Our Casavant Organ

First Congregational Church is fortunate to have a Casavant pipe organ that is one of the finest organs in the Midwest.  The church leaders wanted to bring the best quality to Oshkosh.  Fund-raising began by the Young Ladies' Society began in 1894, 18 years in advance. It cost $5,600 for the pipes and console and $5,000 for the electric blower motor in the basement that provides air for the wind chests. In today’s dollars, the original cost was about $150,000. It would cost about $1 Million to replicate the organ today. 

Casavant Frères, French-Canadian organ builder in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, was commissioned to build and installed the organ of three manuals and 38 stops. (A “stop” controls air flow to different “ranks” of pipes). Samuel Casavant, son of the founder, Joseph , made sure the organ was in the French Romantic style. This means that he used his ear, and the ears of his employees, his craft, his understanding of metallurgy, and his judgment to create pipes that would provide a warm and rich sound.  This organ is Opus 469, meaning it is the 469th organ that Casavant built. We benefit from the craftsmen who, 100 years ago mixed and poured the alloy for each of the 2779 pipes originally specified and then formed each one of them by hand. One rank of pipes—the flutes—is made from wood. Casavant made them, too.

Clarence Shepard was the organist who advised the Music Committee of the church and developed the specifications of the organ. He was the dean of the music department at Carroll College in Waukesha, WI. During the 1906-07 academic year, he was the head of the piano department at Lawrence University. He served as organist at this church from 1902-05, and from 1911 until his retirement in 1940.

The organ console consists of three keyboards (“manuals” played by the organist's fingers) and one pedal board that is played with the feet. Mechanically, the organ began as “tubular-pneumatic.” This means that the keys on the console directly opened and closed air tubes that took air from the wind chests (think a gentle bellow) and routed it to the pipes so they sound. The original console was anchored to the wall in the center of the wood case under the center organ pipes. The organist’s back was to the audience.

Forty-eight years later, in 1959 the original console was replaced with a new “electric-pneumatic” console. Instead of the organ keys directly opening and closing the air tubes, the keys send an electrical signal to relays that in turn open and close the air tubes. The Lee Stoll Organ Co. of Oshkosh did the conversion. A rank of 12 pipes controlled by a new wind chest was added to the large 16-ft. Bombarde to extend the range up one octave to gain an 8-ft. trumpet. The console was also moved to its present position, normally hidden by the Retable. That location change lets the organist hide from public view and also direct the choir.

Mr. Lee Stoll had worked for the Barton Organ Company in Oshkosh, builders of theater organs, We understand that first he, and then his son, Robert, a member of the company performed maintenance and tuning on the organ from the 1930s into the 1970s.

In 1967 a Nazard 2 2/3-ft rank of pipe and a 1-3/5 ft. Tierce were added to the Swell. A 1-1/3 ft. Largot was added to the Choir. These pipes were manufactured by Jerome B. Meyer & Sons, in Milwaukee, and were given in memory of Mrs. Florence (H.B.) Hollenbeck, organist from 1949-1966. 

After 70 years of continuous service the leather pouches that help control the wind to the pipes finally wore out. In 1985 the organ pipes were disassembled and shipped back to Casavant so the leathers could be replaced, tuning sleeves added to the pipes, and some wind chests rebuilt. In addition, the console was replaced. It remains an electric action, because digital solid-state technology was just in its infancy and the committee that oversaw the work thought the risk of failure in the first-generation materials was too big.

Casavant built the console. The black keys are cut from one piece of ebony so the keys expand and contract in phase with each other in response to changes in air temperature and humidity. We again benefit from the Casavant employees’ care and craftsmanship in providing excellent quality.  A hymn festival was held in December 1986, after Casavant reinstalled the organ.

In 2008, in celebration of Joanne West Hess Peterson’s 40th year of service as organist (and 23rd as choir director), the Church commissioned a Zimbelstern from Taylor & Boody, organ builders in Staunton VA. It was built by Robbie Lawson, and installed by Robbie, James C. Taylor, and Ryan Albashian, one of Mrs. Peterson’s organ students from age 13 to 18.

This congregation has taken good care of the organ. James Taylor of J.C. Taylor Company, organ builder in Kaukauna, tuned and maintained the organ from 1985 to his retirement in 2009. Tom Salzman of Salzman Pipe Organ Services, Appleton, has taken over that role. We benefit from their zealous attention to the details of tuning and maintenance. The congregation’s commitment and their competency are the reasons the organ continues to be in excellent shape.