Welcome to THE COMMONS — News and Views from Windham County, Vermont
BRATTLEBORO—Visitors to the city often ask, “What are those huge, old slate-covered buildings on Birge Street?”
BRATTLEBORO—Those familiar with local history know that these long-standing structures, considered the largest group of slate-clad buildings in the United States, were once owned by the Estey Organ Company.
BRATTLEBORO—At one time the company was one of the largest organ builders in the world, employing over 700 employees and craftsmen. Every organ they created proclaimed in small black print that it was made in Brattleboro, Vermont.
BRATTLEBORO—From young men, coated in coal dust, shoveling fuel into huge furnaces to keep machinery running, to immigrants from Holland, Sweden and other countries who were asked to work in factories because of their particular craft skills, to women working in the office (quite unusual at that time), to the inhabitants who built their homes in the part of town still known as Esteyville, there is no doubt that founder Jacob Estey and his family, have made a significant and lasting contribution not only to Brattleboro, but to the world.
BRATTLEBORO—Jacob Estey ran away from an orphanage in Massachusetts and later became an apprentice to a plumber at a tender age, then years later took a spontaneous turn when he bought a stake in a small company manufacturing the melodeon, a type of button accordion. In 20 years, his company will become the largest organ manufacturer in the world.
BRATTLEBORO—With the advent of rail service in Brattleboro, any place on the globe could purchase organs. And the purchase they made.
BRATTLEBORO—According to carefully kept statistics from the Estey Organ Company, in the 109 years between 1846 and 1955, employees created between 500,000 and 525,000 organs. These pieces of musical art, fashioned from black walnut and oak, ivory or mother-of-pearl fingerboards and soft leather bellows, were shipped to customers on every continent except Antarctica and as far away as New Zealand and Australia.
BRATTLEBORO—After a few fires at his factories, Estey constructed his slate-covered factory buildings on Birge Street in 1870. At its busiest, it took 20 buildings, many of which were interconnected with covered walkways, to lead his business and making all those pipes, reeds, and eventually electronic musical instruments, until 1960 when the business closed.
BRATTLEBORO—Over 152 years later, these sturdy, durable buildings still stand. In the remains of the old engine room where those coal-fired motors moved the belts and pulleys is the Estey Organ Museum, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary today.
BRATTLEBORO—In 1990, 30 years after the Estey Organ Company closed, Barbara George purchased Building Number 6, the former offices of the manufacturing company.
A university history student, George, now office manager and accountant of the Estey Organ Museum, says: “I had no intention of owning more buildings than that, but I wanted to see the other buildings preserved.”
According to a 2004 museum newsletter article, in 1993, “thanks to the willingness of the owners to help finance, she acquired buildings numbers 7 and 8, which had a hole in the roof and rotten foundations. The following year she bought number 5, half of which had been destroyed in a fire.