Steam Notes

The Wallace Bros

The Wallace Bros. Circus steam calliope, which was stored by the Getz brothers. Picture courtesy of Getz Bros., Yellow Goose Road, Lancaster, Pa. Courtesy of Bill Lenox, Elizabethtown, Pa.

Bill Lenox

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Elizabethtown, Pa. 17022.

'He's not musical, he's 'steamsical'.'

That's what Noah Getz's mother replied when someone wondered why her son went to the trouble of building a steam calliope by himself when he didn't know one note of music from another.

Noah Getz does, indeed, have 'steam in his blood'. At the age of six in October of 1924, he fired his first engine, a Peerless traction. For his 10th birthday he received a steam engine whistle, an event he remembers vividly and enjoys recalling.

In 1961 the famed Wallace Bros. Circus was in Lancaster, Pa. when the calliope player, L.A. Bartlett, then 75 years old, of Enid Okla. left the show. Noah and his brothers Robert and William, who had been talking with circus officials about the calliope for two years, agreed to store the instrument.

In exchange, they received permission to display it at local events, such as the Landisville Farm Show Museum celebration and the Kinzers Rough and Tumble convention. Mrs. Milfred Witman of East Petersburg and Arlene Hartenstein of Rohrers town, stuffed their ears with cotton and played at these events.

In years past, this calliope provided musical entertainment on a river boat, which burned. The instrument was under water for 12 years before being salvaged.

Noah Getz sized up this calliope and decided he could build a bigger and better one, which he did. The Wallace Bros, calliope was the standard one of 32 whistles ranging from Middle C up two-and-a-half octaves to the third G above Middle C. Noah's calliope has 40 whistles, which, he says, makes it the biggest in the world. He is willing to be shown otherwise, but so far every story he has checked out about a larger calliope has proven to be false. They all turn out to be air instruments, not steam calliopes at all.

Once Noah found out that the pitch of a note was equal to twice though his calliope was first played in 1963, the entire job of making the instrument and mounting it on a truck took six years of off and on work and a lot of winter weekends in the basement. There was a tremendous amount of work to be done involving all sorts of skills, such as cutting pipe, wiring, carpentry and welding.

The low notes (the big whistles) take 50 pounds of pressure, the middle notes 25 pounds and the high ones 12. The whistles are made of brass, which makes no difference as far as the music is concerned but creates a more durable instrument than would other materials. In fact, the keyboard itself is brass and shows very little signs of wear from all the pounding it has received.

Noah has taken his calliope to local parades, fairs and carnival-type events and has displayed it within a radius of about 250 miles from Lancaster, including sites in Virginia, Delaware and northern New York. Thousands of people have taken pleasure from listening to this steam calliope, this creation of Noah Getz.

A steam calliope isn't the only musical instrument owned by Noah Getz and his brothers.

They also possess a UnaFon, a rare instrument. At last reports there are only two others in existence, one in Atlanta, Ga. and the other in Sikeston, Me. During the early 1900s many small circuses which couldn't afford a steam calliope used a UnaFon. They were built by the J.C. Deagan Musical Bells Co. until a fire destroyed the plant in 1917. They were never built after that.

The one now owned by the Getzes was bought by an Evangelist after the circus which owned it, went bankrupt. It sat for 64 years in the fourth floor of a mill and went through two Rio Grande River floods. This 98-bell instrument was rebuilt by the Getzes, who power it with a 12-volt automobile battery.

Another instrument in the collection is the only 59-note Tangley automatic player known to be in existence. This Tangley was called a 'Theater Special' and was played in the 'old days' of two-reel movies. It was operated by remote control from the projection booth while the reels were being changed.

The story goes that this instrument was once owned by a recluse in northern Michigan who lived in a castle which was surrounded by a moat and guarded by a dog, to protect his valuable Tangley.

If hard work, ingenuity and ambition are the hallmarks of American greatness, then the Getz brothers certainly qualify as top contributors. They are a busy family.

Among them they run a 350-acre farm, own a trucking firm which hauls into 48 states, have 22 school buses on the road, run a Massey-Harris combine which last year cut 450 acres of small grain and 900 acres of corn, and steam tobacco and greenhouses with a rebuilt engine.

Noah also is restoring a 1923 Stanley steamer, and has rebuilt an engine able to run the steamer cars of 1897 to 1903 vintage.

The calliope has a special place in Americana. During the Civil War it was carried on flat cars, playing patriotic music for the 'Boys in blue' on their way to the battle field. During the river boat days of the late 1800s, the sound of the calliope could be heard up and down the rivers for miles and miles, thrilling many and no doubt ruining the sleep of many others. Traditionally, the sound of the calliope has meant that the' circus was in town.

Noah says that there are only 20 of the original calliopes left and six reproductions.

In Greek mythology, Calliope was the muse of epic poetry, one of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Although Noah is perhaps not a poet, he tends to wax a bit lyrical when he muses about the history of steam. Actually he is a mechanical engineer with a degree from Penn State. His prize possession is an inspector's test gauge kit which was willed to him by an old friend and steam engine buff in Lancaster County, Jake Brubaker, whom he remembers with respect and admiration.

The word calliope is from the Greek Calliope, which means 'beautiful-voiced.' When Noah Getz's homemade steam calliope is played at an event, it adds a bit of beauty and a touch of nostalgia to the proceedings.

Noah may not know one note from another but the instrument he built provides pleasure for those who do.

The calliope is being played by Amos Rutt. Two different views -notice how different the whistle sizes appear in the two pictures taken from different angles. Picture - courtesy of Getz Bros., Yellow Goose Road, Lancaster, Pa. Courtesy of Bill Lenox, Elizabethtown, Pa.