The "Mighty" Bilhorn Organ


Pam Fluke, West Yorkshire, England

Reprinted from Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Spring 2004 of the *ROS Quarterly*, journal of the Reed Organ Society, Inc., and used with permission of the editor. COPYRIGHTED with ALL OTHER RIGHTS RESERVED.

The company known as Bilhorn was established in 1885 by Peter Philip Bilhorn-a then well-known evangelist singer and composer with the world famous Sankey and Moody evangelists. He invented the folding portable organ to support his evangelistic activities and then-obviously being a good business man as well-set up the firm of Bilhorn Bros. Organ Co of Chicago. He was supported by his brother George E. Bilhorn, although it was always P.P.'S name that appeared as "owner'' on the letterheads.

It seems the company moved around Chicago quite a lot-no doubt in expanding their manufactory. The first address on letterheads was 56 Fifth Avenue, Chicago, presumably expanding later to 518-520 Fifth Avenue. The next address to appear was 207 North Wells Street, Chicago, followed by 1414 McLean Avenue. These may have been additional buildings for sales or trade deliveries.
Another known address was 77 West Lake Street, with yet another change - 136 West Lake Street. They were known to be there in 1925, as this address is on the later letterheads and envelopes. It is also possible that these were administrative offices away from the manufacturing complex. The company was still in existence in 1941, but we know nothing of it after that time.

It is clear that the Bilhorn production reached huge proportions. They sold many instruments themselves and also made them for the big department stores, such as Sears & Roebuck (c. 1902). They bought their reeds and reed boards from Hinners Organ Co. - a company that was also producing reed organs, and big enough to make their own reeds.

The Bilhorn folding organs were famed and appreciated in their day. The company exhibited at the numerous World Fairs which were popular at that time and it was awarded the Grand Prize at SIX of the world fairs for the following points of quality:

Greatest volume of tone
Greatest variety of tone
Sweetest quality in tone
Highest excellence in materials
Highest excellence in workmanship
Highest excellence in compactness & finish
Highest excellence in mechanical ingenuity & invention
        - (extract from a Bilhorn letter, 1935)

Bilhorn produced an astonishing number of different models in their portable folding styles. One catalogue of c. 1916 has 21 different types of instruments.

There were organs with only one row of reeds and others up to three rows of reeds, making a pretty awesome sound! The keyboards were sometimes 4 octaves long, but could be 3 1/4 octaves if the buyer wished, or even 5 octaves. Such options were on many of the models.

The reeds were tuned according to the likely use of the organ-for example: ''...reeds will be tuned Concert pitch or International, Loud, Pipe, Medium or Soft.'' The tuners were obviously "voicing'' the reeds to produce more or less volume of sound, depending on whether the organ was for indoor or outdoor use. That is indeed good service and also pretty ingenious!!

The cases were built of oak:

"... . .some of the very finest select oak - 3 & 5 ply with 1/4, 3/8, 5/16 veneering, thoroughly seasoned and glued with the very best glue under heavy pressure. Finished in natural wood, filled, shellacked, varnished, and highly oil rubbed. Nickel trimmings.''

Others were covered with leatherette finishes, or finished in walnut or maple. The styles were sturdier or slighter-again to appeal to all tastes!

The Junior Folding Organ was very small and slight. This had one row of reeds, 3 1/4 octaves, case of maple with legs of hard maple, costing $50.00 in the 1916 catalogue.

There were those specially prepared for ''Tropical'' use, with brass screws, keys specially treated against the damp and felts poisoned against the insect life! The Bilhorn Folding Missionary Organ was one such instrument and was made of heavy wood-solid oak in panels-each one sliding into grooves in a mortised frame. This instrument cost $150.00 in 1916.

This wonderful piece is from the testimonials in a later catalogue:

A letter from the Congo Swamps of Africa:

Dear Brother Bilhorn:
About 10 years ago 1 bought one of your folding organs to bring out to this swampy land. We have carried the organ on long itineraries on the Ubangi River; it has inspired our many services. The organ is a great attraction to the natives. We want to just let you know that your portable organ is a complete success here on the Equator in the Congo Swamps.
The Edwardses (c. 1935)

Bilhorn also had the great privilege of providing Percy Grainger with an organ: Percy Grainger, the famous composer of ''Country ' Gardens'' and many other popular selections writes us:

Dear Mr Bilhorn:
l want to tell you how thoroughly delighted I am with the exquisite Bilhorn Reed Organ I purchased from you a year ago. It is an ideal instrument for composing, for chamber music or for orchestra. The degrees of dynamic contrast are unusual-utterly surprising. I find the Bilhorn the ideal reed organ.
Yours admiringly, Percy Grainger

<more information in the ROS Quarterly, Spring 2004...>