Great Grandfather Amos made sure his children attended singing school because music was important, even if they only had their voices for making it. That changed one day in the 1870‘s when he hauled a pump organ by wagon from Madison to the farmstead. Also known as a reed organ or harmonium and sometimes a parlor organ, its sound was generated with a bellows. There were knee stops to control volume, foot pedals and a row of stops to push and pull to change the tone from flute to orchestral forte or echo to clarinet and other instruments.
Their daughter Lizzie was the first and most proficient at learning to play the hymns and other songs. When she finished teachers’ training and set out to homestead a 160 acre government claim in Dakota territory, Amos made sure she went with her own little pump organ.
The photo, which could be entitled “The Music Lesson,” was among my dad’s papers but is not of family. It portrays a girl likely with her teacher and lots of sheet music. Great Grandfather’s organ, unlike this elaborate one, was more portable with a low back and plain in design though it produced a good tone. Amos’ children taught themselves to play instruments and did not follow notes on paper, at least at the beginning. Two of the boys were good with the violin and later one sold violins in his store. I imagine the family spent many evenings, especially during the Wisconsin winters, making beautiful music around the organ.
There was another pump organ, one my parents brought home when I was about ten. Dad told us it had come across the U.S. to California in a covered wagon one hundred years before. Having read of the long hazardous journeys of the westward movement, I wondered how it survived in such good condition. And why would anyone have used the space for a 400 pound extravagance?
My sister and I, piano students, quickly took to the new instrument. Pushing the knee stops and pumping the foot pedals was tiring, but I was fascinated with the different sounds produced by pushing and pulling the stops. Time seemed to fly as I sat on the hard, round three-legged stool that swiveled to just the right height so my feet could reach to pump the foot pedals while my hands pressed keys.
The organ became the focal point of our living room and one year Dad featured it on our Christmas card. My sister was determined to be pictured as the organist but being the oldest, I was given the privilege of posing on the stool.
A fond memory from my childhood is my family making music together, several generations gathered around the piano or organ singing songs from past generations. It was fun and we were together and that is what mattered.