Our Historic Organ
Our Historic Organ:
Steere & Turner Opus 220, 1886
Our organ was built by the Steere & Turner Organ Company in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1886 and was designated as “Opus 220” – the 220th organ that they built. It was built for the chapel at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts). That chapel still exists, and is located in the center of the UMass campus, on the west side of the pond. The chapel is currently being restored to its former glory and will be a wonderful performance space when it is finished.
The organ was purchased from Mass Aggie for our meetinghouse by William Penn Brooks, a long-time member of the church who served as President of the Board of Trustees from 1918-1924. In 1924, upon the death of his wife Eva Bancroft Brooks, he stepped down from that position. The church voted to award him the title of “Honorary President of the Board of Trustees” for the remainder of his life. Dr. Brooks, was a former professor and acting president of The Massachusetts Agricultural College and also spent many years teaching agriculture and botany in Sapporo, Japan in 1877, helping to establish an agricultural school there. At the request of William Brooks, the organ was dedicated to his wife, Eva Bancroft Brooks, for “her life of devotion to the church.” The plaque commemorating this event is still attached to the wall next to our organ today.
In recent years, the organ has been watched over with tender loving care by Carolyn Holstein and Jay Stryker (current members of the Society). William Czelusniak (owner of Messrs. Czelusniak et Dugal, Inc., specializing in building, maintaining, and restoring organs) has been carefully tuning, maintaining and repairing our organ and protected it during the 2013-2014 renovation of our meetinghouse. On May 1, 2016, he spoke about the history of pipe-organ building in the Pioneer Valley as part of a benefit concert for our organ.
Fun facts about our organ
When the organ was first installed in our meetinghouse, the music budget included $4 for soloists, $1.50 for the organist, and 30 cents for a child to turn the wheel which supplied air to the bellows, allowing the organ to make sound. The organ was purchased with a blower, but it proved to be too loud and was operated with the manual wheel for a few years.
In 1926 the blower was silenced by first having it enclosed, and then relocating it to the basement.
In the 90 years since then, we have made very few improvements.
During our recent renovations, we purchased a very quiet new blower and located it back on the main floor behind the organ.
We once again have an organ fund. Our mission is to provide this historic organ with the care, maintenance, and restoration that it so badly needs.
The family tree of Steere & Turner Opus 220
by William Czelusniak
The history of pipe-organ building in the Pioneer Valley began in earnest in Westfield, Mass. in 1844 with the work of William A .Johnson, a brick mason who undertook organbuilding during the winter months and developed a monumental career and reputation at that work. The earliest Johnson instrument surviving has been restored in the Heath, Mass. Union Church.
As Johnson’s firm grew in size, output, and reputation, two of his employees were John Wesley Steer and George William Turner. J. W. Steer (spelling changed to Steere ca. 1880) joined Johnson’s firm as early as 1847 and married Johnson’s daughter. G. W. Turner joined Johnson’s firm in 1855 as an action maker, coming from Mason & Hamlin in Boston.
In 1866, Steer and Turner broke away from William A. Johnson and formed their own company, also in Westfield, where they remained building organs between fire and flood, before relocating to “safer quarters” in Springfield, Mass. in 1879. Very little of the Steer & Turner work from the 1860s survives; a few organs remain from their 1870s work, with many of those being altered to varying degrees. During a quick search of this history, made this morning, I happened upon the current record of Steere & Turner Opus 219 of 1886 – the very organ that preceded this one through the factory. Opus 219 was a small, 2-manual (keyboards) organ, which has been relocated from Orange, Connecticut to the Congregational Church in the town of Bethany in that state, and rebuilt tonally in 1973 – thus no longer representing its original sound character. All of this information reinforces the importance of this historic artifact that provides music to this Society on a weekly basis.
The Steere and Turner firm continued work in Springfield, under that name, until 1891, when it was succeeded, organizationally, as J. W. Steere & Sons. That firm remained active and prolific in Springfield until a fire gutted their factory in 1919, at which time, the company continued business back in Westfield, occupying the former Johnson organ company plant on Elm Street. Two major instruments from J. W. Steere in 1915 were the Springfield, Mass. Municipal Auditorium organ (which remains disassembled and in storage by the City) and the rebuilding of the Hutchings organ in Woolsey Hall at Yale University, which continues still in epic and iconic service, after another rebuilding by the Skinner Organ Co. of Boston in 1928 – which work retained all of Steere preceding efforts. In fact, the Skinner Organ Co. of Boston purchased the Steere company and plant in Westfield in 1921 and continued that operation until 1929 as a second production facility for the booming Boston operation.
Emmons Howard was an organbuilder in the employ of both William A. Johnson and Steere & Turner. He broke away and started his own company in Westfield in 1883, and acquired the Johnson organ company upon its closing in 1898. Emmons Howard’s great claim to fame was as the builder of the grand organ in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and that this instrument was playing when President William McKinley was assassinated in front of it on September 6, 1901.
Gideon L. Parsons worked for the Steere firm and for the successor Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner Organ Companies until his death in 1932. His son, B. Gideon Parsons, Sr. followed a similar path, starting with the Steere firm, serving as Curator of Organs at Yale University, and then returning to work for Steere and Ernest M. Skinner. In 1914, Parsons established an organ service firm in Rochester, NY, representing these Massachusetts companies. The Parsons Organ Co., Inc. continues to thrive today in Canandaigua, New York.
You might see from this story how much the pipe organ business is an ongoing and interrelated heritage. This business is not about disposable appliances or usable goods. Our work is focused upon durable goods and musical artifacts, with emphasis upon the durable. Today, we are seeing and hearing a musical instrument, constructed 130 years ago, relocated to this very building 92 years ago, and having had only minor refurbishment some 50 years ago (not counting the new blower machine applied two years ago now). It is nothing short of remarkable that the craftsmanship and the handiwork of skilled men in Westfield speak to us today, 130 years later, in the same voice, and by the same mechanical actions in this instrument. As such, it is our obligation to continue this stewardship, to preserve this instrument as built, as a voice of history continuing to live, to speak, and to serve in our midst.
My personal association with this organ goes back almost fifty years, visiting here first in the company of a UMass organ student playing a wedding service, shortly after this keyboard had been recovered and the tracker action re-nutted (all by Allen Hastings of Athol, for whom I later worked, through these same connections). I remember vividly that first hearing of this organ, being impressed by its bold tone and by its super-octave coupler (increasing manual notes by one octave’s span in addition to the unison).
Our first professional contact with this instrument goes back to November 1977, when we submitted a written repair proposal to Jay Stryker. Then, in November 1979, we performed our first tuning here, at the behest of Carolyn Holstein. It was interesting this morning, in reading those old records, that we made repairs to leakage in the wind reservoir on that very first work visit. Today, it is the aged and frail condition of that same wind reservoir that yields the greatest liability in continued service from this instrument, still relying upon leather hinges and bindings that are fully 130 years old. That, my friends, is borrowed time! Actually, it is a professional embarrassment to have this wind system held together by layers of tape – not the iconic duct tape, but stronger vinyl tape recommended by one of our respected colleagues. Still, tape is not the answer. Planning for a proper releathering restoration is the right answer.
Unfortunately, the size of the wind reservoir, with its feeder bellows, is so large that access to it for proper shop work implies the complete, if temporary, dismantling of the whole organ. Thus, there are implications for greater cleaning and restoration work at the same time. That should be the general goal of preservation, at this juncture in the organ’s life. Surely, it has another 130 years to offer to us and to our successors, if we provide that renewal. We hope that this Society, and its friends, will rise to this challenge. You have an irreplaceable artifact here!