The pipe organ at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., has 2,974 pipes. The organ in Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas has 5,535 pipes. The organ in the Cathedrale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, has 6,654 pipes.
A significant number of the pipes for these and dozens of other organs across the continent and beyond have been hand-crafted in a one-room workshop in New Sweden, Maine.
Craftsman Stephen Boody gets up at 5 a.m. to drive the miniature school bus that picks up children in the towns of Westmanland and New Sweden and delivers them to the New Sweden Elementary School. When he returns to his home in the country, he settles into the workshop attached to his house, puts a vinyl record on a turntable and begins to craft pipes for organs made by C. B. Fisk, Inc., of Gloucester, Mass.
Bright beads of solder float on a flat slab of marble, glistening in the glow of a work lamp. He cuts into a bead with a hatchet-shaped iron, heated to just the right temperature so the solder will adhere to it. He picks up just enough of the silver substance to seal the fine seam of a pipe the size of a pencil.
Boody is working on an order for 256 pipes for an organ Fisk will install in a chapel in Hickory, N.C. It will take him about 150 hours to complete the job, spending an average of 30 to 40 minutes per pipe. He will then place the pipes in special pipe trays and hand-deliver them to Gloucester, where they will join those made by Boody’s counterparts in the company shop. He will replenish his supply of metal before leaving Fisk for the return trip to New Sweden.
“I enjoy the kind of job where I spend six months to a year and can see the end result,” he said in recent interview, recalling the thrill of hearing an organ at a dedication ceremony and knowing he was part of its creation.
Growing up in Wakefield, Mass., Boody began to appreciate the pipe organ while singing in the choir of the First Baptist Church where his grandfather was pastor. Constructed in the 1870s, the church contained an organ that gave him “an early idea of what a real pipe organ could do, how long they last and how wonderful they are.”
While he does not play the organ, Boody is an accomplished musician. When he heard his mother play the violin, he thought, “I want to do that,” and he learned. He now plays violin in the Northern Maine Chamber Orchestra, accompanies Swedish folk dancers at New Sweden festivals and performs for church functions and other community events. And, since 2000, he has acquired 16 violin students ranging in age from 7 to 82.
Boody began coming to New Sweden in 1974, staying in the home once owned by his great-aunt, who had immigrated from Sweden in 1905. He didn’t plan on becoming a pipe maker, but needed an income during the off-season from work at a potato processing plant in Aroostook County. His brother John worked for an organ company in Ohio and gave him a job making pipes. He was hooked.
“It resonated with me,” Boody recalled. He knew that C. B. Fisk near his hometown did the same kind of work and contacted the company’s founder, Charles B. Fisk. By chance, the firm was just creating its own pipe shop, and Boody was able to train there.
Founded in 1961, C. B. Fisk, Inc., assigns a consecutive opus number to each organ it creates. Boody joined the company in 1976 when it was working on Opus 72, an organ for Wellesley College designed with special features for playing both early and contemporary music. Seventy-two organs later, the pipes he is making today for the Lenoir-Rhyne University chapel in North Carolina will be part of Opus 144.
He pulls out the bottom drawer of a cabinet in his shop containing the raw materials for his craft: sheets of lead and tin. The metal is so soft he paints it to prevent scratching as he works. He shows me a stack of the pieces he has cut into graduated lengths and widths that will form the conical “foot” at the base of each pipe. These will then be attached to the larger “body” of the pipe, connected in a manner that creates a “mouth” through which air passes causing the pipe to resonate.
“The sound results from several pipes singing,” Boody explains, showing me a map of the “mixture stop” he is making — several pipes that will “speak at once.” Pipes range in size from less than an inch to 32 feet, but Boody says the sound from a pipe that long is so low you can’t even hear it, just feel the vibration.
“Every job is unique,” he says, explaining a job begins with the construction of a scale model of the room where an organ will be installed. A model of the organ is then made to the same scale, providing a basis for its design. Woodworkers build the case for the organ in Gloucester, and Boody is one of seven people who make pipes.
It is exacting, tedious work requiring precise measurements and careful metalwork. But for the advent of electricity, the craft hasn’t changed much in 600 years.
“By 2 p.m. I’m ready for a break,” he said. “It works out perfectly,” because that’s when the school day ends. He travels back to New Sweden School, hops in the little bus and returns the children to their homes in Westmanland and New Sweden.
But the day is not over. It is likely time to give a violin lesson.
For information on organs, visit http://www.cbfisk.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.