- Written by Lynda Hudzick Lynda Hudzick
When the people of York hear Whistle Master Don Ryan wrapping up his yearly Christmas concert by playing “Silent Night,” they know Christmas Day has truly arrived.
The Christmas Eve concert of the historic York Factory Whistle is an annual event that has been a part of Yorkers’ lives for many years and has touched people all over the globe. And it’s an experience Don Ryan and his family have been a part of for more than 65 years.
Born and raised in York, Ryan is a mechanical engineer by trade, but music has always been a big part of his life.
“My dad taught me how the play the trumpet,” Ryan said. “He loved music and was very talented. He was a mechanical engineer as well, but also gave private music lessons, and I do the same. I like young people, and I enjoy watching them learn.”
Ryan’s father began playing the whistle in 1955 when “a neighbor who knew Dad was into music told him about the chance,” Ryan said.
He recalls that the first song his father played on the whistle was “London Bridge,” and it was in the summer.
“My dad said, ‘I think I can make this work,’” Ryan said. “He wrote up his own music and developed the scale to play the music on. It took about seven years to develop what we have today that lets us play a variety of music in two octaves.”
For 35 years, Ryan’s father presented the late Christmas Eve performance to usher in Christmas Day. Ryan was an apprentice to his father for 35 years.
“I learned by watching him do it; that’s how I caught on.”
Because both he and his father shared mechanical and musical backgrounds, they understood not only the music but also the mechanics of the whistle, and that helped enhance their performance.
Variable-pitch whistles, similar to the one Ryan plays today, were patented in 1872 and, years ago, were used all over the United States. These whistles can be heard in a 5-mile radius or even a 10- to 12-mile radius, depending on the wind direction.
Because of this, the whistles were often used to communicate with the people living close to the factory where a whistle was in operation. York’s whistle can produce sounds measuring 134 decibels, louder than a jet engine.
“It was used to announce the start and the end of a workday, to announce lunch breaks, and even to notify people of an emergency at the factory,” Ryan said.
Ryan is very knowledgeable about the history of the single- and variable-pitch whistles. He offers presentations to local organizations that would like to learn more about them, discussing single- and variable-pitch whistles and demonstrating how they are played.
Never intended to be used as a musical instrument, the cylindrical whistle Ryan plays has existed since at least the late 1880s. It is 15 inches long and approximately 5 1/8 inches in diameter and was originally operated with steam.
“That could be a little dangerous for the person operating the whistle,” Ryan said. “It got very hot, and you would be soaked from the steam gathering in the small area where the whistle was usually installed. It was switched to compressed air in 2010, which is safer and more comfortable for the performer.”
The York whistle, currently housed in the old Metso building in York, is brass and is maintained annually.
“We have a guy who goes over it every year, tightens things up,” he said. “We do put a cover over it when it’s not in use, but you can see it from the road.”
There is a live broadcast projector on a car roof nearby that allows approximately a 20-by-20-foot projection of the whistle performance on the side of a nearby building. People can then watch the whistle during the concert, although there is a 10-second delay.
Ryan and the whistle have appeared on national and international television and radio broadcasts, and thus, he has heard from people all around the globe, telling him how much they enjoy his work.
“I’ve also had my music students come in to watch and assist with the performance, and they’ve been on worldwide TV — their parents really like that,” he said.
In addition to broadcast media recognition, the whistle was listed in the 2002 Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Loudest Music without Amplification from a Non-Musical Instrument,” and has been featured in the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota since 2004.
Also of note, in 2020, the whistle concert’s eighth live broadcast received 29,267,153 hits representing 104 different countries.
But perhaps more important than all the worldwide acclaim, Ryan said playing these concerts still helps him feel connected to his father and to his lifelong community.
After having been the whistle master for many years, Ryan would now like to hand the tradition down to a future generation. Although his children are interested in what he does and have assisted him in the past, they do not live in the area and so are unable to take over.
“I would like to teach someone who lives in York County who would be interested in doing it, but they have to be able to read music, and they have to be willing to give up Christmas Eve to present this for the community,” he said.
For many people in the York area, this tradition has taken place annually for their entire lives.
“It makes Christmas for them; it’s so unique, and the sound is totally different from anything you’ve ever heard,” Ryan said. “I have made recordings on CD, but the sound isn’t the same as being right on top of it, hearing those Christmas carols. It touches a lot of people.”
As a way to show their appreciation for a job well done, Ryan said each year at the end of each song, “people outside lay on their car horns as a form of applause. It’s noisy, but it’s so special, everyone joining in. It’s also a chance for them to blow their horns really loud and get away with it.”
And so on Dec. 24 of this year, Don Ryan will once again don his tuxedo and head over to Arch Street to work his magic on the factory whistle, and at 12:15 a.m., he will once again usher in Christmas Day for the people of York.
“It’s something I do for my own enjoyment and the enjoyment of the community,” Ryan said. “It’s something special that I like to do for the people of York.”
On the cover: Whistle Master Don Ryan, right, and son Scott, left, tuxedoed up for last year’s Christmas Eve performance of the York Factory Whistle.