It’s a rare kind of instrument that requires naughty Catholic school children to produce sound. But this is exactly what the church organ requires. Most organs have a pedal at the organist’s feet that blows wind through its reeds to make it sing. But the church organ’s pedal protrudes directly out of its side — far from the reach of even a long-legged organist.
According to Janette Weimar, president of the Hanover Horton Historical Society, particularly naughty Catholic school children were punished at the end of the week with the duty of riding the pedal onerously up and down throughout long masses.
This particular church organ is the tallest at the Henry Conklin Organ Museum in Hanover-Horton, Michigan. It is the largest public collection in the country and houses 99 organs and two pianos. The oldest organ the society has definitively dated was a melodeon built in 1856. But they believe they have even older specimens that they are unable to date.
“We like to say that we are Jackson county’s best-kept secret,” said Sharon Folkerth, member and administrator of the Horton Hanover Historical Society.
The museum, located in the gymnasium of Horton Hanover’s old school building, houses everything from melodeons, to church organs, to chapel organs, to ornate parlor organs, to flat-top cottage organs, to music box organs.
The collection began when local farmer Lee Conklin’s wife passed away. He began collecting organs and keeping them on his farm because he thought they sounded beautiful. He had no musical training and could not play, but he was a master woodworker, and slowly began to learn the innards that made the organ sing. He mostly resurfaced their ornate wood casings.
One day, he met Francis Hartman, a local organist, who came to his farm to play his instruments.
“She was a piano teacher in Horton, and almost anyone who took piano in town was her student,” Weimar said. “Conklin loved to hear her play.”
In 1976, Conklin and Hartman started the Society because an aging Conklin worried that his collection would be separated or fall into disrepair. Hartman shared his sympathies. She and her husband took charge, formally founding what is today called Hanover Horton Historical Society. Before the society formed, Conklin had already collected 76 of the 99 organs now in the museum.
Now, the Society does not stop at organs. It houses town history of all varieties, from a replica of an old-fashioned classroom, to antique toys, furniture, and cookware. A walk through the building is a walk through the history of Horton Hanover.
But, many small Midwestern towns build detailed historical societies — not every town holds the largest public organ museum in the nation. And Conklin’s organs reverberate throughout the whole building.
Conklin’s policy was that any visitor was welcome to sit down at any organ and play. In the pre-Covid days, Weimar said, the gymnasium was full of the rich, reedy notes from different organs — particularly cacophonous on field-trip days.
“People are surprised we are a hands-on situation,” Folkerth said. “Our rule is if you play, please do. The organs need to be played and have their mechanisms moved to keep working well. We do even allow children to play. I tell them, ‘You have to treat the organ gently, most of these are older than your great-grandmother.”’
Reed organs, Folkerth emphasized, are not tuned to a standard concert A, which vibrates at 440 hertz (higher frequency indicates higher pitch). A did not become the standard until the late 1930s, so instead, organs tune to themselves. Within the gymnasium’s swelling collection, the note called A runs any from between 430 to 460 hertz. This means that an A in one organ matches a completely different note in another — which adds to the cacophony.
The hardiness of the organ — and ability to tune to itself — is part of the reason it became so ubiquitous by the late 1800s.
Unlike the piano, which began to develop at the same time, the organ is relatively unaffected by its environment. Neither cold, heat, damp, or movement greatly affect the organ’s pitch and tuning. They became popular on ships, and families even trundled their organs across the country in wagon trains with relatively little effect on their sound.
“Some people just do not like the sound of a reed organ,” Folkerth said. “But in the organ’s defense, if you take in an instrument that says no maintenance for 100 years, I think it is justifiable that it doesn’t sound as well as it might. It makes a big difference when you’ve got it tuned and the range and all the stops are working.”
Although hardier than a piano, reed organs are far more complex. Very simply, air pumps through the bellows and over the brass reeds, causing them to vibrate and make sound. But the larger the organ, the more ranks, or rows, of reeds on both top and bottom which correspond to keys. This alone allows for a wider range of not expression than a piano. In addition to the foot pedal board, the organist also moderates the musical expression; pumping harder evokes a fuller sound, while pumping lighter evokes a softer tone.
In addition to this, the organist can also open layers and layers of “stops,” which are shutters and dampeners within the organ that either impede or boost the sound.
“So you’re playing two different things on your hands, and two different things on your feet, and also toggling to make the notes louder or softer. It’s amazing,” Weimer said.
“You’ve heard the expression pull out all the stops,” Folkerth asked. “This is where it comes from. When you open the stops, you open a mute allowing air to reach another rank of reeds.”
One organ in the museum from a Catholic Church in Jackson has 21 stops.
The Historical Society offers organ repair workshops once a month — both to repair its organs, and teach about the inner working of the instrument and appreciation for the complex way it produces music.
When they acquire a new organ, one of the first things they look for are cyphers. These are any kind of unexplainable, strange noise emanating from the organ. A large part of organ maintenance involves hunting out these mysterious sounds — many of which emanate from valves either stuck opened or closed.
“It can sound really strange with a certain combination of cyphers,” Folkerth said. “There was one time in the workshop they were working on an organ and we decided to test it. It had several cyphers, and I thought for a moment we had someone playing the bagpipe.”
The museum and workshops are open to the public, and will resume as COVID-19 restrictions die down.
“All we require is willingness to join the society and get your hands dirty,” Folkerth said.