about finding someone in the area who could tune it and restore it to proper working condition. That person was Carl Kehret, an Issaquah resident who Wilson calls "a genius at restoring automatic instruments."

When Wilson brought his new instrument over to Kehret's shop to be fixed up, the handyman gave him a tour of the collection of player pianos and player organs he had in his house. "I got so interested in them that I ended up joining his group," Wilson says.

Kehret, along with his wife, Peg, was the co-president of the local chapter of AMICA, the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association, until his death in 2004. The group, the Pacific Can-Am chapter of AMICA, is made up of members from British Columbia, Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

AMICA is one of the two main international organizations for automatic instrument collectors. The other is MBI, the Music Box Society. "Both groups have been around for a long time and there's so much overlap that I honestly don't know why they don't merge," Wilson explains.

A few years after joining AMICA, Wilson came across his first street organ.

"I went to one of the meetings and Carl showed me a monkey organ that I thought was really neat," he says. "The instrument got its name from the days when grinders used a monkey to attract attention and collect money. "Street organ" is a term that covers the gamut of small organs that are too loud to play inside - they're loud enough to drive you nuts."

Wilson found out where Kehret got his street organ, obtained information from the instrument's manufacturer in Germany and then had one made. "I've been using it at the street fairs ever since," he says.

Wilson and his instrument have become staples at the Magnolia Farmers Market and the Fremont Solstice Parade. He also plays in front of his hardware store for an annual fall open house, and dons a Santa Claus suit to grind out Christmas carols during the holiday season.

The cart for his street organ is emblazoned with the Ace Hardware logo.

"The manufacturer had a cart available for the organ, but I didn't like the design," Wilson says. The design was a reproduction of the original carts used in the 19th century, but he says it was "too springy." The organ rocked back and forth when he turned the crank. "I didn't think that was too practical, so I built my own," Wilson says.

Wilson recently showed various pieces of his collection at the fourth annual Organ Rally in Leavenworth. The rally used to be held at Ocean Shores on the Washington coast, but the event coordinator eventually pulled up stakes and moved to Scotland. At that point, Wilson said he formed a committee to find a new location. "We ended up deciding on Leavenworth," he says.

Held over the weekend of Aug. 20 and 21, Wilson says the rally was well attended. Along with automatic instrument aficionados, the crowd swelled with curious attendees from a wine tasting festival that was being held down the road. Wilson and other organizers said they were happy with the turnout; they've decided to host the rally in Leavenworth again next summer, during the third weekend of August.

Wilson says he is always happy to share his collection with a curious public. For him, it is a working piece of history.

"My collection traces the evolution of the development of mechanical instruments," he says.

The first organs were played with a barrel filled with pins that would control the bellows and the order of notes. The barrels later were replaced with rolls of paper with holes cut out of them in a specific order. Then came music boxes run by steel discs. American inventor Thomas Edison eventually came out with his cylinder player, which paved the way for 78 rpm records, then 45s and finally tapes and CDs.

"These instruments represent what was," Wilson says. "Nothing makes me happier than sharing them with young people who are curious about the past and how it relates to the innovations that have continued through to the present."

For more information concerning the Pacific Can-Am chapter of AMICA, or mechanical music in general, contact Kurt Morrison at To see a previous feature story on Bob Wilson (Magnolia News, Aug. 24), visit the Web site at

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