Editor's note: James Lovelady, a retired aerospace engineer, found a new outlet for his natural curiosity when he discovered a 120-year-old reed organ in storage at the Eckert Presbyterian Church. This is his account of the organ's restoration to like-new condition as the church observes its 100th anniversary this year.
I was fascinated to learn that the church's original reed organ was collecting dust in the church basement. I tried it out and found that part of it, at least, was playable.
The biggest problem was dust, dirt, rubber bands, paper clips, you name it — at least 50 years' worth — that had accumulated inside.
The top of the organ is a shutter, like a heavy oak venetian blind; the operating mechanism had several broken parts. A number of the operating wires were disconnected and the rotor for the fan-like vibrato mechanism was lying loose from a missing support. In spite of all, it could be played!
I did a little research on the Internet. The most common reed organ maker was Mason and Hamlin, which was also a big piano company. This organ was labeled "Mason and Risch, New York, Worcester," which was also the name of a Canadian piano company. That lead turned out to be a dead end.
But I hit pay dirt when I added "Worcester" to the search. The Vocalion Organ Company of Worcester, Mass., used the name Mason and Risch for a few years before being bought out yet again. Their larger two- and three-manual organs with pedals carried the Vocalion name, while their smallest were labeled M&R.
This organ is comparatively rare. There are probably fewer than 200 worldwide, as far away as Holland and Australia, mostly the larger two- and three-manual models. It differs from the common reed organ in a number of ways.
The mechanism incorporates the features of a pipe organ, which gives it a better tone quality and response. The system was invented in England by James Baille-Hamilton, but no one was interested so he brought his ideas to Massachusetts.
Their larger instruments were the "Rolls Royce" of reed organs, sporting fake pipes, multiple manuals, and pedals with many of the gadgets that make them easier to play. They were excellent choices for small churches or homes.
After sufficient cleaning, we found the serial number penciled in several places and stamped on one part. Comparing this to the table found on the Internet, this organ can be dated to 1891, making it over 120 years old.
On the first visit, I poked around while my wife, Carol, watched and handed me tools. But she loves old instruments and machines as much as I do, so on the second visit, she came prepared to man the Swiffers while I followed up with the Dust Busters. The amount of dirt we got out was incredible.
The organ has a pair of bellows operated by foot pedals to act as the lungs, and a third spring-loaded bellows to store the wind between pumps. The bellows were made of a rubberized cloth, or possibly oilcloth, which after 120 years was getting rather crunchy — amazing that they still worked at all. The corner folds were leaky. So I took the whole assembly home, dust and all. Carol suggested I work on the table in the living room rather than in the cold basement, which worked out well.
Our piano tuner recommended a website for player piano parts that had suitable bellows fabric. It was a little tricky salvaging enough of the old fabric for a pattern and laying it out without waste. After tacking and gluing and testing for leaks, I finished by re-staining the wooden parts ebony black. There are two straps that connect the foot pedals to the bellows; one had been replaced with blue denim from a pair of jeans. Webbing is available, but the postage is worth more than the price. I settled for a seat belt kit from the auto parts store — exactly enough, good and strong.
The next project was the reed board. It is the giant harmonica that forms the upper part of the organ. This section has 122 "pallets" that were the reason I started this whole project. Some of them leaked, causing a few notes to sing without being asked. This is much more annoying than dead notes that won't play.
On inspection, it appeared that someone over the years spilled water in the works (probably a vase of flowers) and it hardened the leather. ll of the pallets showed a black ring of soot from old coal furnaces around the edges of the leather. Carol provided a nice stiff mascara brush that could reach into tight places and, with some other brushes, I cleaned all the old pallets and marked those that needed new leather.
The good old Internet finally found me Columbia Organ Leathers in Pennsylvania that had the right material for the pallet pads – a thin layer of sheepskin chamois leather bonded to a felt cushion. Replacing the pads turned out to be easier than expected.
People used to tell me "If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well." I don't think that is always true, but in this case, it is.
Like most projects, this has been more work and taken more time and money than expected. It was well worth it; we had fun doing it and the old organ sounds great.
If anyone would like to hear the organ, or play it, drop by after Sunday services. It needs the exercise.blog comments powered by Disqus