Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Hill Country Hootie Hoo --- Me, Performing on the Portable Stockton Reed Organ

by Terry Thornton


Notice: I will be playing a thirty-minute program on the Stockton Reed Organ at the Mississippi Hill Country Heritage Day, Sunday, October 18, 2009, 211 Main Street, Fulton, Mississippi. The event will run from 2 - 5 PM and all proceeds will benefit the Create-Gaither House Fund Project, a preservation effort of Preserving Itawamba County's Heritage, to relocate and preserve Fulton's second oldest surviving residence, The Cedars (Cates-Gaither House).

Tickets to the Mississippi Hill Country Heritage Day event are $15 for adults and $10 for students; little kids free. Tours of The Cedars and information about its history, music, games, displays, and a tasting of period foods are all included in this one ticket price.

For more information about The Cedars preservation project, go to the blog Preserving Itawamba County's Heritage.

Below read about the Stockton Portable Reed Organ, a "god box," originally published at Hill Country on October 30, 2007. That article and more than 900 other Hill Country articles are available on CD; click here to order.

A "god box" from the Hill Country


About fifty-five years ago I came into possession of a portable reed organ. That reed organ once belonged to the Stockton family who lived on Weaver's Creek in Monroe County, Mississippi. The small, chest-sized organ has an interesting history I would like to share. I was told this by my mother and father; my father grew up near the Stocktons and the principals within this recollection were members of the Stockton family all several years older than my father who was born in 1902.

The Stockton family lived next to my grandparents on Weaver's Creek just east of Parham. The Thorntons who moved to Monroe County between 1906 and 1910, bought land that adjoined the Stockton farm. Earlier, the Stocktons family consisted of several children and their parents. And this recollection involves those older than my father --he knew of this reed organ from his knowledge of some of the Stockton offspring -- the heirs of that estate who eventually sold the property at auction.

One of the sons in the Stockton family was an evangelist of sorts -- he was involved with the Methodist Church's circuit riders and was primarily interested in establishing a method of church service involving music. It was told to me that he, after his family's crops were laid-by each early summer, would join the Methodist revival ministers and led music at their protracted meetings, old-time revivals that often had morning services and evening services daily for a week or more. He would also conduct the music, singing primarily, at the brush arbors the circuit riders often used as a temporary church.

This Stockton son, a gifted musician and singer, complained to his family that many of the churches and all of the brush arbors where he worked had no musical instrument or poorly maintained ones. He wished for a portable organ to assist with the congregational singing and with the order of worship involving music.

One fall, in the late 1800s, the music-leading Stockton got his wish. After an exceptional good harvest of the Stockton crops, his brothers and sisters all contributed a small portion of their earnings and ordered him a portable organ. With the small reed organ, Mr. Stockton could now go from church to church on the circuit and have proper and in-tune music to accompany his congregational singing and other church music. The organ was small enough that it could be thrown into the back of a wagon or buggy and it could follow him easily from church to church and from revival to revival. Even the simplest and most isolated of brush arbors could now have organ church music as a part of the order of worship.

One of my earliest recollections is a memory of going to a few evening sessions of a revival at a brush arbor in Monroe County. At the intersection of today's Fire Tower Road and Detroit Road, a brush arbor was erected for a revival about 1944 or 1945. The frame was made of small poles set into the ground and the "roof" covered with a thick layer of leafy branches. "Benches" for the attendees were made of slabs from the local sawmill (slabs are the cuts made along a tree trunk to remove the bark). Lighting was provided by several kerosene lanterns hung about the arbor. I remember going several times and being frightened by the "hell-fire and brimstone" preacher who would often scream the threat of "eternal damnation" at his audience. At that revival, the evangelist provided paper bound song books for the congregational singing but most of the audience knew the words to the old hymns they sang without musical accompaniment -- the singing was a cappella, not because of religious conviction but because in the outside setting of the brush arbor, no instrument was available.

Hattie the house cat prepares to "help" set up the Stockton Reed Organ.

The organ Mr. Stockton's family presented to him was made by the Carpenter Company, Brattleboro, Vermont. It measures, when closed, 30 inches long, 15 inches deep, and 13 inches high and has leather handles on either end to make moving it easy. The bottom of the chest drops off to form a base for the organ and pedals, wooden legs fold down to support the keyboard, and metal rods are used to attach the bellows to the foot-pedals. When open, the organ stands about 40 inches tall. The organ weighs approximately 35 pounds. It has a four-octave keyboard. The manufacturer's label tacked on the organ still survives.

The organ unfolded lying on its back. Note that the base of the chest drops down; side legs fold out and hook into place on the base and strap securely in place with metal rods that attach as cross-braces into the back of the organ compartment. The pedals lift up and connect by thin metal rods to the bellows. On the bellows, some of the repairs done in the 1950s are visible (the dark brown strips). A three-year-ago repair I made using masking tape to do the work of a broken spring to holds an air value in place shows in the center top.

When the Stockton estate was sold at public auction in the early 1950s, my father remembered the organ and, knowing of my interest in music, told me about it. My father was entrusted with a key to the now vacant-of-people Stockton house so that we might preview the contents of the house prior to the day of the estate sale. My father gave the key to my brother Sherman who was old enough to drive and the two of us went to the Stockton house to see if the organ was still a part of the estate. I was told by my father to look for a small foot-locker-sized chest.

Sherman and I entered the house which was still full of furniture. We wandered through all the rooms without any success finding anything that resembled an organ. Finally in the rear of the house we found a large storage room or walk-in-closet-sized area. Pushed against the wall was a small wooden chest with leather handles on either end and a hinged lid. The dark wood chest had brass fittings. I unhooked the lid and pulled it up -- and underneath was the ivory keyboard. The portable organ had survived and was still a part of the estate.

Because we had been told not to bother anything in the house but just to determine if the organ was still a part of the furnishings, we closed the lid and locked the house. When I got home, I told my father that the organ was there and would he please let me go to the auction and try to buy the organ.

My father laughed and said, "No, you can't. You've got to go to school tomorrow. But I will go the sale and if I can afford it, I'll try to get it for you. Things sold at auction sometimes sell too high for us to afford."

The next day I boarded the bus to school wishing I could go instead to the auction of the Stockton property. Off and on all day I thought about all the wonderful old furniture and objects in that house and the small room full of boxes, clothes, work-tools and the little chest that was really a reed organ.

When I returned home from school about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I noticed that my father had returned and that his pickup was parked closer to the house than usual. I walked in and asked, "Did you buy the organ?"

And to make a long story shorter, my father teased me a bit about how the strangers who came to the sale ran up the prices on everything and how ridiculous the prices went and as slowly as he could, he finally told me that the bidding ran up "all the way to the totally unacceptable level of 'twelve dollars and fifty cents' for the organ" but that he bought it for me anyway!

Organ fully unfolded with lid opened to expose the keyboard and to serve as a music rack.

I soon learned to play the organ and to keep the bellows pumped full of air at the same time -- we had to repair the bellows which had begun to leak air -- and some of the reeds had "stuck" with a bit of trash or rust and would sound every time the bellows had air in them. I learned how to take the organ reed "harp" apart to remove each individual reed/note. Eventually I stopped all of the "stuck" notes from sounding except one -- and I stuffed that reed with cotton to squelch its sound. Since is it the very highest note on the organ, I don't really miss it -- and besides, it has been nearly 50 years since I squelched it with a ball of cotton.

Mr. Art Camp of the Hopewell community of Itawamba County was hired to repair the bellows on my organ. His repairs have held up for the more than fifty years I've had the organ but the bellows are becoming somewhat "leaky" again. Before too many more decades the bellows will probably have to be repaired. [I've written about Mr. Camp before; he was my singing school master at several summer singing schools in churches in the Hill County.]

Over the years, I have used the reed organ for everything from a coffee table (folded down) to a side table (set up with the top closed) to a small parlor organ (set up with the pedals connected, the lid open showing the keyboard). For the past two years, the organ was in the study serving as a low end table by the couch. It had been reduced to holding the telephone and books.

Sunday afternoon, my wife and removed all the objects from atop the organ and moved it temporarily to the living room in front of the french doors. We set it up by unfolding the pieces and parts and attached the foot-pedals to the bellows and began to pump away. After not being played in more than two years, the reed organ immediately began to produce the old-fashioned organ sounds. The more-than-a-century old Stockton organ still works.

In years past, I have transported the organ in the back of my car to play at weddings and other occasions. The small reed organ was even used on the lawn of the First Methodist Church in Ozark, AL where we were attending an occasion with the youth membership -- the huge pipe organ inside sat silent while the Stockton organ was pumped and filled the air with the soft melodious sounds of reeds making a joyful noise.

In the 1950s when one could count upon the post office delivering a letter, I wrote the Carpenter Company in Brattleboro, VT for information about their reed organ. After a wait of two or three weeks, I got a reply from another organ manufacturing company near Brattleboro. They stated that the Carpenter Company who made the Stockton organ went out of business in the 1930s and that the organ I have was probably produced about 1890. I do not know any other of the particulars about the organ. Nor do I know the names of the Stocktons involved nor of the exact date they bought the organ.

I have learned over the years, however, that the Chaplain Service of the United States Military has made extensive use of folding reed organs since prior to World War One. Some within the chaplain service refer to the small portable reed organs as "God Boxes." It is my understanding that these small rugged portable organs accompanied our troops through the world during the past 100+ years and were used extensively for worship services at or near the front lines and for services on deck aboard naval vessels.

And yes, I still play the Stockton portable folding reed organ as can be seen in this picture made October 28, 2007. But I admit that all that foot pumping is getting harder and harder to do; maintaining enough air in the bellows is becoming more difficult because the repairs made to those important parts fifty years ago need to be made again. Other than that, the Stockton organ is surviving nicely more than 100 years after it was bought for a musical evangelist and more than 50 years after my father bought it for me.

One day, however, I will probably place the Stockton portable reed organ on loan at the Amory Regional Museum. The museum seems an appropriate place for this small reed organ that played a role in the development of church music in the Hill Country. In the meanwhile, however, the reed organ is set up and ready to play --- I need to practice!

Photographs above made October 28, 2007, on the occasion of the organ being unfolded and played for the first time in two years. It still works although the "wheeze" from the leaking bellows is more pronounced and you have to pedal faster to keep enough air moving to make all the notes sound properly.

[Note: This is the second time I've written about the Stockton Portable Reed Organ. The first was a pictorial essay showing my grandchildren playing the reed organ when visiting at our house in Tennessee. That article was published in The Thornton News, # 24, July 15, 2003.]

Photographs of Stockton Folding Reed Organ by Terry Thornton, October 28, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2007 William T. "Terry" Thornton. Fulton, Mississippi 38843. All Rights Reserved.

1 comment:

Dorene from Ohio said...

I wish our family could hear you play! Maybe someone could tape it,
and you could put it on YouTube?!