Estey Organ Company Factory - Brattleboro, Vermont
Posted by: Groundspeak Charter Member BruceS
N 42° 50.868 W 072° 33.993
18T E 698839 N 4746785
Quick Description: Historic former organ manufacturing company in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Location: Vermont, United States
Date Posted: 10/6/2008 6:41:40 PM
Waymark Code: WM4WP8
Published By: Groundspeak Regular Member Lat34North
Views: 21

Long Description:

"The former Estey Organ Company factory complex in Brattleboro, Vermont holds national significance both for its historical role in the United States organ industry and its unique architectural character. By the turn of the twentieth century, the family-owned Estey complex had expanded to become the largest organ factory in the world. The company economically dominated the community of Brattleboro and ranked among the largest industries of Vermont. Its owners and employees contributed numerous inventions in the techniques and components of organ building, and were prominent participants in the political and social affairs both of Brattleboro and Vermont. At its ultimate development, the Estey factory comprised nearly thirty buildings, among which a core of seven were given the unusual exterior sheathing of slate shingles. Those seven buildings remain intact and constitute an outstanding rhythmic uniform facade line along Birge Street, the public approach to the complex. This array of slate-sheathed buildings, of similar scale and massing, is unrivaled in the State.

The founder of the company, Jason Estey, entered the organ business somewhat by chance and after it had been established in Brattleboro by its pioneers - including Samuel H. and Joseph L. Jones, Riley Burdett, and Silas M. Waite. The Jones brothers actually founded the organ industry of Brattleboro when, in 1846, they started making melodeons (a variety of small reed organ) in a rented gristmill. Riley Burdett, a prolific inventor of organ components, joined the firm the following year. Late in 1850, a successor firm rented space in a building owned by Jacob Estey, who then conducted a successful pump and lead pipe business.

Born in 1814 across the Connecticut River in nearby Hinsdale, New Hampshire, Estey moved to Brattleboro in 1835 and took over an existing plumbing business. Early in 1852, he obtained Riley Burdett's share in the melodeon business (possibly to satisfy a claim for unpaid rent). "Mr. Estey was no musician, but his insight told him that the musical instinct was just awakening in the American people, and that the business had in it promising possibilities."(1) In March-April 1853, the firm built the first large reed organ made in Brattleboro, the forerunner of the hundreds of thousands that would follow during the phenomenal expansion o£ the Estey business.

The first simple reed organs in the United States were introduced early in the nineteenth century. According to Gellerman, "the reed organ uses a 'free' reed, which is fixed at one end and free to vibrate at the other, as opposed to the 'beating' reed commonly used in pipe organs."(2) Prior to 1846, Gellerman estimates, fewer than 300 reed organs had been built in the United States, the products of hand craftsmen working in small shops.

In 1855, Estey bought out his partners for $2,700 and devoted himself to his new enterprise. The small workshop had eight to ten employees, who produced six or seven melodeons per month. Estey himself became the traveling salesman, driving wagonloads of the instruments all over northern New England for sale at $75 to $225 or barter for saleable farm products or animals.

Two years after Estey took over the company, fire destroyed the first workshop located at the foot of Main Street beside Whetstone Brook. A larger replacement, constructed across the street, also burned in 1864 but was rebuilt on the same site. The next year Estey with three partners (including Riley Burdett) formed a new company under his name and established a branch in Chicago. Early the following year, however, that partnership dissolved, with Burdett taking the Chicago branch and Estey retaining the Brattleboro property.

By this time, the reed organ had begun a spiralling ascent in musical popularity in the United States. Its moderate cost compared with the piano and the increasing affluence of the public led to an annual domestic production of 15,000 instruments by the middle 1860's. Responding to this demand, Estey continued to expand his operations. Early in 1866, he took into partnership both his son, Julius J. Estey (1845-l902), and his son-in-law of one year, Levi K. Fuller (1841-1896), thereby creating a triumvirate that directed the company's operations until the senior Estey died in 1890.

The same year (1866), the company moved to a larger factory farther upstream along Whetstone Brook, and within three years its workforce increased to 170. The great flood of 1869 interrupted the progress by sweeping away most of the firm's lumber and threatening the factory itself. At that point Jacob Estey decided to make what proved his last move to a new site well above the reach of the brook.

The tract along Birge Street contained sixty acres, ranging up the hillside (an area later called "Esteyville") from a prominent terrace where the new factory would stand. During 1870, the first four slate-sheathed buildings (later numbered 3 through 6 by the company) were constructed fronting Birge Street along with an equally large "dry house' (for drying lumber) to the rear. The new shops were occupied in the fall of the year and enabled a substantial increase in monthly production to 250 organs, whose prices then ranged from $50 to $750; the number of employees rose to 225.

Apparently, however, the burgeoning demand for organs almost immediately outstripped the capacity of the new factory. The next year, two more slate-sheathed buildings (Nos. 1 and 2) were added to the row. At the beginning of 1872, the company employed 350 persons and produced 500 to 600 organs per month. Still the expansion continued: later that year, the seventh slate-sheathed building (now part of the enlarged No. 7-8) was constructed at the north end of the row, and monthly production increased to 700 instruments. The eighth slate-sheathed building was added to complete the row the following year.

Through this period of continuous expansion, Jacob Estey found time to engage in other activities, including politics. In 1869-70, he represented Brattleboro in the Vermont General Assembly; then for the 1872-74 term, he advanced to the State Senate to represent Windham County. During the first year of Estey's Senate term, the Legislature approved an act of incorporation for the Estey Organ Company, with the senior Estey as president, Levi K. Fuller as vice-president, and Julius J. Estey as secretary and treasurer.

Jacob Estey also pursued his religious interests, for which he became known as Deacon Estey. A life-long Baptist, Estey belonged to the Brattleboro church for fifty years, and contributed substantially to Baptist churches in several other towns to assist their efforts at spreading the faith. Similarly he assisted the establishment of Vermont Academy, a preparatory school in Saxtons River, Vermont, and subscribed much of the cost of Estey Seminary (later called Estey Hall) on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Estey Hall was constructed in 1872-74 as probably the first building in the United States intended specifically for the high education of black women; it was entered in the National Register of Historic Places on May 23, 1973.)

In 1880, only ten years after the opening of the Birge Street complex, the Estey company produced its 100,000th organ. Estey production apparently reached its historical peak during that same decade. In 1882, output ranged between 1600 and 1800 organs per month, and the company's sales exceeded $1,000,000. A newspaper article from that year notes that the firm had more than 500 employees, many of whom were women who were paid equally with men for the same work.

To augment its flourishing domestic market, the Estey firm extended sales to many foreign countries. By 1876, forty organs were being shipped to Europe every week. A Gazetteer and Business Directory of Windham County, Vt. published in 1884 exclaimed that "the extensive organ business in Brattleboro has made for the village a world-wide fame, and the music of its organs probably is heard to-day in every civilized country on earth."(3)

Estey's resourceful vice-president, Levi K. Fuller, contributed significantly to that international reputation by becoming a leading authority on musical pitch. Largely through his efforts, musical instrument manufacturers in the United States adopted in 1891 a standard musical pitch. Fuller also contributed substantially to contemporary mechanical progress, accumulating more than 100 patents for his inventions especially in the field of railroad equipment. And he surpassed Jacob Estey in politics, being elected successively to the Vermont Senate in 1880, the lieutenant governorship in 1886, and ultimately the governorship of Vermont in 1892.

The company continued to expand and improve its factory complex throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. In 1882, a large brick dry house or kiln (now demolished) was constructed, after which the existing dry house was converted to an additional shop for milling lumber. (At that time, the firm used four carloads per week of black walnut alone for making organ cases.) Other buildings in the complex included (by 1884) "a storehouse, one hundred feet square; an engine house, containing seven large boilers and a Corliss (steam) engine of one hundred and fifty horse-power; and other outhouses for various purposes, including a building in which is kept, for ready use, two steam fire-engines . . ."(4)

In 1888, Jacob Estey witnessed the production of the 200,000th Estey organ. But the founder of the company died two years later, leaving the presidency to his son, Julius J. Estey. Julius' sons, J. Gray (1871-19--) and J. Harry Estey (1874-1920), became in turn vice-president and treasurer respectively. Like his father, Julius Estey engaged in politics, representing Brattleboro in the Legislature in 1876 and then advancing to the State Senate in 1882. But his overwhelming avocational interest related to military affairs. In 1874, he organized a National Guard company called the Estey Guards in Brattleboro (promptly complemented - if not rivaled - by the Fuller Light Battery company that Levi Fuller founded the same year). Estey was promoted in 1892 to the rank of brigadier-general in the Vermont National Guard (and served, beginning the same year, under the administration of Governor Levi Fuller).

The Estey Organ Company also achieved probably the zenith of its public prominence in 1892. On August 17th of that year, "in the presence of the Governor of the State and his staff, and of other distinguished Vermont citizens (including the Hon. Hugh Henry of Chester), of the company's five hundred workmen and their families, of its agents in many places, of members of other leading concerns in the music trade, of a large representation of the press, and - best of all - of a great assemblage of the company's fellow townsfolk, the Estey Organ company held exercises fittingly commemorating the production of the 250,000th organ at its work in this place."(5) Ironically, this event also marked the peak of the reed organ's popularity in the United States; pianos were already beginning to displace organs, especially in the cities. The Estey management did not overlook that trend: in 1885, the Estey Piano Company was established in New York, and by 1892 its productive capacity had been doubled to 250 pianos per month.

With the turn of the twentieth century, the Estey management made another decision that reflected the decline of the reed organ. In 1901, the company introduced its first pipe organs, and installed the first production instrument in the Brattleboro Methodist Church. The following year, the overscaled Building No. 26 was constructed to provide a suitable hall for the assembly and testing of large pipe organs prior to shipment. Also in 1902, the next Estey generation transition occurred when Julius Estey died and his son, J. Gray Estey, succeeded to the presidency.

Another major addition to the factory complex occurred in 1906-07 when the northernmost pair of slate-sheathed buildings (Nos 7 and 8) were enlarged and joined. The resulting building, numbered simply 7-8, was sheathed entirely with slate shingles to match the other buildings in the Birge Street row.

By 1916, the company's business became divided about equally between reed and pipe organs. Prior to the disruption caused by the First World War, more than half of the remaining reed organ production had been exported, with most of it going to Europe and Australia.

During the 1920's, the pipe organ apparently became the dominant product of the Estey company. A son of J. Gray Estey, Jacob P. Estey, had joined the management of the company by 1925, when he described the firm's contemporary operations in a speech. Between 75 and 100 companies were then building pipe and reed organs in the United States. Estey declared that his firm was the only one in the industry that made every part used in its instruments. At that time, the company employed a network of salesmen and service technicians throughout the country, and maintained retail salesrooms in New York and Boston. The factory complex reached its greatest expansion - containing 250,000 square feet of floor area - and a company booklet from the period describes it as "the largest and best equipped (organ) factory in the world."(6)

But the prosperity of the 1920's did not endure, and with the Great Depression the organ market collapsed. In May 1933, the Estey Organ Company, whose sales had dropped from $600,000 to $200,000 per year, was adjudged bankrupt and the factory was closed. The following September, the Estey family sold the assets of the company to an outsider, thereby breaking the eighty-year tradition of Estey ownership. Later the same year, a new corporation was formed with Jacob P Estey as president, and about 60 employees returned to the factory with equipment being concentrated in a few buildings.

The company continued production on a limited scale until 1941 when the onset of the Second World War brought lucrative military contracts. A new model of organ - the portable chaplain organ - soon became the principal product of the firm, with an out put of 500 per month 'The organs were accompanied by production of ammunition and bomb boxes and pontoon bridges.

Another major corporate change followed the war when, in September 1945, Jacob P. Estey and Joseph G. Estey together with another person repurchased the company; the Estey brothers became president and vice-president, respectively The firm then employed 165 persons, and had diversified its output to silverware chests and phonograph cases along with organs (the latter including a new Minshall-Estey model).

Four years later and for the first time since 1933, full control of the company returned to the Estey family when Jacob P. Estey together with his nephew, Wilson G. Estey (son of Joseph G. Estey), and his son-in-law, Robert Cochrane, Jr , established a new partnership A brochure published probably circa 1950 advertises organ models ranging from a $60 portable to a $60,000 four-manual concert pipe organ. The text notes that cumulative production of reed organs by the company had reached 440,000 instruments augmented by 15,000 portable organs and 3,000 pipe organs.

The restored Estey ownership of the company lasted only three years. In 1953, Rieger Organ, Inc. of New Jersey bought the company outright, planning to build the compact Rieger pipe organ then being made in Europe. The following year, the company introduced electronic organs, the first ever built by Estey. By 1956 the company had increased its workforce to 325, tee largest level in decades. Concurrent with this apparent success, however, there occurred a series of corporate and financial manipulations that undermined the company, and in 1958 the factory closed again with the firm being declared bankrupt.

A reorganization enabled the factory to reopen the following year with still another new line of reed chord organs. Two thousand five hundred of the chord organs were built in 1959, but toward the end of the year production of the electronic organs was discontinued At the beginning of 1960, the chord organ was the only model still being built at the Estey factory, and within another year organ production ceased completely when the corporation (whose name was altered to Estey Electronics, Inc.) removed its operations from Brattleboro to California. In 1961, the 115-year tradition of organ building in Brattleboro came to an end with the sale of the Estey complex to other interests. Subsequently, the remaining buildings have been converted to various other commercial uses." - National Register Nomination Form

Street address:
Birge St.
Brattleboro , Vermont


County / Borough / Parish: Windham

Year listed: 1980

Historic (Areas of) Significance: Event, Architecture/Engineering

Periods of significance: 1850-1874, 1875-1899, 1900-1924

Historic function: Industry/Processing/Extraction

Current function: Commerce/Trade

Privately owned?: yes

Primary Web Site: [Web Link]

Secondary Website 1: [Web Link]

Season start / Season finish: Not listed

Hours of operation: Not listed

Secondary Website 2: Not listed

National Historic Landmark Link: Not listed

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