G. Weldon Friesen said that ever since he was a young boy, he has enjoyed fixing things.
That passion recently paid off as he completed the restoration of an 1896 Mason & Hamlin 41Q Liszt organ.
As a child, Friesen, who grew up in India with missionary parents, had what he called a “dream book” titled “Boy Mechanic” which explained how to fix all sorts of things.
“In India, when something breaks, you had to do your own fixing,” he added. His mother had a folding reed organ she played while they lived in India. “I have a lot of nostalgia associated with reed organs,” Friesen said.
The love of fixing things has led Friesen to make everything from sailboats to furniture and several types of musical instruments, including ukuleles and mountain dulcimers. He said he enjoys music but doesn’t have the patience it takes to practice, so he plays for his own enjoyment.
Friesen’s organ restoration history goes back to when his aunt, Grace Miller, had a reed organ he restored. When she moved to an assisted living home, his aunt gave Friesen the organ, which remains in his living room.
QUITE THE JOB
Friesen, who had a family medical practice in Middlebury for 37 years, also works at The Depot repairing donated items such as appliances and sewing machines. He said that a number of reed organs were donated there, so he took them on as projects and rebuilt them.
“Several had been sitting in garages with years of accumulated dust and some had places where mice ate some of the parts,” he said. “A reed organ is all mechanical — valves, springs, leather, felt — but can basically be taken apart with a screwdriver and see how it works, much different than the electric of today.”
Friesen said word got around and he’s probably repaired another six or seven reed organs over the past few years.
His journey with the Mason & Hamlin reed organ started in August 2019 when he saw a notice about the organ being given away by the owner, Deborah Habig-Schnek, whose father had been church organist. Habig-Schnek told Friesen the organ had always been on the third floor of her childhood home where her father used it as a practice organ. After her parents passed away, the organ was dismantled and put into storage, where it stayed for 14 years. Friesen said the only condition he had before he took the instrument was that he had somewhere to take it.
“It’s a large instrument and we don’t have room for it in my house,” he said, “and this is the kind of instrument that has a lot more capabilities then I could ever be able to fully appreciate. It needs a place where it can be utilized to its full potential.”
Friesen said that through a series of contacts he connected with Ben Stone, who at the time was director of music and organ at First United Methodist Church in South Bend and assistant organist at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame. Stone also taught classes in musicianship and organ at Notre Dame and music history at St. Mary’s College.
Friesen said Stone was excited because he and his friend, Dan Schwandt, were reed organ enthusiasts. He said the two men often visited Friesen during the restoration project to watch the progress.
Because the organ was so big, Friesen worked on different pieces and sections at a nearby farm.
“One by one I worked on the reed sets, cleaned and toned them; the action module and bellows and cabinetry. I tacked each job in succession and it has finally come together,” he said, adding it took about a year.
In some cases, he had to create keys and missing parts, and he put new felts on where needed.
Friesen said his family, friends and Sunday School class became interested in the restoration project so he told them that when the organ was finished, he wanted to wheel it out of the garage and have organists perform on it in Friesen’s driveway, adding the concert “started out small but it’s developed into a real nice program with beautiful music.” The concert, which was set to be held Sunday, included a program in which Friesen shared that reed organs became popular in the late 19th century and they were always trying to imitate a pipe organ’s character. The Mason & Hamlin “is a very exceptional instrument and was named after (composer) Franz Liszt.” It has 11 racks of reeds, which gives a variety of sounds and range. The stops were named after organ stops like Dulcet, Dolce or Cremona. Friesen explained that stops relate to the rank of reeds. This one has stops and couplers.
Friesen said the last year that Mason & Hamlin made reed organs was 1927.
A copy of a page from an old catalogue states the two manual pedal-base Liszt organ has 20 stops and 545 reeds, which is equal to 545 pipes and was priced at $1,200. Friesen thinks that would be about comparable to $36,500 today. He added that it has a vacuum-powered motor or there’s a hand pump for the bellows that would need to be operated by an organ boy or assistant.
Three organists were scheduled to perform at the driveway concert, including Stone; Schwandt, who’s a doctoral student in organ performance at the University of Notre Dame and has a master’s degree in sacred music; and Jeffrey Weaver, an organist at College Mennonite Church who also has a degree in music performance.
The concert was by invitation only and was limited it to 25 to 30 guests so they could socially distance outdoors, and masks were expected to be worn, Friesen said.