History of the Bursens organ factory

Arthur Bursens was born on 23 november 1890 in Rupelmonde (Belgium) as the second of a family of 8 children. Hij died on 28 september 1982.
His father Joseph Bursens (1867 - 1936) was one of the first in Belgium to make cardboard books for organs. He created them after he came home from his daytime job in the factory of Mortier, a famous Belgian organ manufacturer. His children were obliged to help with that work: they put lime on the cardboard sleeves, while he himself carefully pressed the sleeves to an organ book. The following morning the books were rubbed in with a special fluid to make them ready to be sold.

At the age of 14 Arthur Bursens was employed by Mortier, as were his father and his brother Alphons (1887 - 1967). Later, when asked about that time, Arthur would tell that it was heard to learn the profession of organ builder in the Mortier company, because every worker had a restricted responsibility. There were those who built bellows, others built pipes, ...

After his working hours in the Mortier company Joseph Bursens made organs for his own account, which he hired for fairs. It used to happen that he didn't show up at time for his work at the Mortier factory, because he had to deliver one of his own organs. Mortier forced him to make a choice: either he had to stop making his own organs, or either he had to leave the company. Joseph choose the last option and in 1907 decided to open a ball-room named "De Witte Kat" in Antwerp. A year after that he already sold that ball-room and buyed a building in Hoboken (Belgium, Sint Bernard street), where he started to make dans organs.
In the Bursens organ factory, started in 1908, each year 3 to 4 organs were manufactured by an average of 17 employees. In imitation of Decap and Mortier, the facades were made by external manufacturers. The decoration and painting was often done by Jef Leemans, while Jef Joris took the sculpturing for his account.

During the first world war the Belgian organ business collapsed and hard times came for the Bursens family.
Arthur, hapilly married in the meantime, had to make a living as a market vendor. After the war the family continued making organs. When he finished doing his daytime job in his fathers company Arthur made organs which he sold or rented for his own account.

In 1928 the company of Joseph Bursens was taken over by his son Arthur and one of the employees, Gustaaf Roels. New organs were made under the name ARBURO, a concatenation of ARthur BUrsens and ROels.
In order to avoid the competition of the bigger companies, it was decided to build smaller orchestrions, conducted by paper rolls. These cheaper instruments were popular among those who couldn't afford a book organ. The paper rolls were sold for 50 Belgian franks, or about € 1.25, each (in 1930). The manufacturing cost of the rolls could be kept down by perforating 12 rolls at the same time, with 3 songs at each roll. Often 36 identical rolls were made. Urbain Van Wichelen was one of the most popular conductors for the ARBURO orchestrions.
Each 14 days a new orchestrion left the factory.

In 1930 Arthur bought an other building in Hoboken (Belgium, Sint Bernardsesteenweg 635) where he lived and worked during the rest of his life. In those days the factory counted 20 to 25 employees.
During the second world war the demand for pipe organs decreased, and Bursens started to make furniture. After the liberation he made ammunition boxes for the allies for a while. At that time he employed 250 men in 3 shifts.
After the war there came flourishing years for the organ manufacturers: the customers visited the factory to order organs, but also to order furniture for there pubs or ball rooms. Bigger organs were made, often with accordeons especially made for them. It was in those days that Arthur Bursens made his famous 96-key orchestrions (on cardboard books) with a great variety of registers and percussion. About 20 organs were made in that serie, and the 'Canada' is the only one left in Belgium (in 2005).

In 1950 Gustaaf Roels left the company and moved to the Belgian Congo, where he started a sawmill. After one year and a half he came back to Belgium. The share of Roels was sold to Frans De Groof, but the factory kept working under the name ARBURO.

The introduction of the television and jukebox meant the end of the era of the pipe organs. The Bursens factory didn't invest in integrating electronics in their organs and when De Groof died in 1967, Arthur Bursens, at the age of 77, thought about quiting. However, it was hard doing nothing, and he started the production of 52-key street organs. At the end of his career he made 68-key street organs, like the 'Sint Bernard' in 1975 and the Brusilia (Ghijssels collection in Brussels) in 1977. The most of these organs went to the USA or England. In spite of his age Bursens kept innovating: none of these 68-key organs are the same.

This article could be written thanks to the cooperation af Arthur Bursens, who provided the information and checked the content of the text after it was written. The dutch version of this text was published in 1977 in "Het Pierement", the periodical of "De Kring van Draaiorgelvrienden".

JC