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Question: Why Can’t Skeletons Play Music in Church?

Answer: Because they’ve got no organs! No such problem for Eden United Church of Christ, which has been richly blessed with a history of organs and their thrilling music. Twenty years after Eden’s modest founding by nine forward-looking pioneers in 1865, we had our first organ – a reed instrument using air pumped by foot through vibrating reeds to produce sound. Imagine a large accordion played via foot-peddled bellows and you have a very rough estimate of the organ. Reed organs were popular in the 1800s as portable and less expensive alternatives to pianos and pipe organs. Several million American-manufactured reed organs were sold between 1850-1920, many for growing churches such as ours. Eden’s reed organ’s price of $200 would be about $5,000 today.

In 1935, Eden defied the Great Depression and invested in a used theater organ, a genuine Wurlitzer-Hope-Jones pipe organ befitting our confidence in a richer future. Robert Hope-Jones was an English organ builder whose first dream was increasing the power of church organs, then creating organs that could replicate the sounds of orchestral instruments. He moved to the U.S. in 1903 and continued innovating and expanding the capabilities of organs until merging with the already established Wurlitzer Company in 1914. This allowed for increased production and more widespread installation of “mighty Wurlitzers” in theaters, earning Hope-Jones credit for inventing the dramatic theater organ.

It was lucky serendipity that on Eden’s 70th anniversary a Wurlitzer (for short) that had been in storage for 20 years became available for about 3.3% of its original $15,000 price. The Ladies Aid assumed the entire burden of paying for the organ, its $500 renovation, and installation costs. The Trustees altered the choir loft and sanctuary to accommodate this huge musical upgrade. Fortunately, one of Hope-Jones’ innovations was to separate the pipes from the console, so that the 50-year veteran organist Susan Hoyt could play at the front of Pioneer Chapel while the pipes resided in the back balcony.

The Wurlitzer was lovingly moved pipe-by-pipe to the new sanctuary by the Men’s Club in 1949 and the original reed organ was renovated and its bellows mechanized for continued use in Pioneer Chapel, where it remains today, though not playable. Rumor has it that the amateur mechanization involved a vacuum cleaner motor, but that is a story for another day.

By 1963, the used Wurlitzer had earned its retirement. That fall Eden’s angel, mover and shaker Edmund Jensen, offered the members a challenge grant of $15,000 if they could match his contribution by Thanksgiving. The congregation rose to the challenge and a new organ was commissioned from Swain & Kates, Inc. of Oakland, to be custom built to our specifications in West Germany by the largest organ builder in Europe. Meanwhile, during the organ’s 18-month construction and testing, our sanctuary was extensively remodeled to accommodate the grand new star.

As stated in A Century in Eden, one of our church’s history books, our new organ had “four divisions – a great organ, swell organ, choir positive organ, and pedal organ. The console has three manual keyboards of 61 notes each and a pedal board of 32 notes. The organ contains a total of 32 ranks and 1,916 pipes.” The final cost of the instrument was $33,000, and its installation “was the high point of the Eden Congregational Church’s Centennial Year and the community had an opportunity to hear several concerts.”

According to Mr. Carl Van Os, President of Swain & Kates (now of San Francisco), because of the draws (“stops”), the three keyboards, and the pedal board, an agile organist can play 32 notes at once! Each of the 183 keys can play multiple pipes at the same time, as well as having the ability to replicate the sounds of many other unrelated instruments. Playing it is akin to operating a complicated, precision machine, while sounding sublime, powerful, melodic and sometimes transcendent.

Over the years, our new organ became a trusted workhorse, but like everything else, it suffered the indignities of age, including a reduction in its range due to a bank of melted pipes. Our long-time beloved organist, the late Loris Coburn, soldiered through by making accommodations for the missing notes, but by 2013 enough was enough. In April 2013, the Council approved a restoration fundraising campaign.

Once again, the congregation rallied with a level of generosity above and beyond expectations. Within a month, we raised $98,740 (eventually the total pledges came to $103,993) and in August, Swain & Kates began a three-phase restoration to modernize the console with solid state electronics, to refurbish and replace the old pipes, and to replace the acoustic cloth screening the pipe chambers.

Are you sitting down? This massive project was completed ahead of schedule in the spring of 2014. We now have an organ that is again a showpiece, a beautiful tribute to the generous congregation, and a source of joy and inspiration to all who hear it. Isn’t that a happy birthday present to be proud of?

The 150th Anniversary Committee