Radio man finds success with modified reed organ

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BRATTLEBORO — In the 1930s Burton Minshall was a radio repairman in Ontario, Canada. His wife, Maddie, was a pianist and she asked her husband to modify an old reed organ so it would produce sounds closer to a larger, more powerful pipe organ. Burton and Maddie both liked the results and saw a business opportunity. They brought a modified reed organ to a local church to see if there was interest in such an instrument and the church placed the first order for a Minshall organ. Minshall marketed the modified organ to funeral homes and small churches in Canada and met with success.

During the early 1940s Minshall produced kits for hobbyists to assemble electronic reed organs and continued to produce his own modified organs. They sold well and the Minshalls looked to expand to the United States. The Minshalls figured they would provide the electronic components while a U.S. partner could provide reed organs capable of easy modification.

While visiting a trade show in Montreal, Burton Minshall met Jacob "Jay" Estey and the result of the meeting was the creation of the Minshall Estey Corporation in June 1944. It was a solid collaboration as a post-war economy seemed hovering on the horizon.

Burton Minshall and his family moved to Brattleboro in 1944. Minshall-Estey started operations in Estey shop building #5. Based upon Minshall's plans, the joint venture began using electronic pickups and amplifiers to enhance the sound of Estey's modified reed organs.

During that first winter, production plans were ambitious. News reports at the time quoted Minshall as saying the plant would make 20 organs a month. It didn't work out that way. World War II demands meant electronic component purchases for private businesses were very limited. In the first four months the company produced five organs total, not the 80 or more as predicted.

Luckily, Minshall shipped one of the first organs to the Navy and it appreciated how a small reed organ could make such a large, pipe organ sound. Orders began to come in and more pressure was put on the company to get a successful production line up and running.

Burton Minshall began marketing the organs to churches, auditoriums and funeral homes. He claimed the instruments were perfect for churches unable to afford pipe organs. The sounds simulated pipe organ tones without the space usually required for such an instrument.

Locally, the organs were a hit. A Minshall-Estey organ was donated to the West Brattleboro Baptist Church. The Advent Christian Church on Cottage Street installed one of the electronic reed organs as well. Burton Minshall donated an organ to the newly opened Marlboro College to help begin the school's music program. In the late '40s through the early '50s the company's quality control specialist Bill Johnson, (no relation), played a Minshall organ at Howard Johnson's on Friday and Saturday evenings to entertain the Putney Road patrons.

A year after the company opened, it finally established a working assembly line, which sped up production. The newly established

electronic organ business was very competitive. Innovations were happening very quickly and the competitive edge could come and go in the blink of an eye. In 1946 Minshall-Estey was selling its base model for $872. By 1956 the company was selling a much improved all-electronic base model for $695.

In 1947 Minshall-Estey bought a building next to the Estey complex on Birge Street. It had been the short-lived Daley Shoe Building when it was built in 1936. In 1938 the Spalding Company took over the building, but eventually moved to Massachusetts and the place was for sale. At the time, Minshall Estey employed about 70 people and produced six organs a day.

The next year the company increased its production force to 100 people but made a marketing mistake when building a machine called a Minichord. It was a combination of a modified electronic reed organ, a radio and a record player that could stack up to 12 records at a time. The idea of combining these different music producing devices in one machine proved disastrous. They did not sell.

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Quickly, Burton Minshall moved to rebound from this setback. He hired electronic wiz George Haddon with the goal of creating an all-electronic organ. In 1949 Minshall appeared at the Chicago Music Trades Show with an all-electronic organ that wowed the crowd to the point where 4,000 orders were placed for the new organ. That was over $4,000,000 worth of production work for the Minshall factory on Birge Street.

In October 1952 the 10,000th Minshall-Estey organ was produced but there were difficulties between Burton Minshall and the Estey Organ Company. Their joint partnership no longer seemed to work if Estey's reeds were no longer part of the project. Estey hired an electronics expert of its own and began developing its own electronic organ.

In 1954 Minshall officially dropped the Estey name from its products and no longer used any parts from Estey. Instead, the company purchased wooden organ cabinets from a company in Connecticut and had them shipped to Brattleboro.

In January 1955 the Minshall Organ Company employed 200 people and was producing 30 organs a day. Unfortunately, Burton Minshall, at the age of 47, developed heart problems and decided to sell the company. Burton's wife, Maddie, operated the downtown women's clothing store named Silhouette. Without Minshall's guidance the company began to flounder.

By December 1956 the company faded under new ownership and Minshall Organ was down to 90 employees. The Hammond organ and innovative electronic competition from Japan began to overtake the Minshall Organ. The company was purchased by its neighbors, Estey Organ, but they did not have a good answer for the technological advances of the competition. Within a year more layoffs left the company with a skeleton crew and in 1960 the company closed.

Meanwhile, Burton Minshall's heart condition did not improve. On a family vacation to Switzerland in 1957 he died of a heart attack. In retrospect, the Canadian radio repairman brought a flash of innovative success to Birge Street in the 1940s, but both his organ company and the Estey Organ Company were merely ghosts as the 1960s arrived.

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