MELODEON MAKING IN EAST POULTNEY, VERMONT
by John M. Runge
In 1856 the town of East Poultney contained one of the largest companies exclusively producing melodeons outside of New York or Boston. The original firm of Ross & West was established in the spring of 1849 by Paul M. Ross (1800-1870) and Elijah West in a brick building formerly used as a blacksmith’s shop. At first they produced only the casework and bellows, having purchased the reed and keyboard actions from Carhart & Needham of New York. They were successful and soon orders outpaced production.
In 1851 Chester Brown entered the partnership, resulting in a change of the firm name to Ross, West, and Brown. His specialty was varnishing and polishing the case to achieve the “piano finish.” The growing business added several workmen but still had the need of a financial mastermind.
This need was met in 1852 when Joseph Morse (1792-1876) and his son, Joseph Harris Morse (1819-1856), joined the firm. Chester Brown left the company and the name changed again to Ross, Morse, and Co. (the name soon changed to Ross & Morse). This partnership flourished to the extent that a second floor was added to the brick shop and J.H. Morse enlarged his mill at the river. In the brick building, the first floor was used for assembly and tuning, while the second floor was used for varnishing and polishing the cases. The entire second floor of the mill at the river was used for building cases and other parts.
More men were added to the work force, and new houses were built for their families. Agents sold the instruments as fast as they were produced. So successful were they that the firm considered new, larger buildings equipped with modern machinery and a dry kiln. More space was needed to produce the variety of models which ranged in compass from four to six octaves. The simplest cases were plain black walnut while the more elaborate ones were large piano styles veneered in rosewood.
The company was at the height of its prosperity and had plans for immense expansion in the future. This was not to be, for on a cold January morning in 1856, the unforeseen happened. The water wheel that provided power for the mill had frozen solid to the surrounding rock. J.H. Morse and some helpers went into the wheel pit, first blocking the wheel so that it wouldn’t move. Morse stood on one of the buckets, chopping away ice, as the others went inside the wheel to do the same. After a few blows, the ice loosened and the weight of the water and ice in the buckets caused the blocking to give way and the wheel to turn. Morse fell and was crushed between the wheel and the rock. With his death, the hopes of the company for continued growth collapsed.
The other two partners, Paul Ross and Joseph Morse, were elderly men who didn’t have the drive to maintain the operation of the company. It was decided to work off stock on hand. They made new cases from time to time, buying what material was necessary to complete the work in progress. Workers were laid off quickly as possible when the company wound down, finally closing in 1864, eight years after the death of J.H. Morse.
A businessman named L.F. Kellogg manufactured melodeons in the brick building until 1875. Some instruments exist with the name of Ross & Kellogg, indicating that a partnership existed until the death of Paul Ross in 1870.
Two former employees established a short-lived organ making enterprise in 1865. E.N. Merriam (1830-1908), who began as a tuner and voicer for Ross & West, and A.B. Ripley (1832-1900), who began building actions in 1854 with Ross & Morse, formed a partnership under the name of E.N. Merriam & Co. Their product, which they called the “Union Organ,” was produced for about four years. E.N. Merriam later went to work as a tuner for Estey.
Most of the existing instruments vary musically only in keyboard compass, but in the casework there is a good bit of variety. One instrument bearing the name of Ross & Kellogg is unusual in that it is built on an enclosed base containing a short pedal clavier. No records of serial numbers or production figures have been found, but the following list of names and dates of melodeon makers in East Poultney will help in establishing the age of the instrument.
Ross and West 1849-1851
Ross, West, and Brown 1851- 1851
Ross, West, and Morse 1852
Ross, Morse, and Co. 1852 – l854
Ross & Morse 1854 – 1864
Ross & Kellogg 1864 – 1875
E.M. Merriam & Co. 1865 – 1869
The brick factory still stands and is being used as a museum by the Poultney Historical Society.
(The author expressed thanks to the late Charles Parker, former curator of the Poultney Historical Society, who provided most of the material from which this was written.)