From Cincy to the Home of the Carrousel: A Brief History of the Beginnings of The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company to the Acquisition of the North Tonawanda Division.
By: Ian K. Seppala
The Wurlitzer Company was the premier amusement musical company in the 20th century. Everyone has heard beautiful sounds coming from a Wurlitzer player piano, automatic player piano, band organ, Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ, jukebox, or electric piano. The company eventually had manufacturing plants in Illinois, Mississippi, Utah, and New York. The history of the plant in North Tonawanda, New York is collected and on display at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum. This article is meant to explain the history of the Wurlitzer company Pre-North Tonawanda and how an immigrant from Schoeneck (now in Germany) created one of the great American musical powerhouse companies of the 20th century.
Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer was born in Schoeneck in 1831. Even though his first name was Franz, he would go by Rudolph for the rest of his life. He emigrated to the United States and settled in Cincinnati Ohio. There was a large Germanic population there, where he probably had a connection. He originally took any regular jobs available, including working as a bank teller.
Rudolph Wurlitzer began his foray into the music industry in 1856 as an importer. With the help of his family back in his homeland, he would import band instruments to the United States for sale. These handcrafted instruments could be sold for a good profit in the States.
Rudolph Wurlitzer had three sons: Howard, Rudolph, and Farny. Each son joined him at the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company and took turns being the president. They also all took turns as the chairman of the board consecutively. Family involvement in the company's hierarchy ended in 1966.
The Rudolph Company expanded their offerings by contracting with American musical instrument companies. One of these companies was DeKleist Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company. The company was based in North Tonawanda, New York and operated by Eugene DeKleist. DeKleist was a popular figure in the region and was even elected mayor in the early 1900's.
According to oral history collected by the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum, DeKleist began to neglect his company to focus on political endeavors. In 1908 eldest son Howard Wurlitzer came to North Tonawanda to speak to DeKleist. Oral histories dictate that they gave DeKleist an ultimatum, either fulfill the contracts made with the Wurlitzer Company, or sell his own. In January 1909 the Rudolph Wurlitzer (Mfg.)Company was established after their purchase of the DeKleist Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company.
The Wurlitzer Company (N.T. Division) would produce some of the companies most famous products, such as band organs and jukeboxes. At its height, the N.T. division employed over 2,000 people. The collection of buildings that makes up the Wurlitzer company N.T. Division Campus still stands today. Its history can be found at the nearby Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum.
Sources for this article today are from The Archives at The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum. Listed below are other recommended readings or sources on the Wurlitzer Company:
Wurlitzer Company Records at the Regional History Center, Northern Illinois University.
The American Carousel Organ: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. By: Ron Bopp
Wurlitzer of Cincinnati: The Name That Means Music To Millions. By: Mark Palkovic
 The Wurlitzer Company went through many name changes including: The Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., The Rudolph Wurlitzer MFG. Co. and then finally The Wurlitzer Company. For continuity, the company will be referred to its final name (The Wurlitzer Company) . The exception is where name change is noted.
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