Friday, December 10, 2010

The one about the reed organ top going on exhibit...

Hallelujah! The reed organ top is now on exhibit in the Tompkins Cabin!

So how did we get from a piece stored in the owner's shed to an artifact on exhibit at a museum? Come with us on this journey...

In September of 2010, the Village was contacted by Wanda Pyburn via her local property custodian Marlin Rogers. Mr. Rogers told us that Ms. Pyburn, now living in Indiana, was interested in donating a beautiful piece--a top from a 19th c. reed organ. The organ had been separated from the top some years ago, but the top remained in the family. Ms. Pyburn generously wanted to share her family heirloom with visitors to Log Cabin Village rather than continue to have it stored in her garage/shed. We took legal temporary custody of the organ top on September 17. More permanent custody would have to wait until Ms. Pyburn was able to mail her signed Deed of Gift forms from Indiana to the Village. Legal custody was officially transferred when Museum Director Kelli Pickard signed our copy of the Deed of Gift on October 12, 2010.

So now the piece was ours. Since it had been stored in a garage/shed, it needed a little TLC. First, we vacuumed it with a special artifact vacuum designed to have enough suction to be useful, but not so much that it would damage the organ top. Then, 2 TCC volunteers applied 3-4 coats of a special wax designed to clean, protect, and preserve the artifact. We completed the cataloguing process, carefully numbering, photographing, measuring, and noting the general condition of the reed organ top. These photos and notes will be useful in measuring and observing how the artifact ages over time, and whether or not subsequent conservation will need to take place to preserve the organ top.

The piece has a truly fascinating provenance (object location/use history) provided by Ms. Pyburn. The reed organ top was brought to Texas from Bloomington, IN, around the end of the American Civil War (c. mid-1860s) by J.C. (Jim) Blankenship (b. 1849), the donor's great grandfather. He married [Mary Evaline?] Blankenship after her first husband came back from the war and died driving cattle to pasture in New Mexico [?}. They gave birth to Mary Evaline, the donor's grandmother. When Mary Evaline (donor's grandmother) married Tom Carl in 1901, she brought the reed organ top to their home. James Thomas Carl was the second child born to Mary Evaline in 1903, and the donor was born to James Thomas Carl in 1926. Some of donor's (Ms. Pyburn) earliest memories of the reed organ top concern watching Tom "strop" his straight razor on the back porch of their Pettys Chapel (4 miles from Corsicana), TX, house, then shave, looking into the small mirror on the front of the piece. The leather strop he used hung from the shelf and his shaving mug and razor were stored on it.

In addition, while the piece was being catalogued, we made an exciting discovery--a maker's mark stamped on the back of the mirror glass:

J.C. Widman & Co.
Manufacturer of Hall Furniture & Fixtures
{obscured} Cor. 15th St.
{obscured} MICH

Per, we were able to discover the following information from this maker's mark:

Christian Widman, a German cabinetmaker, emigrated to the United States during the mid 1800s and established a small furniture shop in Rochester, New York. Business prospered, and he married Rosalie (Seifried) Widman, producing a son, name John Charles Widman, born in 1848, who learned the craft and took over the business in 1872.

A cousin, C.D. Widman, had established a cabinetmaker’s shop in Detroit, Michigan in 1864 and invited John Charles to join him, which he did. John Charles returned to Rochester after a few short years, and began a new career in the grocery business. However, he returned to Detroit 10 years later to assume the presidency of his cousin’s furniture factory when C.D. became ill. During the ensuing years, C.D. Widman & Co. had grown to become one of Detroit’s largest parlor furniture manufacturers, and their mirrors, hall furniture, china closets, buffets and chevals could be found in the home of Detroit’s finest citizens.

The Widman plant was located at the corner of Trombly and Orleans St., a few blocks away from the Anderson Electric Car Co./Towson Body Co. in the neighborhood that adjoins the present-day Cadillac Hamtramck assembly plant.

Albert U. Widman, the son of C.D. Widman, joined his father’s business about 1890 as a salesman, and within ten years had become it superintendent, and manager. He was assisted by longtime employees Sylvester L. Rich and James W. Ailes.

Sylvester L. Rich joined C.D. Widman in 1870 as an assistant shipping clerk, was advanced successively as molding finisher, foreman, superintendent, general manager, secretary and treasurer, and finally vice president and treasurer. James W. Ailes joined C.D. Widman in 1877 as a salesman, and worked his way up the corporate ladder, and became the firm’s president in 1900 when John Charles Widman, left to form J.C. Widman & Co. after a disagreement with the firm’s board of directors.

The new J.C. Widman & Co was located at the intersection of 15th St., Kirby St. and the Grand Trunk Railroad line in Detroit, Michigan, a few blocks west of the Wayne State University campus. It was incorporated in April of 1905, with John Charles Widman as president – treasurer, and his son, C. David Widman, as secretary. The firm prospered and within a few short years warerooms had been established in New York City and Chicago.

Since the organ top, per the donor's provenance and other artifact clues, is early-mid-19th c., this tells us that the mirror was replaced at a later date (1905 or shortly after). Other mysteries remain (i.e. if the piece was in Texas at the time the mirror was replaced, did they get it on a family visit to Indiana/Michigan and bring it back? Did the piece travel again? Was the mirror mail-ordered or shipped by relatives?). These questions may never be answered, but it's fun to speculate.

We decided to exhibit the organ top in the Tompkins Cabin, and to honor Ms. Pyburn's fantastic memories by interpreting it as a piece used for shaving. In this photo (and when you see it in person), you will see the shaving mug, brush, a leather strop (from our existing collection), and a straight razor (also from our existing collection) just as she described them.

So what do you think?

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