Hinners & Albertsen on the Mississippi Bluffs, Part 2: The Tale Unfolds

February 28, 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 been 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.

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this article was published in the February issue of The Diapason, pages 22–24.


Hinners & Albertsen in Red Wing, Minnesota

The Red Wing organ’s specification list represents the standard style 2/10, available in style A, B, or C; that is, in the mail order, the congregation indicated whether it should be built to go on the left, center, or right of the altar. This was a substantial investment for the church at just less than $1,000.00. Clearly, this organ (Figure 10) is nothing elaborate or extravagant. It is a meat and potatoes organ. No dessert here, no fancy garnishes, only what is absolutely needed:


8 Open Diapason (metal, 61 pipes)

8 Melodia (wood, 61 pipes)

8 Dulciana (metal, 49 pipes)

4 Principal (metal, 61 pipes)


16 Bourdon (wood, 49 pipes)

8 Violin Diapason (metal, 61 pipes)

8 Lieblich Gedackt (wood, 61 pipes)

8 Salicional (metal, 49 pipes)

4 Flauto Traverso (metal, 61 pipes)


16 Bourdon (wood, 27 pipes)



Swell & Octave to Great Coupler

Swell to Great Coupler

Swell to Pedal Coupler

Great to Pedal Coupler



Swell Tremulant

Blowers Signal

Wind Indicator


Pedal movements

Great Forte

Great Piano

Balanced Swell Pedal


Red Wing was originally the site of a Lakota farming village, and then in 1837 missionaries with the Evangelical Missionary Society of Lausanne began a decade of relatively sporadic missionary activity until several treaties were signed with the Sioux and Mendota in the 1850s and a U. S. Land Office opened in Red Wing in 1855. Within a few years, the town of Red Wing—named after the Lakota chief who used a dyed swan wing as a symbol of rank—became a busy river port. A more stable white settlement was established with the opening of a leather and shoe factory—the beginning of the famous Red Wing Shoe empire—and a pottery factory—the Red Wing Pottery empire—in the 1860s. However, it was the wheat trade that spurred rapid growth throughout the 1870s and then ironically also led to a serious economic downturn because of depleted soil and increased problems with blight and rust exacerbated by a series of severe storms.

Industrial diversification probably saved the town of around 4,000 inhabitants; flour mills opened along with lime quarrying and furniture building, lumber, and millwork. Red Wing Iron Works, founded in 1866, was perhaps the chief contributor that enabled the city to diversify and save itself. The iron works was owned and run by Benjamin and Daniel Densmore, Benjamin being the father of Frances Densmore, a true pioneer in American musicology and ethnomusicology.

Frances’s letters provide a good sense of what Red Wing was like in the era in which the Hinners & Albertsen organ came to the city. Frances wrote about having grown up going to bed at night listening to the drums and chanting of the Lakota on Trenton Island, directly across the Mississippi River from her house. She could see their fires from her bedroom window. In 1889 the Lakota were forced onto the Prairie Island Reservation, but they remained both a physical and aural presence in Red Wing.5

The Norwegian Lutheran Hauge Synod established a significant stronghold in Red Wing beginning in the 1870s and opened a seminary there in 1879, high on the bluff overlooking the city. The ladies seminary was opened in 1889 and was known especially for its Conservatory of Music and its director, Dr. Bernard F. Laukandt, who was also organist at St. Peter Norwegian Lutheran Church; therefore, the organist for the 1898 Hinners & Albertsen.6 The conservatory was divided into three departments: piano, voice, and pipe organ (the auditorium had a Kilgen organ) and ran a concert series that brought performers from the East coast. People would take the train from Minneapolis for the concerts, so despite the hardships of life in turn-of-the-century Red Wing, people also found a measure of cultured entertainment. The residents of Red Wing clearly appreciated music, so the climate was amenable to raising money for a good pipe organ. On the other hand, the reality was that Red Wing was rural and largely blue collar, and so while they sincerely appreciated the organ, a Möller or a Casavant was out of the question.

Red Wing’s organ was order number 360, placed August 6, 1898, by Carl N. Lien, secretary of St. Peter Norwegian Lutheran Church (Figure 11). It was to be shipped October 10 and dedicated October 23, 1898. As of December 7, however, it was still being hoped for, but for an unknown reason, it was not shipped until January 25, 1899.7 It weighed 5,690 pounds and was shipped on the Santa Fe Railroad at a cost of $34.14. The price of $1,050.00 was payable thirty days after delivery. The organ finally arrived about February 1, 1899, and was installed later that week, ready for the dedication concert the following weekend.

Tickets were sold for 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, a good indication that the organ had been purchased with a payment plan, which was typical for the company, and selling tickets for the dedication concert is a feature that appears in the histories for many of the Hinners organs. The concert featured Professor Rydning from St. Paul, a virtuoso organist and graduate of the Conservatory of Christiana, Norway. Professor Chally (from the seminary) and other participants in the concert were from Red Wing. The newspaper reported that the turnout was excellent, given how cold it was on that February night.8 Professor Rydning was active in the region from the 1890s through the early part of the twentieth century, appearing in newspaper concert program announcements with great frequency.


Characteristics of the organs

The stoplists, pipe scales, mouth shapes and cut-ups, and high wind pressures indicate that the Hinners company espoused a romantic tonal ideal. Further, small swell boxes jammed to the edges with pipes, and the packed interior mechanical set-up demonstrate that Hinners was committed to offering as much organ as possible for the limited amount of space available in small churches. The identical nature of measurements from one organ to the next strongly suggests mass-production techniques and certain stock models that could be altered for particular requirements. A number of features stand out as typical of the Hinners organs as represented by this 1898 instrument. First, draw knobs rather than tabs were standard until sometime in the 1920s. Second, early organs have a system of two pre-set mechanisms that were mechanical and could not be reset. One of the pre-sets combined all the loud ranks, while the other combined all the soft ranks. Economically minded construction is seen in details such as lower octave pipes built of wood rather than metal and lower octave pipes of one rank shared with at least one other rank. Some of the organs have a Quintotone in which the stopper doubles the pipe length, making it sound an octave lower without the cost of additional metal. Especially noteworthy because of its uniqueness among contemporary organ builders, Hinners & Albertsen normally avoided traditional reed ranks and instead included a labial reed stop in the Swell. Labial reeds hold pitch through temperature variations in addition to being less susceptible to dirt than a traditional reed pipe. Perhaps most important is that the labial reed, because it does not have an actual reed, was supremely practical for rural congregations without regular access to an organ technician.9

Pedalboards used native woods, the sharps stained somewhat darker than the naturals. The pedalboards were flat and short-compassed until the late 1920s, when the company made an effort to conform with the standards set forth by the American Guild of Organists and began building full concave, radiating pedalboards. The façade pipes were painted and stenciled until shortly after 1910, with muted color schemes designed to blend with the natural colors of the console wood. Many of the original pipe stencils (Figure 12) do not offer shining examples of stellar stenciling work. For the most part, the Hinners factory workers were German immigrants with backgrounds in furniture building, not painting, and the stenciling is frequently sloppy in places. Generally, the factory employees took great pride in their work and believed their instruments were giving voice to their own thoughts and feelings, sometimes rather metaphysically. For example, when the Rutz Organ Company rebuilt a 1918 Hinners for Holy Nativity Evangelical Lutheran Church in New Hope, Minnesota, they found a penciled inscription inside the Great chest on the valve spring board: “Peace Proposal of Austria to USA rejected. To Hell with the war Lords. Dade Johnson and F. C. Muehlenbrink 9/18/18.”10

Nicking of pipe mouths is heavy in all Hinners organs. Metal pipes are nicked on the languid and wooden pipes are nicked in the windway. Hinners used three tuning methods: stoppers, scrolls, and key-hole tuners. Any sleeves found on these instruments were added after the scroll broke. 

The manual keyboards are constructed with ivory slips on the naturals and ebony sharps. Pedal ranks and façade pipes often use a tubular pneumatic winding action while the key action is mechanical throughout.11 Even as regards winding, though, unreliable electricity in rural areas kept Hinners using pump handles for quite awhile after most builders had switched to electric blower systems. Despite eventually having electric blowers, most organs still retained the capability for manual pumping precisely because of that unreliable electricity. Typical Hinners console design is quarter-sawn oak with a dark stain, decorated with raised panels and carved finials and moldings characteristic of early twentieth-century furniture styles. Grillework is sometimes integrated with façade pipes.


Continuing History of the Red Wing Hinners & Albertsen

The 1928 photograph in Figure 13 is the only extant image of the 1898 Red Wing Hinners & Albertsen while it belonged to St. Peter’s. Professor Laukandt is seated at the organ. In 1930—two years after this photo—the two Norwegian Lutheran churches in Red Wing merged, taking Trinity Lutheran’s name and building. The St. Peter building was sold to the Christian Science Church in 1933. At some point the Christian Scientists decided to update the sanctuary. This has virtually never been good news for organs—and the 1898 Hinners & Albertsen was moved to the center of the front platform with small side rooms built to its left and right. The console was whitewashed (Figure 14) and the façade pipes were painted gold (Figure 15), but the working parts remained untouched. It was rather untidy, but it was all there, and the paint-just-the-visible-front job on the pipes allowed for later restoration to the original color scheme. That the church members were able to uninstall and reinstall even a ten-rank pipe organ seems to be a testament to the basic mechanical sense used by Hinners and to the general battleship quality of these little organs. This is one of the precise things that made Hinners so successful in the small rural church market—anyone with fundamental mechanical sense could care for the organ; it was sturdy enough to stand up to the rigors of rural life. The 1926 Hinners at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Dimock, South Dakota, went through the Dust Bowl, had not been cleaned in about 60 years, and still sounded beautiful through two inches of solidified dust.

In the mid-1980s, the former St. Peter Church building was purchased by the Apostolic Face Lighthouse Church, and in August 1995 by the Four Square Church. By 1996 the pastor confirmed to me they were about to “throw [the organ] away.” I contacted Tom Erickson, a Casavant representative who lived in Red Wing. Erickson took up the cause. For the next year, Erickson was tireless in attending Kiwanis meetings, Rotary meetings, Lions, city council, and chamber of commerce—any group that would listen to the organ’s story and might agree to help. He first made headway when he raised enough money to purchase the instrument, for by now, the church had become quite convinced of its treasure, and while they would certainly not harm the instrument, they could be convinced to sell it. Next, Erickson persuaded the owners of the historic St. James Hotel to let him store the organ in the hotel’s recently acquired Red Wing Iron Works building that was, at that point, sitting empty while they decided what to do with it. Erickson kept raising money, and the keydesk was sent to Luhm’s Refinishing, a Minneapolis firm that specializes in historic furniture and pianos. A local artist, Delores Fritz, re-stenciled the pipes. In the meantime, the owner of the St. James Hotel agreed to give the organ a home in its lobby and accept the responsibility for its care. It now has become part of the identity of the hotel—“you know, the historic hotel in Minnesota with a pipe organ in the lobby”—so much so that the organ even appears on the hotel’s Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._James_Hotel_(Red_Wing,_Minnesota)), in its TripAdvisor photos and reviews, and ubiquitously on Instagram with the stjameshotel location tag.

The St. James built a small balcony and fashioned a window into a door in order to access the organ for servicing (Figure 16). A ladder is required to climb into the balcony off the exterior stairs, and then the door opens straight into the organ. To get into the swell box, the side façade pipes have to be removed, but that is not unusual for a Hinners. The very compactness and space efficiency that made Hinners organs so attractive to small congregations without much square footage in the sanctuary conversely also made the organs into real maintenance challenges as far as simply accessing its various components. They are intuitive constructions to the mechanically minded, to be sure, but one must first somehow reach the part in need of attention.

As with any organ’s story, this instrument has had to accept compromises along the way in order to continue serving the needs of its changing audiences. Most significantly, the corner façade pipes had to be lowered by about a foot to fit it in the space, and the rear six side façade pipes had to be left off entirely. The Hinners & Albertsen organ is used regularly. Hotel guests may request the blower key between the hours of 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.; as one might guess, the historic St. James Hotel does a brisk wedding business, and the organ is a frequent participant. The hotel staff works hard to keep it safe, and current management seems cognizant of its historic value. The St. Peter Norwegian Lutheran Church building has taken on a new life in recent years as well, now serving as The Red Wing Church House (https://www.redwingchurchhouse.com), a luxury vacation rental that rents for about $2,500 a week (Figure 17).


Nuts and Bolts

The Hinners & Albertsen organ company was, even in its time, sometimes dismissed as being the producer of inferior instruments, as was the Hinners Organ Company for decades after it. Gradually, and sometimes with a bit of sentimental nostalgia for the instruments on which so many organists cut their teeth, the organ world began to realize that the organs are not inferior at all, but that they represent a “nuts and bolts” type of organ. Hinners & Albertsen organs offered churches a perfectly serviceable and respectable musical alternative to the reed organ that would fulfill the needs and meet the budget of a small congregation without the nice but unnecessary expense of a large number of ranks on an organ that was individually designed for each particular church.

Other companies built stock organs, to be sure, and other companies used a catalog approach to sales. Lyon & Healy, Kimball, Felgemaker, Estey, and Wangerin-Weickhardt all had a similar product line and methodology—particularly Felgemaker with the Patent Portable Organ. On the other hand, certainly for Hinners & Albertsen, operations were focused nearly exclusively in the realm of the small stock organ. The vast majority of all Hinners instruments were organs of about ten ranks—the largest Hinners organ ever built had only twenty-eight ranks. Moreover, Hinners built these small pipe organs for nearly 50 years, long after the other companies had followed the trend to larger organs with strictly electric actions. Hinners & Albertsen organs, and ultimately the Hinners Organ Company, supplied a unique need in American society that arose from circumstances peculiar to the American situation. The frontier was closed and settlements were progressing beyond concern for mere survival to concerns for improving their quality of life. Raised in small mission churches around the rural Midwest, John L. Hinners felt the people’s desire for a pipe organ and understood their frustration with the expense and complexity of the instrument that made it impractical for small country churches. In a creative combination of business methods and comprehension of musical and construction issues, the Hinners & Albertsen Organ Company brought pipe organs to rural America and, in the case of the Red Wing, Minnesota, organ, filled the bluffs of the Mississippi River with music.



5. Frances played organ, and for many years she was a church organist at the Red Wing Episcopal church. It seems a safe assumption that Frances would at least have known this Hinners & Albertsen organ, likely heard it, and possibly even played it.

6. The school’s students included girls who wanted to marry ministers, but also “status offenders,” that is, girls who had committed no crime but had become impossible to control.

7. This is an excessively delayed schedule, even for a business at the time. Hinners typically turned around its orders well within three months, with some organs shipping within a matter of a few weeks.

8. Sadly, weather data for Red Wing is recorded only as far back as 1902.

9. Allison Alcorn, “A History of the Hinners Organ Company of Pekin, Illinois,” The Tracker, vol. 44, no. 3 (2000), 17.

10. This organ was built for Church of the Sacred Heart, Spring Valley, Illinois, and was moved to Minnesota in 1990.

11. One of Hinners’s distinctive characteristics is how late the company relied on tracker actions. Even in its few theater contracts, Hinners remained loyal to tracker action and was probably the last builder to give up theater trackers, with two installed as late as 1916.

Related Content

March 31, 2020
The Sibley Music Library of the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York, houses the collected papers of Rolande Falcinelli, professor of organ…
November 25, 2019
More than a century and a half after his birth, Ernest Martin Skinner (born January 15, 1866; died November 27, 1960) is still acknowledged to be one…
November 25, 2019
Embracing new, creative approaches, a groundbreaking initiative, “Playing and Preserving: Saving and Activating Philadelphia’s Historic Pipe Organs…