Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine
Orchestrating
pipe organs

Warrensburg artisans build and repair
'the king of instruments'

by Eric Syverson

Joe Nielsen of the Qumby Pipe Organs company of Warrensburg installs flue pipes in an instrument’s swell division as Brad McGuffey hands them to him. In total, there are 1,958 pipes in the organ, which the company recently restored and installed in a church in Quincy, Ill.

Forty-six years ago, on a tour of the First United Methodist Church’s pipe organ in Stillwater, Okla., Michael Quimby stared in awe.

The instrument’s sound always had intrigued the 9-year-old choirboy, but his fascination turned to the internal parts. His blue eyes scanned a maze of mechanisms and hundreds of pipes. Something sparked inside him.

He wanted to build and play pipe organs like this one.

As it turns out, this event changed his life forever. Michael sought out books on the instruments and uncovered some of their mysteries. He learned air enters a wooden or metal pipe, which shapes it into a note. Since each pipe makes only one tone, many pipes are necessary. One pipe organ can have a few dozen pipes to tens of thousands. The instruments often are found in churches and can cost several hundred to millions of dollars. Today, the blond hair of Michael’s childhood has turned gray, but pipe organs continue to fascinate the president and tonal director of Quimby Pipe Organs, Inc., in Warrensburg.

Quimby Pipe Organs staff carries a wooden pipe into St. John’s Episcopal Church in Quincy, Ill. The company travels all over the United States installing, renovating and rebuilding pipe organs.

His passion has helped the company develop a well-respected reputation since he established it in 1970. The firm is president of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America, an elite group of 26 firms where membership is only by invitation.

Known as a craftsmen company, Quimby Pipe Organs renovates, restores and creates instruments to clients’ unique specifications. Restoring the pipe organ for the largest gothic cathedral in the world, The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, is one of the company’s eight current projects.

For Michael, the work that takes place in four buildings in Johnson County, including one powered by West Central Electric Cooperative, really isn’t work.

“It’s always play,” he says. “It’s never boring; it’s always exciting.”

Pipe organ originality

Besides its reputation for quality, Quimby Pipe Organs is known for the sound of its new organs, Michael says.

As head “voicer,” Eric Johnson is responsible for implementing that sound. Manipulating metal and wood, he takes the pipes the company makes or repairs in the shop and gives them their resonance.

But the right tone is both technical and emotional. When Eric tunes pipes that sound like trumpets, for example, his state of mind affects the tone.

An employee of Quimby Pipe Organs lays out pipes in one of the company's Warrensburg-area workshops. Each organ is assembled in Warrensburg before being disassembled, packed up and shipped to its final location.

“Depending on what side of the bed I got up on, they could be either dark and moody or bright and cheerful,” he says.

Dr. Jim Coleberd is familiar with the Quimby sound. The company’s instruments seemed to follow the retired physician and organist throughout his life. The firm installed pipe organs in his hometown of Liberty; the first college he attended, William Jewell College; his church in Clinton and finally his new home in Hannibal.

Like all new instruments, Quimby Pipe Organs custom-built Jim’s residential pipe organ. With a reinforced floor and 18-foot high ceiling in the living room, Jim’s house was designed to accommodate a pipe organ, and he handed over the blueprints to the company. After several design plans, Jim agreed on one that exposed the instrument’s 485 pipes. The November 2005 installation took only three days and went off without a hitch. “When they started installing, it just fit their specifications perfect,” says Jim.

He considers the pipe organ the king of instruments. Its ability to mimic an orchestral array of sounds makes it the king, he says. Organists can integrate the sound of flutes, string or reed instruments and trumpets into one massive tone.

“You’re getting one tone when you play a clarinet or a piano,” Jim says. “In a pipe organ, depending on the size of the instrument, I can get up to 120 tones all together.”

Quimby Pipe Organs staff installs the facade pipes of the 1863 E. and G.G. Hook pipe organ the company rebuilt for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Quincy, Ill. .

With such tonal power at his fingertips, Jim wanted a company that could produce a quality instrument with great color. “You want an instrument that responds to what you want it to do, and Quimby has captured that,” he says.

Restoring artistic masterpieces

For Michael, camaraderie among the company’s 17-member staff is the key to running a successful business. He says his employees are the most important aspect of the firm. “It takes all of us to create an artistic masterpiece,” he says.

And like a father, he’s proud of the staff’s dedication. “They are self-motivated,” he says. “I coordinate and make it all happen, but I do not hover around. They have the freedom to express their creativity.”

Organist Kirby Eber often witnesses that creative expression at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Quincy, Ill. Several times a week he watches Quimby employees install the instrument the company refurbished for the church.

Kirby knows plenty about this organ, which the premier pipe organ manufacturer E. and G.G. Hook made in 1863, and how it found its way to St. John’s.

In the late ’90s, the church received a gift of $150,000 to repair its pipe organ. Several reputable Midwestern firms were contacted, and all said the pipe organ wasn’t worth rebuilding and offered new models. Only Michael asked if the church would consider replacing its instrument with a historic one. “That was the tide that turned the table to Quimby,” Kirby says. “It’s his willingness to find an alternate solution.”

To replace the instrument, Quimby Pipe Organs bought the E. and G.G. Hook pipe organ from the Organ Clearing House in Massachusetts. The East Coast company disassembled the instrument in Maine and delivered it to Warrensburg.

Organist Kirby Eber tests out St. John’s pipe organ while Jeff Thomas, an electrician rewiring the church, listens. Eber is organist for both St. John’s and Vermont Street Methodist Church, where Thomas is a member.

All was going as planned until disaster struck the Quincy church in August of 2002.
“Unfortunately, or perhaps now looking in retrospect, fortunately, the church burned down,” Kirby says of the fire caused by lightning.

After the insurance settlement, St. John’s had $750,000 to spend on its pipe organ and other projects. Additional improvements were added to the instrument’s original plan.

Quimby Pipe Organs stored the organ until January 2006. Then, under the direction of project manager Brad McGuffey, the company began reconstructing the instrument using only a photocopy of a picture and existing physical clues. Bringing back the integrity of the instrument’s original builders is the company’s goal, which Kirby believes is possible.

With the pipe organ’s dedication set for Oct. 15, Kirby’s wait is nearly over. He feels Quimby Pipe Organs was the right company for the job.

“I could not ask for anyone to be more understanding and accommodating than they have been,” he says.

A fellow organist, Michael also will be at the dedication. It’s all just part of the job — one he’s pursued with passion since the age of 9.

For more information about Quimby Pipe Organs, Inc., call (660) 747-3066 or visit www.quimbypipeorgans.com.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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