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Estey to be played again

By Staff | Jul 29, 2016

Over the past 31 years musical entertainment at the Village Fair at the Prairie Village Museum has included a variety of styles. Country, bluegrass, big band, barbershop and other genres have been featured at one time or another, but it has been a number of years since a songfest with accompaniment by the large Estey organ has been held in the church.

That will change this year when Rugby native and long-time organist Selmer Moen will lead participants in a singalong.

“It’s a fascinating instrument,” Moen said of the organ, while acknowledging it has a few small issues due to its age. “It has some differences in volume from key to key,” he noted, “but if people are singing these kinds of things don’t stand out.”

The organ has quite a history according to Mildred Rothgarn, a former member of First Presbyterian Church in Willow City-which purchased it in 1908. “It was probably the first major musical instrument in Willow City,” she said, and, at a cost of $400, was a huge investment for the small church.

It is a reed organ of the type that makes a tone when air is sucked across the reed by a vacuum. A bellows creates the vacuum when a handle, attached to the side of the organ, is pumped.

At First Presbyterian, young boys in the congregation pumped the handle and earned five cents per Sunday. In the early 1940s, according to Rothgarn, the pay was doubled. If the pumper slacked off and the musical tones started wavering, the organist would shoot a nasty look at the pumper to pick up the pace, Rothgarn recalled.

In 1950 Melvin Danielson converted the organ to run with a vacuum cleaner motor, thus retiring the pumpers and assuring a constant source of air. Later, a large memorial gift enabled the church to buy an electric organ and the big Estey was given to the Rugby museum.

Even with the organ’s problems, Moen believes it is still a remarkable instrument.

“There are lots of people interested in restoring those instruments,” he said. “It would be worthwhile to see what might be involved in getting it back to original condition.”

Moen, who now lives in Minot, spent most of his childhood in Rugby and took piano lessons as a child. “My mother worked hard to get me to practice,” he said, but he didn’t get serious about playing until he attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. Although his field of study was mathematics, he also participated in music. After hearing some topflight organists, he got the urge to double down on his practicing.

After receiving a doctorate at the University of Minnesota, he took a teaching job at Mt. Union College in Ohio, and his first Sunday there attended a Lutheran church. Ironically, that day was the retirement service for the church’s organist and the congregation did not have a replacement.

“I was hired on the spot,” Moen said. He’s been serving churches ever since.

He moved to Minot in 1978 to teach at Minot State University and, in 1984, began playing the organ at First Presbyterian Church, recently renamed Cornerstone Presbyterian. He still serves as one of the church’s two organists.

For the Village Fair, Moen is tentatively planning for a variety of songs, not necessarily all hymns. Some will come from the musical traditions of people in the area, mostly German and Norwegian, he said. The songs will be appropriate to the era of both the church and the organ-ones well known at the turn of the last century and still familiar today. In addition, participants can pick favorites from the church hymnals. Moen may even throw in a few southern gospel numbers, and introduce a shaped-note song or two. And just in case singers need a little encouragement, Moen’s wife, Carol, will lead the singing.

But he doesn’t want the afternoon to be all one-sided.

“I’m hoping for some conversation back and forth,” he said. “I’m also hoping there will be folks show up who like to sing and like the opportunity to do it.”

The Village Fair is scheduled for August 14 and the singalong will be at 3:30 p.m. in Zion Lutheran Church on the museum grounds. The Moens invite everyone to bring their voices and join in the fun.

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