The Grace Church of West Feliciana tracker organ is not a living resident of the parish, but it is a working musical testimony to the culture and history of the Felicianas. When it came time for a rare cleaning, the pipes called in one of the few American companies that specialized in the construction and maintenance of massive instruments.
Thousands of pipes, ranging from tiny to massive, were dismantled and cleaned in a two-week process that drew crowds to watch in awe as both the organ and the builders sunk two or three deep into the internal function.
Grace Church Music Director Austin Clark has been playing the organ for two years. He was in awe of the instrument but realized that it had been 40 years since the organ had had a major job and was overdue. He said Dobson Organ Builders was the first name that came to mind.
“They’re from Lake City, Iowa,” Clark said. “Very good organ builders and technicians and have built benchmark instruments in the country like St. Thomas Fifth Avenue.”
What looks like a huge puzzle is guided by a roadmap found in the head of a skilled builder like Donny Hobbs, who led the Dobson team assigned to the Grace Church effort.
“Pipes are easier to track because they are, for the most part, identified,” he said. “They have a little script on them for the note number and stop name. So I know where it comes from. And the size and shape help a bit too.
Hobbs said most of the parts are similar from organ to organ, so technicians are ready to know what they look like. “So we can hopefully remember where they go back,” he said.
Organs of this size and category are made to be dismantled. It was built in St. Louis, disassembled, and shipped in pieces down the Mississippi River to St. Francisville. Clark said the Grace Church building was built around 1858 and a local family answered the call to provide the first and only organ. Charles Matthews and Harriet Matthews donated the organ in honor of their father George Matthews, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The elder Matthews was buried in the historic churchyard.
Clark explained that the instrument is a Pilcher organ built by a company established by Henry Pilcher Sr. Pilcher was born in England and apprenticed as an organ builder in London. In 1832 he arrived in New York and established his business in Newark, New Jersey. Later, his two sons opened an organ-building shop in St. Louis in 1852. During the Civil War, the business moved to Chicago.
The Civil War damage to the church took 30 years to restore, but the organ survived those times and has been in service ever since. The instrument’s history predates modern history and its technology predates technology dependent on electricity and electrical amplification.
Tracking action in the organ refers to the mechanical system that transmits the action of the organist pressing a key to the vane valve that admits air into the pipes controlled by the key. Metal pipes resonate from the hardwoods of the building’s structures and design leaving no need for the amplifiers that came decades later.
Clark likened the mechanism to a giant old-fashioned typewriter. “There’s a tracker that starts from the key,” he said. The tracker is a stick that goes up to another joint, and goes up. And then it goes under the pipe. So, when you press a key, it all moves to open the palate under the pipe to let the air through. So it’s only like a piano in that it shares a similar keyboard.
The Grace organ contains some of the oldest pipework built by the Pilcher firm and that puts it at the top of the American standard for organ building, Clark said. “You know, 1860 is quite old,” he said. “It’s pretty cool when you play those pipes up there to think they’ve been ringing for 160 years.”
The Pilcher Organ incorporates wood and metal work into its case and inner workings and Hobbs, organist and builder, worked with a different team each week of the St. Francisville project. The first Dobson team cleaned the pipework and fixed some mechanical problems with the instrument. The second team focused on the sound of the pipes.
Clark will give an organ recital in August to share the sounds of this 162-year-old instrument with the public and celebrate its history and craftsmanship.