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In the Wind

February 20, 2024
Tom Anderson
Tom Anderson mitering a diapason pipe (photo credit: John Bishop)

On the road again

In the 1980 movie, Honeysuckle Rose, Willie Nelson played Buck Bonham, a country music singer looking for national fame. His life as a traveling music star is a strain on his marriage to Viv, played by Dyan Cannon; one thing leads to another, and not everyone winds up happy. The best thing that came out of that movie is the song, “On the Road Again,” which won a Grammy Award for Best Country Song and an American Music Award for Favorite Country Single.

In the 1980s I was working in an organ shop where some of us preferred classical music and some preferred rock and roll. In the days before earpods when music was played through speakers we had to compromise—ours was often country music. It was fun to make up words to go with the rhyming schemes, and some of the country songs of those days were simply hilarious. Bobby Bare’s “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life,” Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias singing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and Dolly Parton’s “Better Keep Your Hands Off My Potential New Boyfriend” (really) gave us lots of material.

“On the Road Again” seems full of hope, opening with a major sixth (“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. . .”), with lyrics about the pleasure of “making music with my friends.” There is a sort of choo-choo-train-like rhythm underneath, and some lithe, right-in-tune harmonica playing. “Like a band of gypsies, we go down the highway, We’re the best of friends, insisting that the world keep turning our way, and our way is on the road again.”

My daily office routine includes lots of correspondence with people wishing to buy and sell pipe organs, and I keep a list of places that might be productive to visit, sort of like pins on a map. Several times a year, when those pins meld into a circle that I might drive in a week or so, I set off in my Suburban. I make a point of visiting any organ workshops that might be along the route, and I am often able to include errands for us or for colleague companies, like delivering a blower here, a rank of pipes there, or picking up a pedalboard—it helps pay for the gas. When I leave home, sappy as it may be, I think of the indefatigable Willie Nelson and dial up that song, fixing myself up with an earworm that will easily last a week.

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Last December, Willie cheered me on as I headed for Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. My first day out, I met with people at a church who are considering purchasing an organ and had dinner with my son in central Massachusetts. The following morning, I drove to New Holland, Pennsylvania, to visit New Holland Church Furniture, a company that builds miles of pews, thousands of chairs, hundreds of altars, and dozens of organ cases. The Organ Clearing House has helped with the installation of several large new organs with cases built by New Holland, and they have since engaged us to install a few other large pieces such as a cathedral reredos. I was given a lengthy tour of the facility and marveled at the production volume and values.

I was especially impressed by an extensive layout of curved pews in the shop for the floor and balconies of a large church under construction. It is one thing to build straight pews; all organ builders have equipment in their workshops for cutting wood straight. It is much more challenging to work with curves, especially because you would not necessarily use the same curved layouts in several different churches. The forms and patterns for gluing those long, curved boards are custom made for each location. And in this building, the balconies had layouts much different from the main floor, further complicating the job. Massive custom-built sanding machines finish those twenty-foot-long curves with the grain, as any good woodworker would.

Computer-driven machines were cutting out chair backs, pew ends, Gothic arches, and Stations of the Cross at dizzying rates. A procession of ten-foot-long pew seats, hanging from iron hooks like sides of beef, rode conveyors through a huge spray booth. Carts of chair frames rolled from gluing stations to assembly rooms. Engineers and designers stared at computer screens, moving pixilated lines around to create perfect drawings. Those drawings were fed into the machines that cut the wood. Semi-trailers were backed up to loading docks, ready to haul the finished products to their destinations. Seventy-five or eighty workers were toiling in the factory, combining artistry with automation, creating elegant furnishings for church buildings across the country.

New Holland is in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and I was sharing the roads with Amish families in black carriages drawn by single horses and large flatbed trailers drawn by teams of three horses, all with reflective triangles on the back. Driving around them in a big comfortable car with the heat on gently and music playing, I reflected on the contrasting lifestyles. I saw those buggies parked in the driveways of prosperous-looking farmsteads where oxen were waiting patiently to be harnessed to plows and reapers. It is quite a feat to make a living as a farmer in these times without burning diesel fuel.

Pennsylvania and Ohio

I went from New Holland to Wooster, Ohio, home of Wooster College, where I helped maintain the large Holtkamp in the chapel and smaller practice organs when I was working with John Leek in the 1970s. I drove by those buildings nearly fifty years after I first worked in them, reliving John’s often humorous, sometimes stern teaching. I remembered standing on a ladder behind the Great windchest as a fledgling tuner, confronted for the first time by a Sesquialtera II, Mixture IV, and Scharff III, struggling to decipher the relationships between all those tiny pipes.

I drove past the First Presbyterian Church where in 1980 Leek and I attended the dedicatory recital of Karl Wilhelm’s Opus 76 played by my organ teacher, Haskell Thomson. Jack Russell, professor of organ at Wooster College and a former student of Haskell’s, was organist at that church. Jack is still a friend, now located in the Boston area. Opus 76 is a grand three-manual affair with thirty-six stops, free standing pedal towers, and beautiful carved pipe shades. What I remember most about that recital was a cipher that stopped Mr. Thomson in mid-sweep (his students will get an inward chuckle from that), bringing him to the balcony rail to ask for assistance, an organbuilder’s nightmare.

While in Wooster, I visited the newly formed Greenleaf Organ Company founded by Samantha Koch and her husband Daniel Hancock. They are working on the renovation of a 1916 Hook & Hastings organ purchased through the Organ Clearing House by a church in Kansas. The organ had been in storage for years in Newcastle, Maine, where I live, and it was fun to see “my baby” getting a new lease of life. The folks at Greenleaf are smart and skillful, and I look forward to seeing lots of great projects come from that shop.

I drove from Wooster to Oberlin, Ohio, where I went to school forty-five years ago. My timing was bad as I arrived a few days after the holiday break started, so there were not many people around. I had breakfast with Randy Wagner, longtime executive at Organ Supply Industries (OSI) in Erie, Pennsylvania. OSI has been for decades the largest company supplying to the organbuilding trade in the United States.

I met Randy in the 1970s when I was working for John Leek, and Leek and I traveled back and forth from OSI to deliver and pick up parts for our projects. Our relationship continued through my days with Angerstein & Associates, the Bishop Organ Company, and the Organ Clearing House. It is one of my longest collegial friendships. Randy retired to Oberlin where he cut his teeth working with Homer Blanchard in the 1950s. He shares with Barbara Owen the distinction of being one of two surviving participants in the founding meeting of the Organ Historical Society, held in the choir room at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City in 1956.1

From Oberlin, I drove to Hartville, Ohio, for a quick visit with Charles Kegg of Kegg Pipe Organ Builders. Charles’s shop has a luxurious amount of space for his staff, with a snazzy collection of machines and equipment. His interest in automated musical instruments means that there are collections of paper rolls for player devices and a very rare machine that punches those paper rolls. Charles and I are collaborating on a project in New York City, and it was a nice opportunity to compare notes and questions.

And back to Pennsylvania

Organ Supply Industries in Erie, Pennsylvania, is one of the largest pipe organ companies in the United States and serves as a supplier to most of the independent organ companies around the country. My pal Bryan Timm, OSI vice president, gave me the “family rate” tour followed by a nice lunch. Their vast factory building is a wonderland where everything is on a huge scale, where forklifts stack organ parts sky high, and where the multiplicity of organ stuff boggles the mind. Eight pedalboards are lined up, in the early stages of their construction. A couple dozen keyboards are making their way through production. Thousands of the little dividers between coupler tablets roll off saws into boxes—the blanks that they are cut from look like houses and hotels from “Monopoly.” It takes hundreds of clamps to glue up things like the huge wood organ pipes from 16′ and 32′ open wood diapasons, and those clamps are stacked on carts, ready for the next project. Organ pipes of all sizes are under construction, and the countless forms and jigs needed to make pipes in an infinity of shapes and sizes are neatly organized in racks and shelves. Ranks of wooden pipes whip through their production department and wind up in crates labeled for shipment to organ companies all over the country. Huge woodworking machines seem to be everywhere, all connected with the metal ducts of the dust collection system that gathers tons of sawdust and plane shavings into hoppers, powered by immense vacuum motors.

OSI is something of a nerve-central for the American pipe organ industry. The bustle of activity through the various departments reassures us that pipe organs are being built across the country, and that talented and dedicated people are pouring their hearts into them.

I left Erie to visit an interesting vintage mechanical-action organ in a recently closed church in Canaseraga, a village of about 500 people in rural central New York, about sixty-five miles south of Rochester. Garret House (1810–1900) was the most prominent organbuilder in Buffalo, New York, of his time. He built a nine-rank, one-manual organ for Trinity Episcopal Church in Canaseraga, and my circle of pins included a snowy drive on long lonely country roads to meet with a small group of parishioners of the now-closed church. They were a cheerful band of lifelong residents, families who have been friends and neighbors for generations, and they are hoping we can find a new home for the lovely organ. Since I joined the Organ Clearing House, I have met with many such groups, sorry to have lost their church and eager for the organ to carry life’s breath to another congregation. Having gathered specifications, dimensions, and photographs, I was put in touch with the officer of the diocese who manages property. I hope we can offer the organ soon. Keep your eye on our website.

Saying goodbye

One of the sure effects of celebrating people I have known for forty or fifty years is the passing of treasured colleagues, mentors, and friends. Thomas H. Anderson was all of these. He was born in 1937 in Belfast, Ireland, and started as an apprentice in an organ pipe making shop when he was fourteen. He emigrated to the United States at age nineteen to take a job with the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company. That was 1956, when Aeolian-Skinner built nearly twenty organs, including the beauty at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York (see footnote). Not long after that (not sure when), he started his own firm, the Thomas H. Anderson Organ Pipe Company. He purchased a home in Easton, Massachusetts, not far from Dorchester and Randolph, Massachusetts, where the Aeolian-Skinner facilities were located. His property included a handsome barn attached to the house that he converted to a workshop, and a long, low “chicken coop” where he stored large pipes and materials.

I first met Tommy around 1984 when I went to work for Daniel Angerstein & Associates in Stoughton, Massachusetts, less than ten miles from Tommy’s shop. What a convenience to have a pipe maker so close by; we frequently drove up and down Bay Road between the two shops. Daniel Angerstein closed his shop when he was appointed tonal director at M. P. Möller, and I started the Bishop Organ Company by assuming Dan’s maintenance business. At the same time, I assumed the care of the large Aeolian-Skinner organs at Trinity Church and The First Church of Christ, Scientist (The Mother Church), both in Boston, and I quickly had a list of rebuilding and restoration projects, most of which required Tommy’s help.

Tommy and his wife Susan grew up on the same street in Belfast. Once he was established in the United States, he went back to Belfast to marry her and bring her to join him in Easton. I imagine there were many letters between them in the interim, planning a life together in a new country. What a courageous decision it was for Susan to join Tommy here. They raised four children, six grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, all supported by Tommy, also known as Granda, hammering away in that workshop.

There are few craftsmen whose intuitive grasp of π can outstrip an organ pipe maker. When I was working in a shop every day, I could easily eye the difference between eighteen and twenty millimeters, or between an inch and an inch-and-a-sixteenth. Tommy could hold a pipe in his hand and sense the width of the rectangle to cut to form an identical tube. Circles are the province of the pipe maker. It’s uncanny.

Susan passed away on December 31, 1996. Tommy passed away on December 30, 2023. His funeral service was held in Easton, just a mile from his house, on January 6, 2024. I was there with nine other organbuilders to meet his family and share stories of our work with him. One of his daughters remembered the chore of loading crates of newly made organ pipes into their van and delivering them to the Consolidated Freightways Terminal in nearby Canton, Massachusetts.

We were a group of old-timers, most of us had known Tommy for decades, and each of us know many organbuilders out there on the grapevine. None of us could remember hearing anything but lovely words about Tommy. He was kind, humorous, caring, diligent, and skillful—a valued and admired colleague. He made organ pipes. Tens of thousands of organ pipes. His work will sing on in dozens of churches around the country. He was a valued friend. He was a gentleman.

Notes

1. Pierre Cochereau, organist at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, was scheduled to open the 1956 American Guild of Organists national convention with a recital on the new Aeolian-Skinner organ at Saint Thomas Church in New York City. During the months preceding that convention, G. Donald Harrison was racing to complete the organ. It was fiercely hot, and there was a taxi strike going on, so after a long workday on June 14, Harrison had to walk several long blocks to his apartment on Third Avenue. After dinner with his wife Helen, he sat down to watch Victor Borge on television and died of a heart attack. It is interesting to note that John Scott, future organist at Saint Thomas Church, was born on June 18, 1956, just four days after Harrison’s death.

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