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Origins of the Christmas Eve Factory Whistle Concert in York, PA

Karl Alex Smyser practices for his 28th Christmas Eve Factory Whistle Concert (The Gazette and Daily, Dec. 23, 1954; from Newspaper Microfilms at the York County Heritage Trust)
Karl Alex Smyser practices for his 28th Christmas Eve Factory Whistle Concert (The Gazette and Daily, Dec. 23, 1954; from Newspaper Microfilms at the York County Heritage Trust)

Karl Alex Smyser originated the Christmas Eve Factory Whistle Concerts at the New York Wire Cloth Company in 1925. Karl explained how this annual Christmas tradition got started in a December 24, 1940 interview with The Gazette and Daily.

“I’ve been giving this program since I was 19 years old.” Mr. Smyser said yesterday, “and it’s gotten to be something which I look forward to each year.”

Mr. Smyser first became interested in the possibilities of playing carols on the siren-type whistle when he heard a similar whistle at the plant of the Herman Noss Sons Lumber Company, 348 West King Street.

He approached officials of the Wire Cloth Company and sought their permission to make the experiment. Officials of the company said they would permit use of the whistle if city authorities agreed and if Mr. Smyser could obtain the sponsorship of a local organization.

Mayor E. S. Hugentugler issued a permit and the York Recreation Commission, of which Miss Ruth Sweeney was director at that time, agreed to sponsor the program.

WhistleNBC1949Karl A. Smyser, a local musician, played Christmas carols, on the factory whistle, several times on coast-to-coast radio hookups. For example in 1949, the concert was broadcast nationally on the NBC radio network. WORK was the local NBC affiliate in York. Karl’s rehearsal on December 22, 1949, was taped for use on several NBC programs that Christmas. It was featured on the network news show and on NBC Network Shows, “Voices and Events” and “News of the World.”

“The whistle operates on the principle of a trombone, with Smyser operating the steam pressure with one hand and the slide with the other. The resulting sound is almost that of a calliope.”

“Smyser welcomes Christmas to York in his own, now celebrated fashion. There were two years in World War II when the big whistle was forced to silence because of its use as an air-raid warning signal.”

The December 17, 1955, issue of The Gazette and Daily reported on what would be the final factory whistle concert by Karl Smyser:

At 1:10 Christmas morning the whistle will be tested. The concert will begin at 1:15. Karl Alex Smyser, who has “blown” all the previous concerts, will “blow” this one.

The program will be as follows: “White Christmas” (Berlin), “Hark the Herald Angles Sing” (Mendelssohn), “Away in the Manger” (Luther), “Joy to the World” (Handel), and “Silent Night” (Franz Gruber).

On Monday at 10:30 a.m. the whistle will be played to allow television stations to film it for later showing.

Karl Alex Smyser died after a brief illness on August 11, 1956; he was only 50 years old. The York community was concerned the whistle caroling tradition might end. The New York Wire Cloth Company, as reported in the November 3, 1956, issue of The Gazette and Daily, assured the community the annual Christmas Eve concerts will continue. “The company is testing several musicians but has not yet selected a successor for Smyser, Paul Z. Kistler, director of public relations, said.”

The November 20, 1956, issue of The Gazette and Daily, reported a musician has been selected to present the factory whistle concert. “Marlin L. Ryan, director of the Emigsville band, has been chosen to succeed the late Karl Alex Smyser in playing the annual Christmas Eve carol concert on the steam whistle at New York Wire Cloth Company.”

Marlin L. Ryan practices for his 1st Christmas Eve Factory Whistle Concert; assisted by Harry L. Fetrow, maintenance supervisor (The Gazette and Daily, Dec. 17, 1956; from Newspaper Microfilms at the York County Heritage Trust)
Marlin L. Ryan practices for his 1st Christmas Eve Factory Whistle Concert; assisted by Harry L. Fetrow, maintenance supervisor (The Gazette and Daily, Dec. 17, 1956; from Newspaper Microfilms at the York County Heritage Trust)

This photo from the December 17, 1956 issue of The Gazette and Daily shows Marlin L. Ryan practicing for his 1st Christmas Eve Factory Whistle Concert; assisted by Harry L. Fetrow, maintenance supervisor at New York Wire Cloth Company. The December 24, 1956, issue of The Gazette and Daily, reported Marlin Ryan’s carol selections will include: “Joy To The World,” “White Christmas,” “The First Noel” and “Silent Night.”

Don Ryan, is now the third musician in charge of playing Christmas carols on a York factory whistle; succeeding his predecessors Marlin L. Ryan and Karl A. Smyser. Don took over playing the Christmas Eve Factory Whistle Concerts from his dad, 25 years ago.

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