WALLACE COUNTY, Kan. (KSNW) – Preserving the past for future generations. That’s the goal of a special exhibit at the Fort Wallace Museum in Wallace, Kansas.
The Rhea Antique Pump Organ Collection comprises 61 refurbished pump organs dating back to the late 1800s. Dick Rhea, 92, found and fixed each one of them.
“They’re a million dollar past time,” said Dick Rhea. “It’s just a hobby, and I couldn’t go without it.”
How it all started
Rhea’s hobby began in 1950 with a call from his priest.
“We were working on the Catholic church doing some remodeling down there, and they had an old church organ there that didn’t play anymore. So father Cruz, the priest, wanted to know if I had my pick-up, and I said, ‘yes,'” Rhea explained.
Rhea said Father Cruz asked him to haul the organ to the dump. But, instead, he took it to his house.
“I put it in my basement, and I worked on that thing all winter long. I took it apart and put it together because I didn’t know anything about them, how to make them work or anything,” he said.
From one organ to 101 organs
Thanks to a lot of trial and error and studying, the farmer and former horse trainer eventually figured out how to fix the antique organs. Before he knew it, people from across the county were seeking out his self-taught skills.
“The wife and I was in my pick-up and trailer day and night picking up organs,” Rhea said. “I had a big shop out right back of my house. I went out there early in the morning, worked all day. My wife would bring me lunch, and she would holler for supper, and I would stay there, and she would bring it out.”
Rhea and his wife, Bernice, put more than 30,000 miles on his truck traveling to Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico to retrieve the antique organs he purchased from auctions and individuals.
In all, Rhea refurbished 101 organs. He said many people were baffled by his hobby.
“Well, a lot of ’em called me an idiot,” he laughed. “I didn’t pay no attention.”
Organs on display
In 2003, Rhea and Bernice opened an organ museum in his hometown of Sharon Springs. They welcomed thousands of visitors.
“I had something near 12,500, 13,000 people in there, and they were all over the states,” Rhea said.
Rhea closed up shop after Bernice died. In 2017, he donated his organ collection to the Fort Wallace Museum.
“I was getting old, and my back was hurting me so bad that I couldn’t take care of them, and I knew they would down here,” he said. “It’s kind of a God blessing to find somebody who will take them.”
The museum now has a dedicated area for Rhea’s organs. Sixty-one of them, all of which still work, are currently on display, including the very first organ Rhea fixed.
“We are preserving one of our special residents, we are preserving his legacy and his dream, and we are keeping it intact and sharing it with another generation,” said Fort Wallace Museum Director Jayne Pearce. “This was somebody’s treasured piece before there was Spotify before there was Apple Music and all this stuff. This was the place where the music came from.”
“These organs, they need care, so they will be here for years, and years and years. I won’t be here probably to see them, but there will be some people, yes,” Rhea said.
Believe it or not, Rhea said he would love to collect and refurbish more organs. However, he laughed and said his age.
Fort Wallace Museum summer hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MT) Monday – Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (MT) on Sundays. Admission is free.