Wild Air


According to Mark Twain, “a man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Back in 2006, host Mike Rowe included pipe organ builder in his popular tv program, “Dirty Jobs.”

Standing tall for over a century in the gallery of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Shelbyville, the old Moller pipe organ had gathered its share of dust and dirt. For the first half of its life, all the big buildings were heated with coal, which produced a uniquely dusty and greasy soot. Steam trains traveling through town belched steam, smoke, and cinders into the air, and summer cooling was achieved by opening the windows. Later, these pollutants were replaced by the dust of passing cars and trucks on the street outside. Inside the building, burning candles, foot traffic, and dust from occasional building repairs all gathered inside the great organ. Occasionally, a hapless bird or bat found its way into the building, and found a final resting place in among the organ pipes.

The first major step in any project to build or renovate an old pipe organ is usually to carefully remove the pipes and any components that will be part of the new organ, and to dismantle the remaining old mechanisms. It’s just about the dirtiest part of any pipe organ project.

Because of the sheer amount of work required, we have often hired extra help to do the dismantling and cleanup, and to pack and transport to parts. In recent projects, however, we have sometimes offered the church the opportunity to participate in this part of the job. It is the classic “win-win.” The church saves the money we would otherwise have paid to a contractor, and we find that the folks who have the greatest interest and investment in the instrument are more careful.

Removing the console. The old console cabinet will have all new state-of-the-art innards.

On June 2nd and 3rd, an ambitious group of about three dozen volunteers gathered at St. Joseph’s to dismantle the old Moller organ. They toiled for two days – more if you count the days cleaning and preparing the unused tower rooms we would use to store the facade pipes, and an extra day dusting off the pews and furnishings after the old organ was out.

The removal process was overseen by David Reynolds. A spirit of cooperation and can-do good cheer was evident as parishioners – men and women, young and old – carefully removed and packed the wonderful old pipes, and then dismantled the heavy and dirty mechanisms, filling a big dumpster out on the street.

I had planned a week for amateurs to remove a pipe organ high in the rear gallery of an old church. We started on Monday afternoon, and were finished by Tuesday evening.

Which brings me back to Mark Twain and his politically incorrect comment about the cat. The volunteers from St. Joseph have learned much about their pipe organ. They got dirty, and probably used some muscles they had forgotten, but they also touched and handled the very soul of this century-old treasure. When the new organ is finished, and sounds for the first time, they will remember and respect this great gift from the past that they will pass to the future.

The hands-on involvement of this remarkable parish isn’t over yet. But for now, at least one organ builder has a lot of respect for them.


(Oh, one other thing… The lunches the ladies in the kitchen prepared for us were SUPER!)

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