Iowa workshop whose pipe organs rocked the world

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LAKE CITY, Iowa – Randall Wolff was working in a back room at Dobson Pipe Organ Builders earlier this month, making parts for an instrument destined for an Anglican church in Australia, when he smelled a puff of smoke. Seeing flames coming from the next room and aware of the flammability of the kiln-dried wood used in their organs, he grabbed a fire extinguisher.

But he couldn’t put out the flames in time. Dobson, a western Iowa company that started in 1974 making organs for churches in the Midwest and then rose to prominence – its majestic pipe organs resonate at Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall in Merton College Chapel century building in Oxford, England, and St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City – was reduced to smoldering rubble in the June 15 fire.

“A lot of the tools we use are specialty tools that we’ve made over the years for specific purposes,” lamented Wolff, 61, a carpenter who’s been with the company for 22 years, the other day then. as he inspected the smoldering ruins. second degree burns on his still wrapped arms. “You can’t just go to Home Depot and buy a new one. “

Company founder Lynn A. Dobson, 71, was at home in Minnesota when he learned of the fire. On his way to Lake City, he looked with growing concern at photos of the fire posted on Facebook, and when he arrived at the scene that night, he recalled: “I was numb”. It wasn’t until the next day, when a front loader knocked over the last standing part of the building that has housed the company since 1979, a pillar bearing the company name “Dobson”, that the weight of emotions caught up with. him.

“It’s the first time I’ve shed a tear,” he said. “As long as that pillar was there, there was still something left. But, when it fell apart, that was the end of it.

Dobson, who grew up in Iowa watching his father build cabinets and listening to his sister practice the organ, got his start building a 12-stop mechanical action organ in his family’s farm shed then that he was still in college. It was then sold to a church in Sioux City. Des Moines radio got wind of the young man who built an organ on a farm and broadcast a short film. This led to other opportunities, including an order to build an organ for a church in St. Paul. “It was like winning the lottery,” Dobson said.

Since then, he has designed nearly a hundred organs for universities, recital halls, and churches across the United States, particularly in the upper Midwest. Mark Koskamp of Des Moines plays a Dobsonian organ built in 1982 at a United Presbyterian Church in Indianola.

“It’s like having a first Picasso or a van Gogh,” he said.

The company now receives commissions from all over the world.

The Dobsonian organ built in 2006 for Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, has nearly 7,000 pipes ranging from the size of a pencil to one that measures 32 feet high and two feet wide, and has been described as the largest mechanical organ – concert hall organ in the United States. He was praised by James R. Oestreich of the New York Times for the “glorious heckling” he produced. Jeremy Filsell, organist and musical director for St. Thomas Church in New York City, described the majestic organ the firm built for the church in 2018, with its 7,069 pipes, as extraordinarily versatile.

“It’s an important instrument, and it’s as eclectic as the instruments come,” said Filsell, “so it caters to virtually any range of styles, from early Baroque to all types of colors and timbres. which Messiaen demands in his important organ works. “

The organ destined for Australia which was consumed by the fire was to be the company’s 99th organ; St James’s Church in Sydney, which commissioned it, said it determined Dobson was “the best builder for the job” after looking at companies in the United States, Britain and Germany. .

As word of the fire spread, church choir directors, music teachers, organists and organ builders filled the company’s Facebook page with messages of pain and support. Calls and texts poured in to offer condolences and donations. A retired West Coast organ builder sent a check for $ 2,250, which he said would provide 15 organ builders $ 150 each to purchase new tools.

Dobson moved into the Lake City building in Town Square in 1979 after taking out loans and working weekends with his family to remodel a condemned and dilapidated building that previously housed a tractor repair shop. , a hatchery, a bowling alley and a Ford dealership in a pipe organ factory.

Dobson recently sold the company to a protégé, John Panning, 58, and his wife, Judy, but remained the company’s principal designer. They got together over the weekend to take stock: They have scans of Dobson’s final drawings, but they lost the hundreds of sketches that preceded each completed design. Also destroyed: high-quality photos of many of the early instruments they built and photos Dobson had taken of craftsmen working in the shop, which were filed in large labeled drawers for each organ the firm built .

“It’s not about the building,” said John Panning, who joined the company in 1984 and worked in Chatham, Mass., On a facility when the fire broke out. “But it kind of is. It has a story, and it’s a kind of capital that helps you know you can handle whatever projects come up.

The blaze apparently started, Wolff said and the state fire marshal’s office confirmed, in a system designed to collect wood dust from a router Wolff was using at the time.

Now they have decisions to make on where to rebuild and how. They said they were planning to look for a temporary space in the community; Judy Panning praised volunteer firefighters in Lake City and surrounding areas who fought the blaze with water from a local pond, and neighbors who showed up with stacks of boxed pizzas.

Dobson Pipe Organ Builders may have lost their building, tools, and some of their records, but their staff remains imbued with the kind of technical expertise that passes from craftsman to craftsman. And despite a tough market for pipe organs, at a time of declining church attendance and competition from digital instrument makers, Dobsons and the Pannings expressed confidence the business would remain viable.

“There will always be people for whom it is important,” said John Panning. “And there is still good work to be done.”


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