IRON MAN OF THE MONTH

The Kitch Calliope

''Kitch'' and the Kitch Calliope - They say the difference between a man and a boy is the size of the toy. But, man or boy, Clovis Watkins is always the little guy in the red ''pokie-dot'' cap, polishing his brass ' steam whistles. It was there for the Su

Joe Fahnestock

Content Tools

Union City, Indiana

On and on the calliope played. From early morn 'til dusk, we heard the familiar old hymns that Sunday, right outside our little trailer and stand.

'That Kitch, so-called I never want to hear or speak his name again,' I said, drearily.

And then he walked past, grinning and said, 'Hello.' And I answered with a hearty 'Hi-ya, Kitch!' And, everywhere we pitched our 'Arabian tents', there came Kitch by to tell us he'd brought his steam calliope along as if we hadn't already heard it.

And the more Kitch came and stopped to chat, at show after show, the more we liked this winsome, grinning and lovable character who no one knows by his real and Christian name of Clovis Watkins. But it's strictly Kitch Greenhouses and steam calliopes he's peddling, and not Watkins Products not by a long shot. For Kitch or I mean Clovis Watkins, ever since he began working in his future father-in-law's greenhouse, has never had his own name. Everyone just called him 'Kitch'. In fact Clovis had become so identified with the firm he was working for that the 'Company name' was thereupon stamped on him from there on. And then, as nature took its course, Clovis or I mean 'Kitch' began paying more and more attention to Anna Jane the boss's daughter. (How's that for working your way up?)

Pretty soon the threads drew tighter and tighter and young 'Kitch' reached what is classically known as the point of no return. For young 'Kitch' simply couldn't take his eyes off of Anna Jane Boss Kitch's daughter. And then, of course, the inevitable happened. The time arrived for the 'tying of the marital knot', with young Clovis Watkins asking Boss Kitch for his daughter's hand. All of which duly entailed the ritual of Father Kitch giving his daughter away. And this, before it could be done, in the sight of God, meant marching up to the altar and standing in front of a preacher who would ask, 'Do you have the ring?' And for a certain Clovis Watkins to fumble in his pockets, in the hopes that he did.

'I was always the silent partner in the name of the greenhouse,' laughs 'Kitch' I mean Clovis. 'People called me 'Kitch' as well as my father-in-law.'

'When he passed away, Wife thought we should rename the business, but I felt that people were used to our name and it would not help business to change it,' chuckles our Iron-Man. 'So, every so often someone would find that my name was Clovis Watkins instead of 'Kitch' and would beg my pardon for calling me by the wrong name. So I'd tell them this fabrication, to Wife's chagrin.'

'When she and I were married, the Pastor was a little shook up and in the service he asked, 'Will you take this woman to be your wife?', and I said, 'I do'. Then he said, 'And her name too?', and I said, 'I do', and it's been that way ever since.'

But it wasn't 'til years later that steam began to build up to the pressure of popping off the safety valve in Kitch's cranial cavity that thing that looks and acts like a steam dome above his shoulders, but is more commonly referred to as his 'head.'

'My son, John and I went to the Richland County Steam Show at Mansfield, Ohio, both of us being steam buffs,' is the way Kitch tells of his humble introduction to the mystery of the steam pipes. 'While there, we saw a 25-whistle calliope. I can't remember who owned it.' (It could have been Harry Schell, eh Kitch or Lloyd Kramer?)

'We listened to it and inspected it. On the way home from the show I commented to John that if a fellow had the valves, a fellow could make one,' says Kitch. 'But John didn't think it could be done at all.'

'We found that, at that time, the valves would cost about 25 bucks apiece, ($625 total) and as I'm a poor fellow, I couldn't come up with that kind of cash,' recalls Kitch. 'So, every night for two or three weeks, I would sit in my easy chair under the bridge lamp, looking for two or three hours at a dismantled Powell whistle, trying to figure out how the core-maker made the cores to make the inside of the whistle. I went to bed the last night, just as ignorant as the night before, but the next morning I woke up with the answer in my head as to how the core would be made.' (The psychologists call it 'sleeping on a problem', Clovis.)

'My opinion has been that the good Lord looked down and must have said, 'That fool dummy will go nuts, so I'll help him. Here's the answer',' says Clovis, grinning ear to ear.

As to problems, well our hero had them a-plenty. The only help the owner of the calliope at the Mansfield show would offer was to allow him to take a few measurements of the whistles. And if it happened to be Harry Schell at the keyboard, during such renditions as 'Take Me Out To The Ball Game' and/or 'Showboat' (with Harry hitting a few 'n missing a few) well, how could even as cheerful as guy as Kitch smile, trying to jump from whistle to whistle with his fidgety ruler, dodging the steam and jotting down measurements while the calliope played on and on?

But that was just the first hurdle poor Kitch had to leap in unraveling the mysteries of the elusive science of the steam calliope.

It's always an impressive parade of machinery, when Russell Sams tows the big 'Kitch' Calliope to and from Rushville, Indiana religious services, with tall Don Schneider and little 'genie' Clovis 'Kitch' Watkins, in red 'pokie-dot' cap, bringing up the rear. Guy Sams, father of Russell Sams, was the little genius who made the beautiful model Geiser Engine, doing the pulling and smoking. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390

'I have never been able to find any written information on calliopes anywhere, even the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C.,' says Kitch. 'So during the whole construction and assembly I was in the dark as to if it would work at all.'

'To make the valves, I built my own foundry, made my own patterns, core boxes and molds and poured my own castings. Then I machined all the raw castings in the valves,' explains Clovis. 'The whistles were made from flat sheet brass. I was unable to find a roll small enough for the littlest whistle, so I made my own rolls on which I rolled the whistles. Then I braised them together with my acetylene torch.'

'The manifold was made from a piece of four-inch pipe which was welded in the shape of a 'V, spaced wide enough so that the rods from the whistle valves had space enough to go to the keyboard that I made out of pieces of steel with plastic keys cast on,' says Kitch, breezing through the whole ordeal as it if were merely the simplest steps of assembling a steam calliope kit. (A bolts onto B, B fits into slot C 'n all that jazz. Ha!)

'I had a friend who was working for a firm that happened to have a boiler available, which I put on the back end to supply the steam,' so the story goes on that Kitch is telling. 'The calliope was completed just in time for our sesquicentennial here in Miamisburg, Ohio, June 15, 1968. We mounted the calliope, to begin with, on an old wooden-wheeled farm wagon which was pulled in four parades by an antique John Deere tractor. But before the parades were over they were wanting to have us at several other places, such as the Jaycee Convention at Louisville, Ky., to represent the State of Ohio. So we remounted the bed, with the calliope on it, onto the chassis of a 1952 Ford panel truck. We have used it this way ever since.'

One of the most miserable sights at a steam threshermen's shindig is a steam calliope sitting around with no one to play it. And even worse is a steam calliope with someone trying to play it who doesn't know how. Right? So, to Kitch, being the proud owner of a fine steam calliope without someone to play it was like a kindergarten class trying to run a complicated computer. Kitch may have made the calliope, but be darned if he could get up there at the keyboard and play it. (But we bet he tried to. WOW, were the neighbors reaching for their earplugs. YAK.)

But, having gone this far, we'll wager Kitch found the answer. We'll let him tell it, as follows:

'Now, as to the important part. During the construction of the calliope, a friend (what a friend) by name of Charles Benner had a daughter (we thought so) Joan Benner Borbes, who was majoring in sacred organ music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, who said that if I'd get it built, she'd play it. (Sounds like it's already working out for Kitch.)

'Well, we had it ready, and she tackled the job of playing it. But she had all of the pageant music to play for the sesquicentennial also. So in practicing she'd have to quit playing the calliope at 7 p.m. to practice her own music.'

'The first evening of practice we had a crowd of about a hundred in our driveway while Joan was practicing,' continues Kitch in his own inimitable style. 'When she had to quit, I asked for volunteers as I still had a boiler of steam and hated to waste it. Elizabeth Schneider, who at the time was a complete stranger and lived about six blocks away from us, heard Joan practicing, and going by the sound found us and was standing with the crowd, came up and said she'd like to try it and see if she could get anything out of it.'

'After playing a while, Elizabeth asked if I was aware of two or three whistles being out of tune with the others. I agreed I knew, but couldn't tell which ones,' says Clovis 'Kitch'. 'She said she could tell me, so I got out my wrenches and we brought it in tune with itself. To make a whistle sharp, the bell is screwed down, to flatten it the bell is screwed up.'

For a feller who's raised pretty posies, like angel-wing begonias, daisies and petunias, Clovis Watkins, better known as 'Kitch', gets involved in the 'drunkest' things. Here he's shown checking the boiler of the Kitch Steam Calliope he made of junk parts in his greenhouse workshop. Picture taken at Tri-State Show, Portland, Indiana]. Courtesy of Joe Fahenstock, Union City, Indiana 47390

Each whistle, according to Clovis, can be tuned about a half-tone up or a half-tone down. (No wonder some of the old calliopes we've heard at the steam shows sounded off-tune, with no one to tune them.)

But what bugs me most is how could a man who grew up in a greenhouse, attuned to the delicacies of sweet-scented posies, potted purple periwinkles, pink petal led petunias and angel-wing begonias find the inspiration and gather the tools and materials to fabricate a steam calliope?

'Do we have piles of Junk? We have huge piles of Junk,' laughs Clovis 'Kitch' Watkins. 'It took three and a half years to build the calliope. And the only equipment I had was a 9-inch Atlas Lathe, a drill press, welding equipment and various tools found around the greenhouse.'

'The shop is in the middle of the junk pile, (inside the greenhouse),' chuckles Clovis or I mean 'Kitch' (I should know by now), even a bit surprised that he got the 'whole thing done'.

'We've played at forty different places since the calliope was built,' chortles Clovis 'Kitch'. 'And already are booked for about twenty more places to go just this next year's season of steam shows and civic functions.'

'But without Don and Elizabeth Schneider the calliope wouldn't be anything,' says Clovis. 'Me? Being no musician, I can't read a note.'

'Since Joan couldn't spare time from her music pupils to go along with the calliope, thank goodness Elizabeth can. And her husband, Don, kinda likes steam also,' confides 'Kitch'. 'Elizabeth has a music background from Ohio State University. Her music generally has to be rewritten to fit the 25 whistles, which in itself is quite a chore. I don't even know how she can do it.'

It was quite a sight, watching Russell Sams tow the big Kitch Calliope up the hill to the Sunday morning services at Rushville, Ind. the 25th anniversary of The Pioneer Engineers' Club behind the beautiful little model Geiser his father, Guy Sams made. And, of course, with Elizabeth playing 'Bringing In The Sheaves' on a steam calliope it lent just the right kind of accompaniment to the throng of the threshermen and their families singing praises to God within.

And whatever is being played throughout the rest of the day on the Kitch Calliope whether it's 'Take Me Out To The Ball Game', 'Showboat' or 'The Star Spangled Banner', well Elizabeth Schneider gets all the notes, on time, and in tune. (Thanks to both Elizabeth and her nimble fingers and Kitch and his wrenches, with Don stoking the coal in the firebox door.)

'Give Don and Elizabeth a plug,' says Kitch. 'Without them we wouldn't have music.'

But, without Kitch we wouldn't have a calliope!. Not even an Iron-Man would we!