The Okanogan’s Own Pipe Organ, at Ellisforde Church of the Brethren
Note: this article first appeared in the January 19th, 2017 edition of the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune.
The pipe organ is one of the most expensive and complex instruments ever developed – and one of them lives right here in the Okanogan.
The Ellisforde Church of the Brethren has been home to its community-built pipe organ for 50 years. The journey to bring pipe organ music to the Okanogan began nearly a century ago, and has had a long and winding path since then – and a story that continues to this day.
The church’s first organ was donated by the family of Oliver Weddle and dedicated in 1946. Tragically, the pipe organ was destroyed just a few years later in 1949, in a fire that consumed the entire church building.
While planning for reconstruction, the congregation decided to design and build the new church with a pipe organ in mind. From the first blueprints, the pipe organ would be at the very heart of the new church.
Most instruments – even grand pianos and elaborate drum sets – are essentially transportable, and connected to a space only inasmuch as a building’s acoustics affect the quality of music produced. A piano might sound better in the carefully designed acoustics of a concert hall, but it could still easily be moved and played in a family living room or most anywhere else.
Not so with a pipe organ.
Pipe organs are monstrously large creations, which are quite literally built into the buildings in which they reside. Pipe organs tend to visibly feature a console – a table of keys, often appearing similar to an elaborate upright piano, where the organist sits – and a set of pipes which are usually built into a nearby wall. Those pipes can number in the hundreds or thousands, and can range from just a couple inches tall to towering pipes of 30 feet or more.
The visible features are themselves large and weighty, but there’s even more going on behind the scenes. Connecting the console to the pipes is an intricate system of mechanical or electrical controls, as well as a massive air blower. Together, those systems take the organist’s direction from the console, and direct air to blow through the correct pipes. Those unseen systems are custom-designed for each organ’s home, and often built into the walls or floors themselves. The largest grand pianos might top a thousand pounds, but the largest pipe organs weigh in at several hundred tons.
So with construction plans ready to accommodate one such massive instrument, all the Ellisforde congregation needed was the pipe organ itself.
After an outreach campaign to search for a used instrument to purchase, Oliver Weddle set out in 1956 with his brother Harvey and a German exchange student to Anaconda, Montana, where a promising opportunity awaited. There, a local church was looking to sell its pipe organ’s pipe set, for the modest price of $500 (by comparison, a new pipe organ today, sized for a small to medium church, would cost anywhere from $200,000 to nearly a million dollars).
In Anaconda, Oliver, Harvey, and Hartmut spent all night meticulously disassembling the pipe organ’s myriad parts, carefully removing them from the church they’d been built into, and readying them for transport. The next day, the three drove back to the Okanogan, with a truck-bed full of pipes behind them.
Over the years to follow, Oliver and Harvey Weddle would lead the congregation in building their own pipe organ. Usually, an organ’s construction is handled by a professional pipe builder who has years of training, apprenticeship, and practice. At the Church of the Brethren though, the do-it-yourself country spirit prevailed, and with an array of books to help them, the church’s new amateur organ-builders made it happen themselves.
Norm Weddle, son of Harvey Weddle, was one such worker. “I can remember back when I was in high school, being up on the scaffold, maybe 12 or 14 feet in the air, shellacking the plywood so that the surface would be hard enough to reflect the sound.”
Without a professional organ builder, the church instead relied on a grassroots, all-hands-on-deck spirit of cooperation. “The members of the church really came together,” Norm Weddle notes. “There was a carpenter who hand-built the organ console, there was an electrician who probably did half the wiring himself. People came together and just found a job to do. It was really amazing.”
After countless thousands of hours of devoted labor, the church celebrated the dedication of the new pipe organ in 1967, and the music began to play once more.
In the ensuing decades, the Ellisforde pipe organ has continued to grow and develop. In 1987, installation was completed on a new set of chancel pipes, providing a wider range of sounds.
Upkeep and tuning are, as always, ongoing projects. “A lot of these pipes are getting old, many of them were built in 1900,” Weddle remarks. “They’ve been tuned so many times, the soft metal has been pushed and tweaked so much, that it’s getting tougher to keep them in tune.”
A recent donation of $4,000 was given for the organ’s upkeep and renovations, which Weddle is currently planning uses for. “We might end up replacing some of the slides, and maybe replacing some of the pipes, so that when it’s tuned, it stays tuned longer. I haven’t decided yet where exactly the money will best be used. Upkeep is always expensive and we rely on donations to keep the organ going, so it’s great to have such generous people keeping things going.”
What is certain is that so long its community keeps alive that make-it-happen spirit and appreciation for fine music in worship, the pipe organ will continue to sing for years to come.
Those hoping to experience the pipe organ’s music are welcome to each Sunday’s 11am services, at which the organ can often be heard accompanying hymns.