Wild Air

Chute & Butler Reed Organ

Recently, I opined about the electronic organ.   Today, I would like to discuss a different instrument that, in the past, filled the niche that electronic organs fill today.    

Your great-grandmother may have had a small one in her living room.   It often had a hutch, complete with beveled mirror.   It could be distinguished by stop knobs, which either spanned the space over the keyboard, or were grouped to either side.   It usually had treadles, much like the Singer sewing machine grandma had upstairs in the spare bedroom.      

Thanks to companies like Estey, Kimball, Mason & Hamlin, and others, the reed organ was nearly ubiquitous among middle-class families at the turn of the twentieth century.   Grandma’s little reed organ, which might have been a wedding gift from her mother, was a great place to display what we now call “dustables.”   Musically, these little organs ranged in quality from pretty good to dreadful, often depending on whether or not the reeds were in tune.    

My own great-grandfather owned a company the “built” these little organs.   I use the word “built” advisedly, since the Chute & Butler Organ Company actually produced the cabinetry, and, as I undertand the process, bought the reeds and actions from the mammoth Estey Organ Company in Brattleboro, VT.   During its long life, Estey built an astounding half million reed organs, many of them designed for granny’s front parlor, and farmed out parts to nearly everybody.   When Estey finally entered the pipe organ business in 1903, they were already the largest organ builder in the world.      

The Mason & Hamlin Model 41Q Reed Organ

But less familiar, and infinitely more interesting, are the big instruments these companies built for churches and institutions.   These organs had multiple ranks of reeds, a full 30 note pedalboard, and could be pumped by a lever or hand crank on the side.   Some had a pipe top, carved wooden pipes painted gold.   They were serious instruments, and they filled an important niche.    

For a church, institution, or home, a real pipe organ is, and always was a major investment.   A real organ was the dream of many a congregation, and this was true in both urban and rural areas of the country.   Once the building was built, and the memorial stained glass installed, the next major goal was the organ.   Often, the women’s society and the choir would take the lead, and with enthusiasm and creativity, the new pipe organ would become a reality.   (An interesting sidebar to funding a pipe organ sometimes involved one of America’s most famous millionaires – but more on that another time.)   In the meantime, the singing, praying, marrying, and burying would often be accompanied by a reed organ.   Many churches, of course, never thought of a pipe organ, and the Estey or Kimball or Mason & Hamlin reed organ was a permanent fixture.    

More about the reed organ in future posts…  Check out the Reed Organ Society’s website at http://www.reedsoc.org/.  

I Would be True, arr. Christian Elliott, played on the Mason & Hamlin 41Q organ by Martin Ellis.

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