Hinners & Albertsen on the Mississippi Bluffs Part 1: the Genesis

January 30, 2018

Allison A. Alcorn received her PhD from the University of North Texas, Denton, in 1997 and is now professor of musicology at Illinois State University, where she is active in the Honors Program, Study Abroad, and Faculty Development and mentoring. Alcorn served as editor of the Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society from 2012–2017 and joined the AMIS Board of Governors in 2017. She has previously served as councilor for research for the Organ Historical Society and on the governing board of the American Organ Archives. Publications include articles for the Grove Dictionary of American Music and the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments as well as articles in a variety of national and international journals.

A unique figure in the story of the American organ is John Leonard Hinners (1846–1906), who perhaps epitomizes the late nineteenth-century entrepreneurial spirit in the face of the closing frontier (Figure 1). He is something of a musical amalgam of Henry Ford and Montgomery Ward: Ford brought the passenger car to the common man and Hinners brought the pipe organ, and just as Montgomery Ward successfully reached the isolated Midwestern farm house with its mail order merchandise, Hinners reached out to the isolated Midwestern country church with his mail order pipe organ business. Although Hinners was not the only company to use the mail order idea, he seems to have been at least among the most successful with it. In fact, the Hinners Organ Company never extensively employed outside salesmen. All preliminary business was conducted by catalog and letter, the organ was crated up and shipped by rail, and the first time the buyer had any real contact with the company was when an employee, whose expenses were included in the contract, arrived to direct the parishioners in installing the new instrument. John Leonard’s entrepreneurial ambition was clearly shaped by the experiences of his entire life, combining to formulate his ideas about meeting the musical, religious, and social needs of rural churches.


Family background

John Leonard Hinners was the son of German immigrants who set out from Hanover, Germany, with a group of Pietists seeking religious freedom. In 1849, Peter Hinners (1824–1887), John Leonard’s father, was accepted as a missionary of the German Methodist Episcopal Church. Peter and his family left Wheeling, West Virginia, to work a circuit in the Midwest, locating variously in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana for the next number of years. Unlike the English-speaking Methodist circuit riders, the German missionaries tended to use river transportation, traversing north on the Mississippi to visit German settlements scattered across the Midwest, particularly along the line of St. Louis-Chicago-Milwaukee, each of which was home to more than 10,000 Germans in 1860. Peter’s particular skill was constructing churches, and many of his assignments involved mission sites in which he erected a church before moving to the next site. With Pekin located as a major port on the Illinois River, the decision to move the John L. Hinners family to Pekin in 1879 may have been related to the work of the Methodist missionaries, among several other factors. 

John Leonard, therefore, spent his childhood in any number of small, rural congregations throughout the Midwest, shaping his future in profound ways. As a musician deeply involved with these churches, he certainly would have felt the limitations of the typical church reed organ from both a musical and an aesthetic/cultural point of view. Moreover, he would have been intimately familiar with the frustration of these rural congregations who struggled to pay their ministers, much less find additional cash for a pipe organ. Peter, known for his skills as a church builder, must have provided John Leonard’s basic woodworking skills, since one might reasonably expect that Peter’s sons would have assisted him with his building projects. Music occupied a central position in the Peter Hinners household as well and so, as Peter’s son, John Leonard was reared with his hands on a hammer and his feet on the pedals, learning skills of building and music that he would later combine into a business that produced nearly 3,000 pipe organs and approximately 20,000 reed organs in its five and a half decades of existence.1


Marketing and sales models

John Leonard accepted a position with Mason & Hamlin in Chicago in the 1870s, a time when reed organs were rapidly gaining popularity throughout America. Music was seen as a worthy pastime, one that was integral to a happy home. Further, owning a reed organ signified a measure of prestige that was second only to the piano, the latter more of a “citified” instrument and the former more of a status symbol in rural areas. Reed organs were such a desirable commodity that in the mid-1880s, a small reed organ was offered by the Ladies’ Home Journal as a premium for submitting 350 one-year subscriptions at .50 each (Figure 2).

The sales techniques of reed organ companies are particularly important, because it appears that John L. Hinners modeled his pipe organ enterprise, both target audience and sales approach, directly on that of the reed organ business. Advertisements in periodical literature were ubiquitous. Everything from popular magazines and newspapers to church journals ran the advertisements of dealers or manufacturers hawking their particular brand of organ. Some ads were a full page, but many were no larger than an inch square, squeezed in among advertisements for women’s shirtwaists and Calumet Baking Powder.

A common technique of these ads was to include an “inquiry address” to which one could write for a free catalog. Often these catalogs—such as the Hinners catalog from 1895 in Figure 3—were not much more than testimonials from satisfied customers, and occasionally the accounts were somewhat improved in the editing process, and some were probably entirely fabricated. Catalog houses such as Montgomery Ward and Sears carried entire lines of musical instruments, including reed organs. The catalog houses’ sales philosophies were followed almost to the letter by John L. Hinners in his pipe organ business.


The move to Pekin

Why John Leonard chose to move his family to Pekin, Illinois, in 1879 is a subject for speculation. Pekin is located on the banks of the Illinois River about 50 miles due north of present-day Springfield and was organized under a city charter dated August 20, 1849. It is said that the town was named after Peking, China, when Ann Eliza Cromwell, wife of one of the original town title-holders, pushed a hat pin through “Townsite” on a globe and it came out on the opposite side at Peking, China.2 Because of the town’s prime location on the river and its status as a terminal railroad station, numerous industries developed in Pekin. More than that, however, if one conjectures that John Leonard had the rural church market in mind right from the start, a Midwestern location was desirable as an effort to gain the trust of an Eastern-wary rural Midwestern clientele. Because the first settlers in Pekin were primarily native-born Americans, the earliest churches in each denomination were English-speaking, but when the Germans began to arrive in large numbers in the 1850s (attracted initially by the T. & H. Smith Wagon Company), German-speaking congregations were established. The first German congregation in Pekin was the Methodist Episcopal, building a small frame structure in 1850 and becoming a leading congregation in the St. Louis Methodist Conference.

Undoubtedly, the Hinners family had contact with that congregation through their strong involvement with the national German Methodist Episcopal denomination. After his years as a circuit rider, Peter Hinners, John Leonard’s father, functioned as a financial agent for the denomination and traveled frequently to the regional German Methodist Episcopal churches, surely visiting Pekin on a regular basis. Pekin’s congregation even hosted the 1875 Conference of the German Methodist Episcopals, which John Leonard may well have attended, probably then meeting Fred Schaefer, for whom he initially manufactured his reed organs. Schaefer was a member of the church, and as a musical instrument dealer, he certainly would have spoken with an employee of Mason & Hamlin who happened to be visiting his church. In the course of conversations, it would have been quite natural for John Leonard to voice his frustrations with hopes of advancing within the Mason & Hamlin operation as well as his desire to build his own organs. The scope of Schaefer’s businesses shows him to be nothing if not enterprising (Figure 4), and it is easy to picture the wheels turning in his mind at the idea of enticing a young organbuilder to manufacture reed organs for him right there in Pekin. The city did offer a small amount of competition for the Hinners organs. In an 1878 Pekin newspaper, Geiger & Thompson’s Sewing Machine Exchange also advertised “the Matchless Burdett Organ” (Figure 5).

After Chicago, however, the competition in Pekin offered little intimidation or resistance for the ambitions of John Leonard, though some even continued to offer Mason & Hamlin organs, like the local musical merchandise dealer in this advertisement in Figure 6. Another competitor, however, succumbed to the offer of employment by the Hinners firm, as is documented in the 25th anniversary booklet listing Gilbert Skaggs as a 14-year employee. Skaggs is cited in the 1905 Pekin City Directory as an independent organbuilder and may have been one of the men recruited to help get the pipe organ enterprise underway, as his tenure coincides with the beginning of pipe organ production.

Regardless of the impetus, John L. Hinners’s Perfection Organ Manufactory in Pekin began a new era of industry for the region. He set up shop in a back room of Schaefer’s new building on Court Street, across from the courthouse and spent the next ten years building reed organs, perfecting the skills and techniques he would then apply to the manufacture of pipe organs. Specifically, in addition to the marketing and sales acumen modeled on the reed organ trade, John Leonard brought to his pipe organs an understanding of compactness, mechanical reliability, and superb carpentry that he had learned in reed organ construction.3 Perhaps the most important entrepreneurial application, later seen as a defining characteristic of the pipe organs, was his standardization of the reed organ. In an 1895 Hinners Reed Organ catalog (in English and German) he lays out just five action types and ten cabinet styles. By strictly controlling variations, he was able to produce them literally by the dozens. When he turned this idea to pipe organs, such standardization permitted him to offer quality instruments at significantly lower prices.


Hinners & Albertsen

Schaefer sold his instrument manufactory and musical merchandise business in early 1881. John Leonard took the opportunity to cash in on the reputation he had built for himself in the previous year and recruited a group of local investors to back the Perfection Organ Works as a private reed organ factory. Ubbo J. Albertsen (Figure 7) purchased the interest of the original investors in 1885, and the company became Hinners & Albertsen.4 With the infusion of Albertsen’s capital, the firm expanded once again and reed organ sales soared. The turn to pipe organ production was announced in a special catalog that was written in German and English—with a sketch of the Boston Music Hall organ on the cover. These Hinners & Albertsen organs had one manual and pedals, available in three ranks for $375, four ranks for $485, five ranks for $575, and six ranks for the bargain price of $635. The 1890 catalog introduced “Our New No. 5 Pipe Organ” for $485 with economical specifications:


8 Open Diapason (metal, 61 pipes)

8 Melodia (wood 61 pipes, enclosed)

8 Gamba (metal, 61 pipes, enclosed)

4 Principal (metal, 61 pipes)


16 Pedal Bourdon (wood, 15 pipes)


Super Coupler

Manual to Pedal Coupler

Swell Pedal

The three-rank organ included two 8ranks and one 4 rank; for the five-rank instrument, they added a 2 rank to the No. 5 specifications, and the six-rank organ added two 2 ranks to the No. 5 specifications. Churches close to Pekin could reduce the cost by sending members of its congregation to the factory with their own wagons, handling drayage and set-up themselves. In this case, the organ would cost only $75 a rank, which amounts to a significant savings for budget-minded congregations.

If shipped, the swell box served as the shipping crate, and many of these still have the shipping labels nailed to what is now the inside of the box (Figure 8, nailed on the far back side). In the early years, all of the non-local organs were shipped via the railway. The pipes and components, all numbered, were placed in numbered crates and loaded into the boxcars. When the organ arrived at its destination, church members retrieved the crates from the depot along with the company representative who directed the organ’s installation. The numbering system (cf. Figure 9) made installation quick and easy, usually requiring only one company man to oversee the operation, though larger organs sometimes required teams of two or, rarely, three. The Hinners representative’s signature and the installation date is often found penciled somewhere inside the instrument, frequently somewhere on or in the swell box. Trucks eventually replaced the horse-drawn wagons, and organs within an eleven-state radius of Illinois were delivered by truck, which drove at a top speed of 25 miles per hour. The Hinners firm managed to keep even the switch to motorized drayage within the family—or at least within the extended organ family—when Philip Kriegsman, a 13-year tuner for Hinners, purchased the drayage company that had been handling organ shipping and became the contractor who moved the organ business from horse-drawn wagons to motorized vehicles.

The 1898 Hinners & Albertsen organ built for the St. Peter Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Red Wing, Minnesota, exemplifies the typical smaller two-manual organ (Figure 10). Like the reed organs, the one-manual pipe organs had a keyboard divided at middle C, each half controlled by a treble and bass knob. Most often, the Hinners & Albertsen pedal ranks encompassed only the lower octave, and the second octave was supplied as a pull-down. The catalogs claimed that the notes above the lower octave were only very rarely used for church services, and so they were omitted “as a needless expenditure.”


To be continued.



1. Cf. Allison Alcorn, “A History of the Hinners Organ Company of Pekin, Illinois,” The Tracker, vol. 44, no. 3 (2000): 13–25. The Tracker article provides a more detailed account of the complete company history, though much in the present article’s overview is indebted to that work. This article provides a simple company overview up to the date of the Red Wing organ and then a focus on the story of that Red Wing, Minnesota, instrument.

2. Louella Dirksen, The Honorable Mr. Marigold (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 1. Mrs. Cromwell must have had a rather crooked pin, actually, because the direct antipode of Pekin is in the Indian Ocean off the far southwestern tip of Australia.

3. Unfortunately, the only Hinners organ remaining in Pekin is at St. John Lutheran Church. In 2014 it was rebuilt by the Buzard Organ Company of Champaign, Illinois. The original console was gone, so they used a 1927 console from the Hinners built for Hope Reformed Church in Chicago plus a number of other console materials from the Hinners that had been built for the Pekin Elks Club Lodge (the last Hinners pipe organ built before the company closed). Some odds and ends were used in the interior from the 1913 organ built for the Hinners’ family church, which assumed the non-Germanic name of Grace Methodist Episcopal Church when it rebuilt in 1914 after a devastating 1911 fire. That organ is now completely dismantled, with only the façade pipes remaining as visual display to house an Allen electronic organ. 

4. An unfortunate typographical error in the 2000 Tracker article (op. cit., 15) cites “Uddo” J. Albertsen as John Leonard’s partner. Some confusion had already existed about Albertsen, as early sources sometimes incorrectly reference Urban J. Albertsen as the partner in the organ business. Urban, however, was not born until 1887, and it was his father, Ubbo J. Abertsen (1845–1926), who bought into the Hinners organ enterprise.

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