Virginia City, MT was founded in 1863, at that time it was considered a gold rush boomtown and in two years the population grew from barely anyone to 10,000 and was made capital of the newly created Montana Territory; however, like many gold rush towns the population followed the gold and that didn’t stick around for long. As the population declined and continued moving west the capital was moved to Helena in 1875 where it remained when Montana joined the Union as a state in 1889. In 1942, the last of the gold mines in this area closed and the population dwindled to be almost nonexistent.
With the threat of having the old buildings and the town’s history demolished Charles Bovey took this opportunity to purchase the properties, in Virginia City, MT as well as the neighboring town Nevada City, MT, and started a 30-year long journey to restore and preserve the history of the towns.
Throughout this journey, Bovey was able to restore around 300 of the town’s structures, where over half were constructed before the 1900s. An estimated 200 of the historic buildings were dated to the 1870s and works as a great example of the growth and decline of the frontier mining-dependent communities.
Throughout his restoration journey, he became particularly passionate about the vast amount of musical instruments he collected along the way. As the 1900s did not have the advanced sources of entertainment that we have today; such as television, cell phones, and satellite radio. It wasn’t uncommon around that era to walk into an establishment to see a player piano in the corner powered by pumps and player rolls to help with the ambiance of the business versus the surround sound speakers that we are used to today.
The first instrument he collected was a Coinola 65 note A roll piano with an oval glass front, which he loaded over a fence on
In the 1950s, Charlie Bovey met a man who was to play a large role in the music machine collection, Ozzie Wurdeman of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ozzie had been a dealer and repairman for the Mills Novelty Co., who manufactured the unique electric Mills Violano. He put the music machines Charlie acquired into good operating condition, and as the collection grew, he was kept busy with the daily maintenance needed. He continued his work through 1972.
His collection continued to grow as the years passed. One day in the 1950s, Bovey spotted an organ grinder with his monkey, he asked the gentlemen if he could look inside the instrument, where he spotted the manufacture “Molinari Organ Works, Brooklyn, New York”. Dedicated to fine more pieces from this era he was able to track down the manufacture and inquire about more pieces. It just so happened that he had been at the right place at the right time, as the owner of this collection had fallen on hard times and although reluctant to lose his collection, had no other choice but to sell his vast collections of handcrafted Band Organs and special handcrafted tools. The organs, tools, parts and etc. were shipped to Nevada City in 1959
On July 4, 1961, Virginia City, MT was designated a National Historic Landmark and Charles Bovey continued buying and restoring his collection until his death in 1978. His unfortunate passing did not stop the Bovey family; however, his wife Sue and son Ford then took over the mission to preserve and restore the town until 1998 when they sold the properties, and content to the State of Montana for $6.5 million dollars and was taken over by the Montana Heritage Preservation Commission.
From 1973 through 1979, Art Reblitz from Colorado Springs, CO worked with Bovey Restoration on many of the instruments and helped categorized the collection. View more information about him and his work with Adopt a Piano” through AMICA.
In September of 2004, the commission embarked on Bovey’s previous restoration mission to restore the town and its history. They contacted Michael Edwards, a piano technician from Rapid City, SD to assist with their restoration efforts on the music machines in the collection. As with all historic pieces, the restoration process is an ongoing journey. Yet, his dedication to the project is evident as many of the pieces are still available for the public to view and play, with many of their original parts still intact.
The restoration of these pieces is an important part of the preservation process as the Music machines represent a completely different type of antique (or near-antique) from museum-caliber paintings and other artworks. These instruments were made for public entertainment, and were meant to be used. Coin pianos, orchestrions, 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.