In 1855 American inventor, Joshua Stoddard, patented a steam organ to replace church bells for calling people to worship. At the turn of the twentieth century, steam organs were popular: some provided entertainment on Mississippi River paddle-wheelers while other calliopes were blamed for encouraging young people to run away with the circus, when it left town.
Thinking that a steam-powered music machine would add an unusual dimension to its collection of agricultural steam-traction engines and steam locomotives, the Western Development Museum purchased the calliope’s keyboard and whistles in Utah in 1959. A boiler was then mounted on a wagon gear and connected to the whole affair. From then on, the calliope proved to be a feature attraction at the Museum’s annual summer shows.
Since its original construction, the calliope has been rebuilt twice. In the 1960s and 1970s the Museum enclosed the keyboard and whistles in a much simpler wagon. When the calliope was scheduled to appear at the Saskatchewan pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver, the Museum staff decided to give it an entirely different look, which was modeled on the design of circus wagons of old. The calliope’s new bright red body and three-dimensional gold trim, coupled with its merry tunes, made it a stand-out at Expo 86, where fair-goers were treated to short concerts several times a day during the six-month long World’s Fair.
As with any high-pressure boiler, the calliope must meet stringent safety requirements and be subject to a careful maintenance regime. Firing a steam boiler requires the operator to have a special license. Accordingly, operator Ken Lorenz gets the calliope ready for the show season each spring, by conducting a hydrostatic test to ensure that everything is working properly. The boiler must then pass inspection by the appropriate Saskatchewan regulatory agency. To ensure continued safety, the old boiler was replaced in 2002 with a new vertical fire tube boiler that replicated the original.
Steam calliope players are about as rare as the machines themselves. Arlene Shiplett, a Saskatoon musician, has the unusual distinction of being a professional calliope player. On many summer weekends, she trades her French horn and job as a music teacher for snug ear protectors and the calliope with its 32 keys. Shiplett began playing the calliope in 1984, when she was a summer student at the Museum branch in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Her repertoire now includes more than 75 pre-1930 tunes, among them Oh Susanna, Bicycle Built for Two, and When the Saints Go Marching In. Playing the calliope is similar to playing a piano, but with less than half the number of keys. It also requires a different touch because of how the keys are constructed. When a key is pressed, a corresponding valve opens and steam escapes through a whistle. “I tape my pinkies and I have to tape my thumbs to keep them from sliding between the keys,” said Shiplett. Between tunes, she greets visitors who approach her with questions and song requests. Favorites include Poor, Poor Farmer and the Hockey Song.
Since the mid-1980s, Shiplett and Museum driver Ken Lorenz have taken the calliope on the road for Museum shows and parades around the province. Over the years, the calliope has weathered rain, snow and, once when touring in Swift Current, managed to escape fast-approaching funnel clouds.
Lorenz will always remember the day of that city’s parade: “We were stuck going the wrong way on a one way street. People were running everywhere and we couldn’t move. The police finally had to get us out of there.” Then there was the day he dodged a hail storm on a return trip from Yorkton to Saskatoon. “I was just ahead of it. Someone told me later that he’d had to pull over because the hail was coming down so hard, he couldn’t see.”
Show days are long days because it takes about two hours to “steam up.” Lorenz feeds wood into the firebox, which heats about 55 gallons of water in the boiler. When pressure reaches 75 to 100 pounds per square inch, the calliope is ready to play. After the show, it takes another couple of hours to cool down. In 2017, as Canada celebrates its sesquicentennial, the festive notes of the calliope will once again be heard around Saskatchewan. It’s a sound you don’t easily forget.
This article was originally published as part of a series of newspaper articles written by Noelle Grosse, in celebration of the Western Development Museum’s 50th anniversary in 1999. The story has been updated this year by Ruth Bitner, Collections Curator. Western Development Museum.