Franklin, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Venango County, is an area known for its rich history in the oil industry. However, in the heart of downtown Franklin is a museum that has little to do with this industry. In fact, it has little to do with the history of the region at all. However, if you love antique music, you won’t want to miss one of the world’s most amazing collection of vintage music boxes, record players, and self-playing musical apparatuses.
The DeBence Antique Music World began as the private collection of Jake and Elizabeth DeBence. The DeBences began collecting antique mechanical musical instruments in the 1940s when they lived in Grove City. After retiring to Franklin in 1965, Jake opened a barn outside of town as the DeBence Music Museum.
Jake died in 1992, and his widow put the collection up for sale. After turning down an offer of $13 million from someone who wanted to move the collection to Japan, she sold it to the newly formed Oil Region Music Preservation Museum for $1 million, which allowed the collection to stay in Franklin. The current museum opened a few years later in 1995.
Today, the museum occupies the entire first floor of an old 5 and 10 cent store in Franklin’s historic downtown. It features over 100 antique mechanical musical instruments, some of which are extremely rare.
Guided tours take visitors through the museum. Tour guides explain the history of recorded sound and how it evolved over time. During the tour, they play a variety of antique items from 19th-century phonographs to calliopes from the 1920s. In fact, while guides only play a selection of the many musical devices in the museum, I’ve been told that everything on the museum’s main floor is in working order.
The items in the collection range from small music boxes to very large calliopes that exceed the size of the turn-of-the-century player pianos that are on display. In addition to their large size, some of the calliopes are incredibly loud, filling the room with an incredible din, and even seeping outside to the streets. While these might not be “inside instruments,” they are quite amazing. The ability of these nearly 100 year old mechanical instruments to still play a variety of unique sounds is very impressive.
It’s also worth noting that many of these mechanical musical instruments are quite rare, including several that are the only known examples left. One such instrument is the The Wurlitzer Style 65 Band Organ which was made in 1930. This organ was a prototype, and was the only one ever made. Used for carousels, it was last in use at the carousel at Cabana Beach Park in Washington, PA.
In addition to their large collection of self-playing instruments, the museum also features a nice collection of vintage musical instruments. Many of these hang from the wall, including a 1932 Martin Guitar, which is one of the finest antique Martins that you’ll find anywhere outside of the Martin Factory in Nazareth, PA. The museum also has a fantastic collection of harmonicas on display.
The lighting in the museum is also interesting. Throughout the museum, light is provided by 40 Tiffany-style hanging lamps, which add a bit of class and history to the museum.
The DeBence Antique Music World in Franklin provides a unique look into the history of recorded sound and self-playing instruments that you won’t find anywhere else in Pennsylvania. And, thanks to the generosity of the DeBence family and the citizens of Franklin, this amazing collection can be enjoyed by visitors for years to come.
Note: My visit to DeBence Antique Music World was hosted by the site. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
DeBence Antique Music World
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 11am-4pm
Open by appointment only November 1-March 31
Cost: Adults: $8, Children: $3
Address: 1261 Liberty St