The remarkable collections at Virginia City, MT and Nevada City, MT are as important to the history of the entire Western United States as they are to the history of Montana. The fact that Virginia City has remained a viable community and never became an abandoned “ghost town” means that its artifacts from many periods-not just the l 860s-have unusual historical importance.
It is well known that a historic site or museum must have “life” to attract visitor and to bring the back repeatedly. Virginia City, MT and Nevada City, MT have several special attractions which help bring the towns to life, and are instrumental in bringing this year’s visitors back with their friends and relatives next year the live programs at the Opera House and Brewery, the railroad, and the music machine collection.
Music machines represent a completely different type of antique (or near-antique) from museum-caliber paintings and other art works. These instruments were made for public entertainment, and were meant to be used. Coin pianos, orchstrions, and band organs are extremely durable “overbuilt,” in contrast to today’s throw-away subminiature electronic devices and other conveniences to the extent that if properly maintained, and with occasional replacement of perishable leather and rubberized parts by a competent technician, they will still be capable of entertaining people for hundreds of years.
The instruments displayed at Virginia and Nevada Cities have been known as one of the United States’ most important collections of music machines, having attracted visitors from all over the country since the 1950s.
In the 1950s, each part of the country had a significant publicly-displayed, privately owned collection of music machines. Most of today’s private collectors, historians, and enthusiasts first became interested when they saw and heard instruments in public displays. This interest continued until private collectors bought most the instruments which used to be displayed publicly. Consequently, most music machines are now in private collections where they can no longer be seen by younger generations.
An example of this change is the fantastic private Sanfilippo Collection of Barrington Hills, Illinois. The owner, Jasper Sanfilippo, saw the music machines at Valente’s House of Nickelodeons in Chicago when in his twenties. Later, as a successful businessman, he assembled the world’s largest collection of restored instruments. Had he not been exposed to them at a young age, he never would have collected them. As Jasper and others eagerly acquired large collections, values rose dramatically, important research was conducted, and valuable reference books were written. Now, however, with the disappearance of instruments from public view, the trend is reversing. Younger generations who have never seen functioning public collections do not know that music machines exist.
If this trend continues, future generations will lose a valuable part of their musical culture and heritage: wonderful musical “time machines” that do not play recordings or simulations of the music, but rather play the actual performances that brought delight to earlier generations. Despite all the negative press currently given to American youth and its culture, I am delighted to note that young children, as well as adults, still enjoy seeing and hearing the instruments in the Music Hall performing their musical magic.
In contrast to the U.S., there are a currently number of thriving museums which feature automatic instruments in Europe (mainly Germany) and in Japan. Many beautiful instruments have left America for these foreign museums in the past 20 years.
Around the country, there are a few highly successful examples of historic sites which use both private and public funding for the ongoing maintenance of publicly-used mechanical antiques; however, Virginia City, MT is one still in existence. I encourage you to come, see and hear the excellent work that has been done to this collection. I guarantee you will not regret it.