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''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
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Elizabeth Schneider plays ''Bringing In The Sheaves'' at Sunday morning services of Pioneer Engineers Club, Rushville, Indiana. Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana 47390
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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

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

‘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

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

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

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

‘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!

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