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History Of The St. John's Organ

To tell a history of the St. John’s organ is to tell a history of the parish, its people, its clergy, and its organists who all influenced and caused the organ to be the unique instrument it is.

In the wake of a fire that destroyed parts of the old church and its organ in the 1940s, the women of the parish decided that a new instrument was needed. Several years were spent raising funds from spaghetti dinners and fund-raisers that included the sale of piano-key souvenirs; meanwhile, a small pump-organ lent by the Daniell family served as the parish instrument. Their efforts yielded, according to its nameplate, a two-manual, four-rank Moeller installed in 1947 at a cost of $4700 containing the Gedeckt Flute, Gamba, Dulciana, and Diapason stops that still sound today.

In the 1940s, Dixie Stevens, an heiress of the Howard fortune, served as the parish’s organist in the old church that stood across Hardin St from the current building. A contemporary of the Spivey’s and an ardent music supporter who purchased organs for Woodward Academy and Church Of The Resurrection over the course of her years as a benefactor, Ms. Stevens waived her salary at St. John’s to start a fund that, when it eventually came to $500, enabled the parish to buy the Swell’s Gamba Celeste. Several years later, another organist, Dorothy Thrailkill, encouraged a young Keith Huffstetter to locate himself within the orbit of the St. John’s musical community by becoming its sub-organist; little did she know that she had laid the groundwork for what would be his decades-long adventure as the instrument’s builder and care-taker.

In the 1960s, two parish organists, Don Stephens, and then, Patrick Montague, would have an impact on the organ. Both men encouraged the parish to set long-range plans to improve and enlarge the organ; the choir held many fund-raising dinners and other events to garner the funds necessary to purchase ranks. At the sudden and untimely death of Stephens, a memorial dedication of the Swell’s 8’ & 4’ Trompette was made; at Montague’s encouragement, Huffstetter began procuring and installing ranks from disused instruments as time, energy, and available pipework would allow.

Two local organs, an 11-rank Austin and an 11-rank Pilcher, were the first instruments purchased for their pipework. The Austin was of unknown provenance; the Pilcher may have come from the Butler St. AME Church. From the Pilcher came the Pedal’s original 16’ Bourdon. The Swell’s 4’ Harmonic Flute came from the Austin, which also provided a Geigen Principal, Concert Flute, and Bourdon that still await installation. Another instrument, built by engineer and hobbyist-organ-builder Bob Harvey, also yielded what is now the Swell’s 2’ Principal.

Ranks from other organs include the 8’ & 4’ Nason Flutes (an Austin from Peachtree Christian Church); the Choir’s 4’ Koppelflote and three-rank Mixture (a Stinkens from Florence, SC); the Great’s Flute Celeste and the Choir’s Clarinet (a 1927 Moeller from Athens, GA); and the Pedal’s Octave (pipework of unknown provenance from Bud Taylor, a friend of Ronald Rice, a St. John’s organist). The Swell’s 1-3/5 came from a Moeller in Fargo, ND. A 4’ Octave came from a Moeller in Summerville, SC. Connections with Julian Wilson yielded the Great’s Military Trumpet, which came from All Saints’ Moeller, and the Pedal’s 32’ Contrabass, which came from an Estey organ pulled out of an auditorium at the University of Florida.

The organ also contains new pipework: the Great’s 4’ Octave, 2’ Flute, and Mixture, and the Choir’s Hautbois (Oboe) were bought from Organ Supply with a gift from the Bargain Shop. Chimes were given in memory of James Shelby Charles, III, in 1969.

Stories about related equipment include a barter-exchange of the church’s old two-manual console and a blower for the current three-manual Moeller console, which had been removed from All Saints and stored in a garage in Manchester, TN. The current 3-hp blower was procured from the 1927 Moeller in Athens.

What started as a small four-rank unit organ has grown to 27 ranks with the help and support of many in the parish community. The remaining inventory of nearly 200 ranks that could potentially be brought to life is among the subjects to be written in future chapters of the on-going story that is the St. John’s organ.

We note that Keith Huffstetter, whose decades of tireless work as a volunteer, expert, technician, and performer have made the St. John’s organ possible, is the chief benefactor and proponent of our instrument. To him go the thanks of the many generations of parishioners, organists, music directors, clergy, and choristers whose lives have been touched by his hard work and dedication in ways too innumerable to calculate; thus, we shall say of him sine qua non, that is, without which it could not be.