Throughout the years, the streets of Lebanon have had their fair share of storefronts.
Most of them have been long lost to history; yet in their heyday, some of those stores put Lebanon prominently on the map. In this new “window shopping” series, LebTown will showcase a few of those businesses.
First up, an organ company that quickly became known worldwide founded by two men that shared a common last name.
The Miller Organ Company
Browsing the newspaper in 1873, one might come across the advertisement pictured above and be captivated by the illustration of the ornate and finely crafted organ. In a time before radio or record player, the organ reigned supreme in home entertainment, and while they were first laughed at by their families and friends, two Lebanon men saw an opportunity and ran with it.
Miller Organ Company Origins
Abraham H. Miller and Adam B. Miller were both Lebanon County natives, but from different places and backgrounds.
Abraham, born in 1845 and raised solely by his mother in North Annville Twp., became a school teacher after graduation and taught for nine years before resigning. During that time, he married Annie S. Kreider, moved to Lebanon in 1869, and got a job at a hardware store run by Philip Greenawalt, where he worked for a year and a half until he met Adam.
Adam B. Miller was born in 1848 on a farm in North Lebanon Twp. As he grew up, he worked on the farm and developed his skills in carpentry. It’s been documented that, early on, Adam had a love of music, but, unfortunately, his mother did not and forbade it in the house.
When Adam married and moved out of the house, he was set on having an organ and, without funds to purchase one, began to build a cabinet for the instrument. He finished the cabinet but wasn’t sure how the inner workings were built. It was during that time when he first met Abraham Miller, who just so happened to have an organ that needed to be repaired and so, to learn how organs were built, he took this job on.
Once Adam disassembled Abraham’s organ and rebuilt it, he felt confident in his abilities to finish his own organ. This organ still exists today and resides on display at the Lebanon Historical Society, along with a painted portrait of Abraham.
Looking to gain more knowledge and experience, Adam went to New York City in search of an apprenticeship but was unable to find one. He did, however, find the parts he needed to build and finish more organs and brought them back to Lebanon. Word got out of Adam’s new skill and he was soon repairing other organs around town. In 1872, he built a small repair shop for his growing business, “sized 10 by 12 feet and one story high,” located in the southeast corner of Eighth St. and Maple St.
The site of this building resided along the Union Canal, which was eventually used to transport organs to other parts of the state. The plot of land where the factory was is now a parking lot for APR Supply and the canal has long since been filled in.
In Oct. 1873, Adam was in need of a business-minded partner and that’s when Abraham stepped back into the picture. They formed a partnership and officially founded the Miller Organ Company. While there was no real financial backing, this did not deter either of them as they began building organs and traveling around different towns to find buyers.
In the early stages of the business, the men were laughed at by friends and told the business was “destined to fail in its infancy.” They soon proved those friends wrong and, within the first year, they outgrew their small building and they began to add on. Not entirely confident that the business would continue to grow, they laid out the new building as a dwelling house so that, in case of failure, the building could be used as a residence.
That time never came and just a year later, in 1874, they began to find buyers and outgrew their small building. They added two stories to the original building and an addition of 40 feet. At the same time, the hand-operated equipment was replaced with steam-powered machinery. Business continued to grow and another 50-foot extension was added in 1878 and yet another 50 feet in 1880. A fourth story was added in 1883, and it was by this point that the building looked like the one in the photograph below.
In 1886, the last annex, a pipe organ shop was erected but was quickly abandoned just a few years later due to the time and resources being taken up by the reed organ construction.
One of these pipe organs is still in use at the Salem Lutheran Church and LebTown had the opportunity to learn more and hear that beautiful instrument. The church purchased the organ in 1888 and, aside from one major modification, the replacement of the original water-powered motor with an electric-powered motor, the organ remains largely as it did when it was first installed.
The music director of the church, Mark Dimick, gave LebTown a rundown of the instrument as well as an impressive demonstration of the organ in action. The organ houses 1,705 pipes and several trackers to change the tone of the sound produced. It is still played one Sunday out of the month when services are held in the church and for special occasions, such as weddings and memorial services.
An article from the Lebanon Daily News dated Mar. 21, 1912 gives an excellent history of the business and tells us that, in the early years, it was common to find Abraham Miller on floor working the machines, “turning the scroll by hand, treading the turning lathe, varnishing and finishing organ cases, selling organs and doing office work.” Evidently, “he became very proficient in tuning and for a number of years he personally tuned every organ that the factory turned out and only relinquished this part of the work when the increasing business made it necessary to devote his time exclusively to the office.”
The organs were made of fine hardwoods, black walnut, quarter sawn oak, and red birch. There were options for customizing each piece, such as including a beveled glass mirror or a stand for an oil lamp to light up the music. The organs also came in several cabinet styles – the chapel, the parlor, and the piano styles – all of which are on display at the Lebanon Historical Society.
By 1886, the Miller Organ Company began to expand their market and started to sell other musical instruments and goods, and it was at this time they felt it necessary to open a store front shop. This first shop was located at 738 Cumberland St., most recently Howard’s Studio, and here they “established warerooms and a general music store in a specially arranged building.”
They outgrew this first store and, in 1900, opened a second shop up the street at 821 Cumberland St., which has since been torn down but can be seen in this photograph, to the east of the Mann Building.
This store was said to be “one of the largest and most beautiful music salesrooms in this part of the state and here anything in a musical line can be purchased.” Along with their famous organs, they sold pianos, record players, “talking machines,” and player pianos. It was noted in the 1912 article that they had “one of the finest libraries of Victrola records and player piano rolls in this part of the state.”
The company became well-known for its high-quality output and, not long after the business was established, buyers from all over the world were acquiring the organs. The Daily News article from 1912 claims “at least one-third of the output was shipped to foreign ports, the company having large sales in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Holland, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.”
At the height of productivity, in 1901, the company employed 75 men and turned out 1,600 organs a year. A few years later, in 1904, Adam retired and the company began its slow decline. That same year, the Miller Organ Company was incorporated and changed its name to the Miller Organ and Piano Company. Abraham became the treasurer and general manager and continued in this role until a tragic elevator accident at the factory, which led to his death a few months later, in 1911. It was then his eldest son, Grant, took over.
By 1923, organ sales waned due to the popularity of the Victrola and the company went out of business. In the company’s 54 years of existence, it’s estimated that over 30,000 organs were produced at the factory and shipped around the world. Fortunately, quite a few of these organs are still occupying space as family heirlooms and a quick YouTube or Google search demonstrates groups of organ enthusiasts eager to restore and preserve these beautiful old instruments.
Below are a few examples of the various Victorian trade cards the Miller Organ Company produced to bring in business in the early 1900s.
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