By Jane E. Bryant
Of the many historic treasures that live in Northfield, one of significant American heritage is right on Main Street. It is the pipe organ inside St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. It has been recognized by the Organ Historical Society as a national heritage pipe organ and designated an organ of historical significance.
Cam Featherstonhaugh, who was raised at St. Mary’s and is now one of her organists, is organizing a project to raise funds in order continue to conserve and preserve the pipe organ. “Such a hand-made instrument is organic, perhaps temperamental, original,” he said. “We treat it like a living organism.
“Unfortunately, ours has been infested with mold and mildew, despite being actively managed with dehumidification,” he added. “It is time to improve the room that houses it, time for it to be thoroughly cleaned, time to be tuned up, and past time for the foot pedals be repositioned.”
The instrument was built for a curved space such as a loft. But at St. Mary’s, it had to be set at right-angles against a wall, which pressed the right side of the foot pedals and pipes against that wall. Thus that side does not produce sound properly, has grown moldy, is complicated and dangerous to clean and difficult to tune. The space must be opened up so that the foot pedals can be taken apart and reassembled in order to work properly. The room in which it sits is drafty and needs to be updated with new windows and insulation.
It is the oldest extant two-manual instrument built by E. & G. G. Hook, of Boston. The organ was the 26th of many to be hand-built by the Hook brothers. The congregation is fortunate that the organ is intact and that it has been able to improve it over the decades. It still has its original wood casing, console, pedals, keyboards, pipes.
Until 1976, when it was connected to electricity, boys stood at the back of the organ to hand pump air into it so a hymn could be played. They left their marks: Carl Wood 1943. Roy Rogers. Ike White 1986.
St. Mary’s organ was built in 1836 for a Rhode Island church balcony, was moved to St. Mary’s in 1892 and was played in Northfield for the first time on Christmas morning. Currently, it is played most Sundays and on special occasions.
A. David Moore of Pomfret, Vermont, has taken care of the organ for almost fifty years. Mr. Moore knows how to treat the giant and has recommended several modifications related to its upkeep and preservation. The plan is to contract Moore for this important work before he retires.
It will not be cheap to remove and clean all 738 pipes and all the hand-built moving parts. Usually a congregation takes care of its needs but for big projects that enhance the whole community extra help is important. To track the progress of the fund-raising, a thermometer has been hung on one of St. Mary’s porch columns. The drive has begun so that friends, neighbors and music lovers may help raise the temperature to the $25,000 goal.
Decades ago, a parishioner wrote the history of the organ, concluding: “The greatest advantage that the early instruments have is their wonderful sound, a sound that makes them eminently suited for serving artistic goals and an ideal vehicle for the worship of almighty God…Such an instrument is the organ here at St. Mary’s.”
The gofundme site is https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-the-1836-hook-brothers-organ