It was such fun to discover a historic "gem" in my organist mailbox recently, I just had to share portions of it with my readers. But first, a bit of personal history as well as some historical background about my old friend, Odell, and her famous peers and predecessors is in order.
In the summer of 1956, I became the organist at St. Peter's Episcopal Church during my junior and senior years at Westfield Academy and Central School. The organ was an Odell pipe organ, built and donated in 1896 to the church by Mary C. Fargo and Anna Fargo Perry in memory of their mother, Libby Prendergast Fargo, whose father-in-law was William Fargo of the Wells Fargo Company.
St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Westfield, N.Y., was incorporated in 1830. A brick church was erected, about half the size of the present nave with no chancel. In 1837, when William H. Seward was baptized and confirmed, he donated $25 toward the purchase of St. Peter's first organ, which cost $275. This organ was in a gallery at the back of the church, but in 1879 was brought out of the gallery and placed on the floor at the front right of the nave which had been doubled in size, with a small chancel to the rear. When the Odell organ was given to the church in 1896, the present chancel was added to provide space for the new organ.
Shown is the St. Peter’s organ in 1890, just before the Odell arrived.
Odell tracker organs were highly acclaimed for the mellow tonal quality of their wooden flute pipes. These were still a beloved part of the organ in 1956 when I was organist. Prior to this, there had been several rebuilds, modifications and repairs to the Odell at St. Peter's, including 1926 when chimes were added and 1953 when tuning sleeves and protective shield were added.
Then in 1971 major problems developed with the organ, and a committee was formed to decide whether to purchase a new pipe organ, repair the Odell or replace it with an electronic organ. The decision was made to hire the Canadian Company, Cassavant, to repair the organ. This included removing all of the Odell pipes except the Pedal Bourdon and the 19 Victorian-painted front pipes of the Great Principal and replacing them with new Cassavant metal pipework.
The late Gary Green, recent long-time organist at St. Peter's, discovered and shared in the church newsletter portions of an article by Joyce Swan from The Buffalo Evening News of June 21, 1971. It was written as a "Letter from the Country" and includes a musicians' inside joke about "great" and "swell" - great is the lower keyboard, swell is the upper. See how many of the people you can figure out, including the priest, dentist, grape farmer, chemist, druggist, shoemaker, pilot and hair dresser.
The office of the Westfield Historian is located at 117 Union St., in the small green building on the north side of driveway. Office hours are by appointment; call or email a request. The Westfield Historian phone number is 326-2457 and email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Swan writes, "I was at the dentist's the other day, and while he was welding, or whatever they do when they have their hands in your mouth and their elbow in your eye, he told his assistant that he was going to spend another evening with Odell. 'Swell,' she said without enthusiasm. 'No, it's not the swell this time, it's the great,' he countered. 'Very funny,' she said. I bit his finger, asking if this was an inside joke... Later that week I was at the hair dresser's ... when I thought that my myopic eyes were focusing on an Episcopalian padre who had suddenly appeared as if out of the firmament... talking to the beautician... 'Ross says the leather is in,' said the father. 'Bring it to the church tonight.' Ross is a shoemaker... I asked if they were tooling ecumenical headbands or something. They said the leather was for Odell."
Swan notes a local airline pilot was in on the Odell thing, as well as a chemist, a druggist, a grape farmer, a few wives, electricians, plumbers and proprietors other local businesses. She continues, "Odell, I found out none too soon, was an Episcopalian organ, being converted. She was a 13 rank, 58 key tracker antique with blood lines that were rumored to go back to Wells Fargo days...the organ was given to the church in loving memory of their mother by the Fargo [daughters]... in 1896."
Swan found out in 1971, "that the ancient, creaking, stop-stopping Odell only had a few more wheezes left before she expired entirely. After a complete physical it was found that her mechanical action was in traction. A CGMO (Committee for Getting Music Out of the Organ) was formed. Somebody asked why they didn't entertain the idea of getting a new organ. They entertained the idea, and after everybody had had a good time the committee went home and the idea died."
A few thought the Odell should be junked and replaced. But Swan notes, "There is great respect for antiques in Westfield... [so] an Odell fixer was ferreted out by the committee. The only trouble was, he lived in Canada, and the New York Department of Labor decreed that he and his crew of four would upset the New York State labor market too drastically to be allowed to come to Westfield."
The CGMO, according to Swan, decided to do it themselves, getting new parts and instructions from the Cassavant company, and, "In the spirit of the how-to age and the togetherness of a small town, the dentist and the preacher, the druggist and the hair stylist, the chemist and the grape farmer took the organ apart and put it together again. The job was gotten off the ground by the pilot who had a broken arm, but was the one most used to pushing buttons."
After checking out the construction in process, Swan sadly found the preacher was leaving for a new job in California before the renovated organ was finished. But she concludes, "Hopefully, the dentist said they'd get the great organ going before he departs. 'Swell,' I said. 'No, great,' corrected the dentist."