Friday, June 26, 2009

DeBence Museum: Local gem

(News-Herald, June 25) When you visit friends in some exotic far-off locale, they’ll tell you about all the sights they never see except when they’re hosting out of towners. Every place, big or small, has these underappreciated gems that locals never get around to visiting.
One Venangoland version of that is DeBence Antique Music World.
Don’t be put off by the name. At some point somebody convinced the DeBence folks that the word “Museum” is scary, so they became a “Music World.” Yeah, sure. They’re a museum, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Most locals know the story. In a barn just south of Franklin, Jake and Elizabeth DeBence assembled the biggest collection of Cool Old Music Stuff that anyone has ever seen. When Jake died, Elizabeth was so committed to keeping the collection intact and local that she passed up chances to become a millionaire several times over.
Local investors and fans raked up the kind of money needed to keep the collection and to house it, creating a showcase that also rescued one of the better old storefronts in down town Franklin.
The collection includes old Nickelodeons, band organs, calliopes, plus an assortment of other oddities (a mechanical violin player?). Under the watchful hands of talented volunteers, DeBence has over 200 of these musical devices operating. These machines represent an era in music, not mention mechanical wizardry and inventiveness (historical side note—player piano technology became the foundation for beginning computers).
Creating a large collection of such amazing antiques requires determination and a certain amount of vision. Before something becomes a Valuable Antique, it’s usually just Some Old Piece of Junk. Most people don’t hold onto their junk long enough to see it become a valuable antique.
Several things make DeBence a museum unique not just in the state, not just in the nation, but in the world.
First, beyond the sheer size of the collection, there are machines here that are the last of their kind, the only ones left on the planet. Some are merely extremely rare. At DeBence you can see things you can’t see anywhere else.
Second—well, my father likes to tell the story of how DeBence contacted the Smithsonian for some assistance and expertise. All the DeBence folks ended up doing was upsetting the Smithsonian folks.
The Smithsonian’s idea is that these rare and valuable instruments should be wrapped in plastic and sealed in amber. Then the public should be allowed to glance at them through three feet of plexiglass.
The DeBence idea is that these instruments were built to make music, and so they should be played. There are other places where you can SEE some of these rare instruments, DeBence is the only place where you can actually HEAR them.
You can also watch them. DeBence is not only great for music fans, but for gadget fans as well. If you love seeing how things work, you will find the innards of these beasts amazing. Most were not mass produced, but were created from basic plans which the builders “reinterpreted” for each individual machine. This makes maintenance and repair an adventure.
Behind the scenes, the second floor has become a workshop that has become the go-to repair resource for amusement parks throughout the Northeast. And on the third floor, they have re-opened the only intact top-floor ballroom in Franklin (with the assistance of the ever-resourceful Rotarians). Once a month you can enjoy a DeBence mini-event in the ballroom, a small, intimate musical treat presented for free. They usually have cookies, too.
Until the end of October, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11-4. On Sunday it’s 12:30 till 4. You can find information about DeBence online at
In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge my stake in this; since my father’s retirement, he and my mother have been heavily involved with DeBence. Their children are pleased that they have found a new hobby (hobby defined as “job nobody pays you for”) that keeps them off the streets and too busy to fall in with unsavory companions.
Like most museums of its type, DeBence survives on copious volunteer hours and contributions. Admission fees cover a tiny part of costs; contributions and memberships are a more important source of support.
People come from all over the world to see and hear this unique collection. If you’ve never made the short trip to check it out, or even if it’s just been a while, this summer is a good time to enjoy this really cool collection.

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