LAUREL HILL—An early 20th-century portable pump organ has made its way back to the church where it started its service to the Lord.
Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church officials originally purchased the 1927 Bilhorn Bros. Style V "world famous folding organ," as its manufacturer’s label proclaims, for use at the church’s mission in Clear Springs, a small community midway between Laurel Hill and Crestview off Bill Lundy Road.
Bilhorn Bros. built their instruments to be portable, making them popular with missionaries. They even made special models with rot-resistant hardwoods for use in tropical missions.
The reed organ originally folded into an approximately 3-feet by 18-inch by 1-foot box, with its legs flipping up under the case. A metal handle is attached for carrying, though given its weight, two people carry it much more readily.
With only one keyboard — the church’s pipe organ has two — a player can push wind through reeds enclosed in the instrument’s wooden body by pumping the two opposing foot pedals that drive built-in bellows.
That sometimes poses a problem for Laurel Hill Presbyterian’s organist, Leon Curenton Jr., a fourth-generation member of the church.
"You want to try to pump in time to the music," he said. "But you’re supposed to keep up a steady pumping rhythm."
The Clear Springs mission eventually came to an end and church organizers stored the little organ in the historic 1903 church building. It nearly met its doom during a late 1960s housekeeping spree.
"They were just cleaning out, getting rid of extraneous stuff in the church, and she took it rather than let it get thrown out," Curenton said.
"She" was Sandra Thomas Conley, a longtime member of the church who later moved out of state. When she began downsizing her home last year, she called Curenton and asked if the church would be interested in having the organ back.
The congregation jumped on the chance to have a piece of its history returned, which Conley happily did. The instrument was in sturdy condition, though after years of storage and disuse, the straps that drove the bellows had rotted, and the works within the chest needed cleaning and restoration.
Curenton turned to Florala, Alabama, master organ repairman and restorer, David Finch, who maintains and tunes pipe organs throughout Northwest Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Georgia and Tennessee. Finch tends to the pipe organs at Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church and First United Methodist Church of Crestview, among other clients.
"When I asked David if he worked on reed organs, he said one of his first jobs was playing an organ just like that for the Salvation Army," Curenton said.
He sent the organ to Finch’s home workshop where it received his TLC over a period of almost a year. Finch returned the organ a few days before Laurel Hill Presbyterian’s June 25 worship service, during which Curenton hopped down from the main organ bench and performed the offertory, Bavarian composer Max Reger’s "Eins ist Not, Ach Herr, dies Eine," on the portable one.
The rich fullness of sound emitted by such a small instrument surprised and delighted congregation members.
In addition to being a link to the church’s 119-year history, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Broadhead, sees practical uses for the organ now that it is back home.
"Every now and then we have church at McDonald Campbell’s house," he said, referring to the church’s 102-year-old matriarch, who is homebound. "We can take this organ with us and have organ music during the service."
And when the church hosts its 120th anniversary homecoming next April, Curenton foresees an outdoor performance during the planned "dinner on the grounds."
Meanwhile, visitors may view and, if fortunate, hear the Bilhorn Bros. Style V during worship services 9 a.m. Sundays at 8115 Fourth Street in Laurel Hill.