Oysterville organ: Sweet summer sounds

<I>SYDNEY STEVENS photo</I><BR>Pictured from left to right are Oysterville Vespers organists Suzanne Knutzen, Barbara Poulshock, Jeanne Bellinger (with daughter, Hope), Inez Greenfield and Judy Suvak.

OYSTERVILLE - Besides being old and picturesque, the Oysterville church is known for its fine acoustics. Whether or not the building was constructed with the sound quality in mind is unknown but for all the years of my memory, musicians have sought out the little church as a place to practice, perform and even, in recent years, to record CDs. It is not unusual for visitors to try out the piano and then to stay awhile and play, enchanted by the unexpected richness of tone that immediately envelops them.

Although it is unclear whether the church has always been equipped with a musical instrument, there is ample evidence that the Baptist congregation (for whom the church was built) enjoyed music during their Sunday services. In his waning years, my grandfather reminisced about one of the early circuit riding preachers who came to town:

"From 1878 to 1880 Reverend W.F.M. James, with his home in Centralia (then Centerville) was pastor, making his quarterly trip by trail up the Chehalis valley, down the Willapa on horseback, and by boat to Oysterville, taking three days for the trip. As though it were yesterday I can remember his taking from his saddlebags several copies of Gospel Hymns No. 1, passing them out, and illustrating the new 'swing' of the tunes, which by many were considered then as too giddy for church. I, less than four years old, always called for 'Pull for the Shore Sailor' and 'Onward Christian Soldiers' because they had more 'go' than those the grownups thought rather too fast."

That, of course, was at a time when the Baptists were still meeting in one another's homes as the church was not built until 1892. The first reference I've found to music actually played in church is in a letter written in 1914 by my grandmother, Helen Espy, to her daughter in Portland:

"There certainly is a lot of dignity about our church. The minister attended Sunday School in the morning and, as usual, they sang without an organ. An hour later at church, he sat down and played, himself, and if Mrs. Bowman did not blurt out, 'Well why in the world didn't you say you could play at Sunday School?' He must have thought it a disorderly crowd. We are to have a resident Baptist minister come next month. Poor man!"

I don't know what happened to that organ, nor do I know whether it was in the church from the first, but I do know something about the little organ that is in the church today. It was purchased by mail order by Edith Olson who, with her husband Martin, managed the Bard Heim Dairy in Oysterville during the 1930s. Edith felt that the church needed an organ - perhaps to replace the one that had been there since 1914; perhaps to fill a void that had been created in the meanwhile. She persuaded the women of Oysterville to save their 'egg and cream money' and volunteered to make all the necessary procurement arrangements.

The particulars of the purchase are unknown to me, but pictured in the facsimile edition of the 1902 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue is a remarkably similar instrument, the "Happy Home Organ" for $27.00 (Grade A) or $22.00 (Grade B). I don't know if, in the ensuing 30 years, inflation might have made the price of such an organ greater, but since Oysterville, as the rest of the country, was in the depths of the Depression, the price may have been much the same. My mother remembers that it cost "$25 or $30."

The catalogue description says: "Height, 65 inches; length 44 inches; width 23 inches. We furnish this organ either in solid-oak or black walnut finish as desired. It is a neat and elegant design, beautifully ornamented and is given a high finish. Our organ is full size, eight stops, five octaves, two knee swells, three sets of reeds." Though the Oysterville church organ is only 55 inches high, in other respects the instruments are very much alike. The one described in the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue was guaranteed for twenty-five years; Oysterville's has lasted more than 70, so far.

Part of its longevity is attributed to the late Floyd Rank who lovingly (and at no charge) restored the little organ at the time the church was renovated in 1980. When he took the organ apart, he found a list of the women who had contributed to its purchase. My understanding was that Floyd replaced the document where he found it, but recently a search was made and it was not located. No doubt the list was put in some "safe place" and will show up in later generations when least expected.

In addition to the featured music at Vespers each Sunday, the congregation is asked to join in singing one or more familiar, old-time hymns to the accompaniment of the pump organ. Though there is now a vintage piano in the church for use by performing musicians, it is felt by the community that the pump organ lends a nostalgic dimension to the hymn-singing which is in keeping with the ambience of the old church.

Finding organists is not easy. Music-making with the little instrument is somewhat of a challenge, requiring not only the keyboard talents of a pianist but also the stamina of a long-distance runner. Not many years ago, a young volunteer organist spent a few minutes rehearsing at the church and immediately enrolled herself at a local gym for a series of leg-strengthening exercises!

Over the course of the 11 Vespers services this season, seven organists will be at the organ keyboard. Judy Suvak, Gloria Pidgeon, Bonnie Masson, Suzanne Knutzen, Inez Greenfield, Glenda Williams, Barbara Poulshock and Jeanne Bellinger will face the challenges of the old-instrument to the great delight of the congregations of regulars and visitors. All are welcome at the ecumenical services which begin at 3 p.m. each summer Sunday afternoon.

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