Century-Old Church Pipe Organ Is Restored

PLYMOUTH, Neb. (AP) — A Wisconsin company is breathing new life into an area church organ that’s more than 100 years old.

John Nolte of Nolte Organ Building from West Allis, Wisconsin, has spent the week restoring the organ at St. Paul Lutheran Church of Plymouth.

The process is more complex than it sounds, as the organ has 762 pipes that were removed or inspected as part of the process.

“What makes the sound is the air,” Nolte explained while demonstrating the cleaning process. “All we’re doing is playing with air. Keeping them in tune was not easy, and in some cases not possible. They take a beating over time and get some damage.”

The organ was built in 1914 and the pipes are largely original. Nolte’s work is only the second round of known work. Nolte said a member of the church’s father used to maintain the organ, and that the pipes were removed for inspection sometime in the 1950s.

Nolte said the standard pitch has changed since 1914, and adjusting the pitch will make it easier to add accompanying instruments.

The physical pipes range from around 10 inches to eight feet long, so what’s done to them depends on what they’re working with.

Some pipes received new stainless steel tips that can be adjusted for tuning.

Tuning others requires cutting a flap along the pipe, made of lead and tin, and rolling it open.

“Sometimes there will be dirt or something in there so cleaning them and going over that is very important,” Nolte said. “Over time stuff can happen that a pipe doesn’t quite speak the way it should.”

The vast majority of the pipes are being reused, though a handful were deemed dented beyond repair after years of use.

The project comes at a total cost just shy of $10,000. When purchased in 1914, the organ cost $1,000.

Pastor Fred Berger said the organ will be reassembled and ready for the 10 a.m. service, and around five organists rotate playing the organ.

He said the maintenance has been planned for more than two years and the tune up will be a welcome upgrade.

“What we use the instrument for is the best part, to worship our God,” he said. “It’s kind of neat to see it apart like this and that it’s the main instrument that we use. People downtown are talking about it, whether they go to church or not. I think it just kind of shocked everybody how many pipes there were.”

When assembled, the pipes are concealed behind a wall of the church.

Nolte said the Plymouth project differs from most he works on in one big way, the amount of volunteers eager to contribute.

From Plymouth Electric donating tools to church members helping however they can, Nolte said volunteers have sped the project up.

“The unique thing about this project is a lot of people from the church volunteered and helped,” he said. “We’ve probably had a dozen volunteers. The guys who run farms have a lot of good physical skills and they just took to this and did a lot of the work themselves. We had to show them how to do it and what to do, but church members are very conscientious about their organ and they take a lot of pride in ownership of it.”

Eventually, the church hopes to complete a second phase of work on the organ to clean, examine and restore the wind system and mechanical parts.