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Join me this summer as I travel the country to research the steam calliope tradition on America's inland rivers.
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Travels Across America: June 7-16, Part 1 of 3

Posted 06-19-2009 at 12:00 AM by Jon Tschiggfrie
I’ve been at school for four years studying music education and voice. I’ve been in choirs since elementary school, and I’ve been involved with my parish’s music ministry since high school. It seems that everything has been preparing me for a job in some sort of vocal or education work, and I never had reason to doubt that I would start my music career teaching or singing. So imagine my surprise when, not three days ago, I discovered that my first paying gig as a musician would be as relief calliopist in the Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee this July.

I suppose it was inevitable. To talk to other calliope fanatics, you’d believe that the instrument grabs hold of you and won’t let go from the first fascination. It certainly seems that way. Beginning the research in earnest last summer, I couldn’t let it rest at the insurmountable heap of questions that my quest for answers had created. At the end of August, I had only completed the first wave of data and document collection, with little time for evaluation and analysis. My faculty collaborator for the grant, Dr. Sarah Schmalenberger, convinced me of what I guess I already knew: the research would probably never be done in full, but it certainly wasn’t over then. We put together an independent study in the spring of this year with the end goal of creating the in-depth summary paper I had promised in last summer’s proposal. This quickly morphed into creating a new proposal for this summer, which, against all odds, was accepted. For the second year in a row, I would be paid over $3000 to “study” steam calliopes.

Yes, it’s true, folks: the steam calliope research is back in full swing! I can now report that Dad and I have completed our first circuit around the country: Dubuque to Peru to Marietta to Cincinnati to Chattanooga to New Orleans to St. Louis and home again. We would stop at a few other unscheduled places along the way, and, as always, encounter dear friends and get presented with questions we hadn’t even thought to ask before.

We left early Sunday morning for Peru. After an exciting trip across Illinois’ and Indiana’s scenic highway routes (can you smell the sarcasm?), we arrived in Peru just in time to have a bit of fun with Dave Morecraft and Steam Calliope 44 (seen below), the ever-popular travelin’ calliope wagon that has already made appearances this summer at the Howard Museum and in contest with the Str. Belle of Louisville. Dave generously offered us the opportunity to work through some of his propane at the well-placed International Circus Hall of Fame, several miles outside of the Peru city proper, where the various odd noises of these three steam-powered keyboardists ushered forth in all their brazen glory. That night, we had a chance to present other calliope odds ‘n’ ends to each other, along with Dave’s son, Zach, a consummate calliope aficionado in his own right. The next morning, we went out to the Circus Hall of Fame Museum in downtown Peru, where our guide, Tim Bessignano, graciously let us get our grubby little hands all around the two Nichol calliopes the Museum owns: the Sparks Circus calliope and the Gentry “Twin.” Here, Dave astounded us with the first real discovery of the trip: the Gentry “Twin” is not fully a Nichol instrument. In his first close look at the whistles, which Harry Shell had attached to a new manifold of his own construction, Dave found that many of the whistles were made by either Shell or John M. Van Splunter, who took over the Nichol firm in its later years.

After another interview with Dave, as well as getting a look at the only Nichol calliope advertisement known to exist and new aluminum reproductions of Nichol builder’s plates that Dave had made (pictured below), we pressed on toward Marietta. We checked in at the historic Lafayette Hotel and then met up with Jeff Spear, President of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, who is an exceedingly generous person and a fantastically gifted story-teller. We had a fantastic visit with him that evening at his townhouse, which is truly a river museum in itself. In the morning, we visited the Ohio River Museum with Jeff and Woody Rutter, where one of the older Nichol instruments still in existence resides (the Bryant’s showboat calliope, below), along with a brass key that survived the explosion of the Str. Island Queen. My only regret of the trip was not getting a photo of the four of us in Marietta. After an all-too-short look around the W. P. Snyder, my first time aboard, we had to be on our way toward Cincinnati. I have to say that the Museum, in my humble estimation, is one of the greatest tributes to riverboat culture in the entire country. By the way, if you haven’t already heard, read the good news about the Ohio River Museum here: Museum to remain open | | News, Sports, Jobs, Ohio, Community Information - The Marietta Times. On Tuesday afternoon, we pressed on toward Cincinnati by way of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. They have a river museum set up there which was nice enough and not terribly out of our way.

We’ll be posting videos relatively soon of our travels, so stay tuned for the second installment of three of “Travels Across America!”

Oh, that in-depth summary paper. Now it’s at about twenty-two pages, single-spaced, with only about half of it in draft form. I’ll keep you posted.
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