Don Glasgow and Jonah Stiriz repair reed organs 2008.04.02

Written by David Green.


It wasn’t so long ago that Don Glasgow thought he was finished with the repair of reed organs.

He moved from his home in Fayette to smaller quarters in Archbold and he no longer had the space to tinker with the old instruments.

Three things changed all of that: Don Stiriz; Don Stiriz’s grandson, Jonah; and a workshop in the basement of a house Don Stiriz owns.reed.don_and_jonah.jpg

Nine organs later, Don Glasgow is back in business, and now he has an able apprentice.

For Glasgow, reed organs have been an obsession for years. For Stiriz, the fascination arrived much later. He attended a reed organ festival in New England a few years ago and that was it.

“Don got the bug when he visited that festival,” Glasgow recalls.

Stiriz now owns a dozen of the once-popular organ that was used across the nation in churches and for social functions. They’re all antiques now and capable repair people are few and far between—except in Fulton County, Ohio.

There’s the veteran, Glasgow, and there’s Stiriz’s grandson, Jonah. If Don Stiriz is going to continue collecting organs, he needs someone nearby to get them back into good condition.

“About two years ago Jonah said he’d like to learn how to work on them,” Glasgow. “He’s picked up on it very well. He’s very good at learning new things.”

Together, they’ve worked on nine reed organs. There most recent venture was to get the Sauder Village organ back into shape.

Glasgow remembers asking about working on the instrument several years ago, but nothing ever came of the offer. More recently, Jonah worked at the village as a junior historian and he spoke to someone about the organ.

This time the decision was made to send it out for repairs and it disappeared into the Rorick house basement for a few months while Glasgow and Jonah met for one afternoon a week.

The Sauder Village organ was built by the Williams Organ Co. in Chicago around the turn of the century. It was owned by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Pettisville before it went to the Jay Ziegler home, and then to village.

Repair needs were typical of most reed organs, Glasgow said. The wool inside the instrument had been eaten by moths,  the cloth backing had holes, and the leather straps were worn out.

“Several reeds were missing so replaced that and tuned it,” Glasgow said. “There are about 300 reeds in that instrument and a lot of them needed to be tuned. It sounds pretty good now.”

It’s the air passing through the reeds that creates the sound rather than the tall cylinders of a pipe organ.

Locating parts for a restoration can be challenging. Reeds aren’t made in the United States anymore, but restorers have good collections taken from old organs.

“Unless it’s a very unusual reed, you can usually find a replacement in someone’s collection,” Glasgow said.

It’s the leather that turns out to be the most expensive part of restoration. It has to be imported and it can be difficult to find.

It’s not just any leather that fills the need. Some leather needs to stretch; in some uses, a leather that won’t stretch is required. Leather from a horse, cow, goat, hairless sheep, wool sheep and calf each have different characteristics.

It doesn’t end there. Skin can be tanned by the chroma method or with alum or with vegetable. Again, each process produces a different texture and feel.

In addition, some leathers have to be run through a machine to vary the thickness.

Some of the simpler instruments don’t require leather from six different animals, but still, Glasgow said, there are a lot of considerations to run through when it comes to proper restoration.

“Some people try to restore reed organs that don’t really understand the process,” he said. “Some amateur jobs aren’t satisfactory.”

Then he laughs remembering some of early attempts that were lacking in quality.

Jonah, 16, might be able to avoid those pitfalls by working closely with a veteran. He remembers how it started.

“About three years ago Grandpa asked me if I ever thought about working on reed organs,” he said. “He said that Don was looking for someone to teach. I tried it and I liked it.”

That was nine organs ago.

Jonah enjoys working with Glasgow both for his knowledge and for his company.

“It’s nice to have someone else to work with when you get discouraged,” he said about the chore that often proves challenging.

Currently, the pair is working on a player piano—another item from Grandpa Stiriz’s collections.

Jonah knows reed organ repair is only a hobby—there’s no career in attending to the diminishing number of instruments.

However, the number is growing in the Fayette/Wauseon area. Stiriz now owns 12 and Jonah has four of his own.

As long as they continue buying them, there’s going to be work to do.

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