March 4, 2021

Caroling at the organ, 1970


The Cate family got an oak “pump organ” sometime around 1910.  Young Harriett had learned to read “shaped notes” in their little Christian Church and wanted to play hymns.  Over the years, the organ became something of an albatross.  Of course, it had its moments.

When Glenn and Katie had their June wedding outdoors in front of the log house, a friend played “Indian Love Call” (from the Broadway musical Rose-Marie) on the organ.  And when I began taking piano lessons from Irene Grubb, I practiced on the organ until we got a piano. It followed us wherever we moved.  Occasionally Harriett would play a hymn or I would play something for people curious about its sound.

Whenever Harriett mentioned selling it, Arley and I would protest. So it continued to share our living room with my spinet piano. Then when I was a college freshman, a Lipscomb student from Alabama, Bill Hall, began making weekend trips to Athens to preach at our small church.  Harriett liked him (“he’s nice and tall,” she said) and he usually had lunch with us and spent the afternoon.  He loved playing that organ—and finally Harriett told him he could take it back to Alabama. A few years later, he went to Africa as a missionary and before he left, he put that organ in a U-Haul and brought it back to Athens!

Tom and I took it to Mississippi after we bought a house there and I spent an entire summer refinishing and refurbishing it.  Harold Snellgrove was the Mississippi State History Department Chairman and he collected old pump organs!  He was my consultant for the makeover, even showing me how to remove the reeds carefully and use fine steel wool to correct any “out of tune” sounds. I discarded the removable top portion which included a small mirror and box to hold music.  The dark layers of finish came off to reveal the grain of the oak panels.

The organ moved with us to MacGregor Drive in South Carolina, then to our upstairs apartment at Quail Run, then to Williamsburg West—and finally, to the garage den of my Nashville home.

My children had enjoyed picking out notes and pumping the pedals, and then my grandchildren did the same.

When it seemed to be an albatross again a few years ago, I looked for some way to preserve and get rid of it at the same time.  A friend introduced me to a young man who specialized in “legacy furniture.”  He came to see the organ and suggested several options.  My favorite was to convert it into a bookcase!  He hauled the organ away, and weeks later brought the finished bookcase.  The top panel is made from the carved medallions of the organ, the side panels are from the side panels of the organ.  The metamorphosis is complete!

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