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One of Last of its Kind

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WDM Calliope One of Last of its Kind

By Noelle Grosse, 1999

Bright red calliope sitting on a trailer in front of the Saskatchewan Legislature

WDM Calliope in front of the Legislative Building, Regina
- WDM Photo by Ken Lorenz

For the past 20 years, the whistles of the Western Development Museum calliope have been a familiar sound to Saskatchewan parade-goers. But the steam organ in the candy-apple red wagon is one of the last of its kind.

Even when the WDM purchased the calliope keyboard and whistles in 1959, it followed years of searching for a crafter who knew how to make the 32- whistle arrangement that produces the distinctive nasal melodies of the calliope. The Museum has twice rebuilt the calliope, and today, the whistle arrangement and keyboard are the only original parts.

Steam organs were popular at the turn of the century, but they were never common. The first steam organ was patented in 1855 by American Joshua Stoddard. He designed a steam-powered organ to replace church bells in calling people to worship. When traveling fairs and circuses began building their own steam calliopes, they were blamed for encouraging young people to run away with the circus. In total, only about 75 steam calliopes were ever built. They were soon replaced by smaller and less powerful electric or compressed air models.

Today, fewer than 20 steam calliopes exist. The only other known calliope in Canada belongs to a private collector in Stratford, Ont. 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 most weekends in the summer, she trades her French horn and job as a music teacher for ear protectors and a 32-key, 13,000 lb. calliope. Shiplett began playing the calliope in 1984 as a summer student at the North Battleford WDM. Her repertoire now includes 75 pre-1930 tunes. She says playing the calliope is similar to playing a piano, but she has to bang on the keyboard. When each key is pressed, it opens a valve that makes a corresponding whistle blow.

"I tape my pinkies, and I have to tape my thumbs to keep them from sliding between the keys," says Shiplett. Between tunes, visitors approach the calliope with questions and song requests.
From time to time, Shiplett lets them play. "What's really neat is when people come who can remember the steam calliopes that played in the '20s and '30s," she says.

For the past several summers, Shiplett and WDM driver Ken Lorenz have taken the calliope on the road for Western Development Museum shows and other parades in the province. Over the years, the calliope has been in rain, snow and even an approaching funnel cloud in Swift Current. 

"We were stuck going the wrong way on a one-way street," remembers Lorenz of the Swift Current parade. "People were running everywhere and we couldn't move. The police finally had to get us out of there." Long days are required to run the calliope, because it needs about two hours to "steam up" in the morning. Wood is hauled to make a fire that is used to boil 98 litres of water. When about 75- 100 lbs of pressure is built up, the calliope is ready to play. The calliope's last out-of-province appearance was at Expo '86 in Vancouver, in front of the glass elevator that housed the Saskatchewan pavilion. The calliope played five-minute stints 14 times a day for the six-month World Fair.

Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection

This article was originally published as part of a newspaper articles written by Noelle Grosse in celebration of the Western Development Museum's 50th anniversary in 1999. The articles appeared as regular features over the course of late 1998 and 1999 in the Saskatoon Sun,Yorkton This Week and Enterprise, and as intermittent features in the Regina Sun. In 2001, all 65 articles were gathered into a publication - Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection.

Museum Gold is available in WDM Gift Shops.

You might also like:

- WDM Calliope including videos, schedule, and booking information

- Artifact Articles: The Bull with the Pull

- About the WDM Collection

- How to donate an artifact