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The Man Behind the Music

One man's passion opened the doors to everything HHAHS is today.

Lee Conklin

Lee Conklin was born January 25, 1895, on a farm in Scipio Township, Hillsdale County, Michigan. His love of music began as a child when his sister, Grace, often played her reed organ for him, his three brothers, and sister. Although he never learned to play the organ, he had a fine voice and all his life enjoyed singing along with reed organ accompaniment.

After training at Camp Custer, located near Battle Creek, Michigan, and serving during WWI, Mr. Conklin returned home to marry a farm girl, Grace Gray of Jonesville, MI. The couple settled on a farm two miles south of Hanover where they reared two daughters and four sons. Besides a lifetime of general farming, he planted his own apple orchard, raised bees, and did custom woodworking using wood from his own sawmill. His many hobbies included music, wood carving, and nature photography. Exploring the rivers of Southern Michigan was also a favorite pastime and his hand carved maple canoe paddle, along with other examples of his handicraft, are now on display in the Conklin Museum.

Following the death of his wife in 1965, Mr. Conklin renewed his interest in reed organs and melodeons and began to travel extensively throughout Michigan and the Midwest in search of them. As his collection grew, Mr. Conklin began to store them in the heated, oak-paneled lower level of his barn which contained a well-equipped woodworking shop. Here he spent countless hours meticulously restoring the instruments to their original beauty and musical function.

Word soon spread about Mr. Conklin’s extensive collection, and people from all over the country began to come to Hanover looking for “Lee Conklin’s Organ Barn”. He always gave a warm welcome to visitors and enjoyed sharing anecdotes about each instrument.

In the late 1970’s, Mr. Conklin decided his reed organs and melodeons needed a permanent home and the perpetual care that he was unable to give them. Local residents were interested in preserving the collection and formed an historical society to care for the instruments. Arrangements were made for the organization to accept donation of his 73 instruments, and a large sheet music collection, and to lease the empty Hanover High School Building to house them. In December of 1977 the instruments were moved from the barn to the gymnasium of the old school building where they remain a permanent exhibit.

Mr. Conklin spent his last years in retirement homes, but he often visited his old organ “friends” in the museum. He continued to keep busy repairing organs, caning chairs for friends, and designing craft objects. He remained active and creative to the end of his life and received many honors during his last years.

Mr. Conklin died on May 22, 1989, at the age of 94. His gentle, modest ways, and the generous donation of his invaluable collections, will long be remembered.

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