Tonawanda News — David Eilers, the great-great grandson of Rudolph Wurlitzer, presented a bronze plaque that hung for years in the Wurlitzer company’s New York City showroom to the North Tonawanda History Museum on Thursday evening.
Growing up, Eilers felt proud to tell his friends in a town near Seattle that the mighty Wurlitzer organ at their favorite pizza parlor was built by his great, great grandfather. But it wasn’t until 1992, at the age of 28, when he took initiative to learn the depth of his family’s history.
A historian who sells antique Jeeps online, Eilers, who authored two historical books, created a family website. He listed the Eilers and Wurlitzers who were part of his lineage, and posted what pictures and information of them he had. This way, anyone doing research on the Wurlitzer family could contact him, and he could gather information from them, too.
In his research, he discovered there was a small museum “somewhere out there in New York” that was trying to put together a Wurlitzer display. Donna Zellner Neal, the executive director of the North Tonawanda History Museum, was awestruck when Eilers showed up at her museum in 2011.
“(My wife and I) drove up and walked in unannounced and peaked around and liked what we saw,” Eilers said. “And so I think almost on our way out we said: ‘Oh yeah, we’re related to the Wurlitzers.’ Well, that’s all we had to say, and Donna brought us back in and gave us the full tour.”
He promised Neal to provide her with as much information as he had on his family. Their ultimate goal is to create a Wurlitzer showroom. Thus far, Eilers has donated his time, the bronze plaque and a family history to the North Tonawanda History Museum. He said in the future, if there’s progress with the showroom, he would be open to monetary donations.
The story of the plaque at the center of Thursday’s ceremony shares much of the same serendipity as Eilers’ first visit to North Tonawanda.
When Eilers got back to his home in Washington state after his visit here, a man from Florida who came across his family website contacted him. He was in his late 80s and was once a manager at the Wurlitzer Manhattan showroom. He told Eilers he loved working for the company so much that as they were closing the store and as he walked out for the last time, he looked up and saw the bronze plaque, which was made by Wurlitzer employees in about 1921 to honor Rudolph Wurlitzer, who died in 1914.
“He said, ‘I can’t let that get destroyed. This means too much,’ “ Eilers recounted. “So he took down this plaque and he’s had it in his closet ever since ... We were anxious to get this to me so I could bring it out and hand deliver it” to the NT History Museum.
The original North Tonawanda Wurlitzer Pipe Organ factory building is located at 908 Niagara Falls Blvd., and its iconic red sign still glows at night.
Wurlitzer came from Germany at the age of 22 because his father was leaving his company to his younger brother instead of Wurlitzer, the oldest. He wanted to prove he could make it — and he did.
He founded the North Tonawanda Wurlitzer plant in 1853 and it grew to be the largest musical instrument manufacturing facility in the world in the early 20th century. Today, millions of Americans still associate the Wurlitzer brand with its theater organs and later the iconic barroom jukeboxes.
After the presentation, which included proclamations from North Tonawanda Mayor Rob Ortt and Niagara County Legislator Peter Smolinski, the 20-or-so spectators on hand were treated to a presentation by Jeff Weiler, an internationally known expert on the Wurlitzer theater organs who wrote an 800-page book “The Wurlitzer Pipe Organ: An Illustrated History.”
But for many North Tonawanda residents, the brand and its history is already well known.
“I don’t go probably a day without hearing the name ‘Wurlitzer’ in some fashion in my office, or I say it myself,” Ortt said to Eilers. “And so that’s a really great legacy your family has left to you and us here.”
It’s a fact not lost on Eilers.
“As the great, great grandson, I may have the DNA of the Wurlitzer family, and so I really don’t get much credit for this,” he said. “But at least I can make a difference in helping grow this museum, which I think the Wurlitzer name is such a strong brand and there’s such great history there, it deserves to be shown and discussed and shared.”