Don Glasgow: Reed organ aficionado

Written by David Green.


Celeste, delicato, clarabella and dulciana.

Harp angelica, melodia, flute and cello.

Dulcet treble. Tremular. Vox humana—the human voice.

donglasgow These are a few of the tones that can be coaxed from the rushing in and rushing out of air through a reed organ. There’s no electricity needed to power the instrument. It’s the pumping of the feet that drives a rush of air across brass reeds. The resulting vibration produces the sound that we recognize as the organ.

A row of white knobs is positioned above the organ’s keyboard—each with a label such as celeste or dulciana. These stops, as they are called, are pulled out or pushed in by the organist to best fit the music.

They’re not chosen at whim, says Don Glasgow, or at least they shouldn’t be. A skilled player knows otherwise.

“You’d hope that a person knew how to play it right,” he said.

There was a time when many, many people knew how to play it right.

The heyday of the reed organ ran from around the time of the Civil War to the 1920s. The demise coincides with the popularity of the phonograph and the introduction of electricity into homes.

“When the 1920s came around, the reed organ and the player piano fell on hard times,” Glasgow said.

Eventually, reed organs were simply hauled to the dump, like other wondrous inventions that lost their value when the next big thing came along.

Glasgow got to know the reed organ from the one his father had at the family home.

“What I learned to play, I played on that,” said the retired American Baptist pastor.

After Glasgow was married, he received the gift of a reed organ, and a new hobby was born. He repaired and refurbished that instrument, and he’s done the same for many other organs over the past five decades.

Home entertainment

The reed organ is sometimes described as the home entertainment center of the 19th century. They were affordable and they produced a good sound.

“Not that they’re great instuments,” Glasgow said. “They can’t compete with a pipe organ. They’re low tech insturments compared to a piano, and they were much cheaper.”

An inexpensive reed organ could be bought for as little as $25. A good model might cost closer to $70. A good piano, on the other hand, might sell for $1,500.

There were much more expensive organs available to those who had the cash. A Mason and Hamlin three manual organ—three keyboards—that Glasgow refurbished sold for $2,500 a hundred and fourteen years ago.

That was a lot of money for 1890, he said, noting that the large brick house he and his wife bought in Fayette in 1991 also sold for $2,500 in 1890.

The big Mason and Hamlin wasn’t driven by the organist’s footpower. Instead, it required an assistant to pump the air by hand. Today, an electric motor attached to a pump powers the instrument in its home at the Fayette Opera House. No one would be expected to create the wind by hand.

“When these were popular, you pumped your water and you pumped your treadle sewing maching,” Glasgow said. “Now we get on a stationary bicycle to get exercise.”

The times have changed, but people like Don Glasgow aren’t about to let the past be completely forgotten.

   - April 28, 2004

A tour of the Fayette Opera House collection

for the the Glasgow Reed Organ Society meeting 

Don Glasgow starts his tour of the reed organs currently housed in the Fayette Opera House by heading for the massive Mason & Hamlin three-manual instrument.

“Bill Gill kept it in his garage for 25 to 30 years,” Glasgow says. “It was a basket case when I picked it up.”

A lengthy labor of love followed as Glasgow brought it back to life.

Reed organs contain brass reeds that vibrate with sound when air rushes through them. This organ has an incredible 649 reeds.

Open one of the many “stops” located above the keyboard and it produces a sound equivalent to the 32-foot pipe of a pipe organ.

“It’s really unusual to have a 32-foot stop,” he says.

Start with an eight-foot pipe sound, go down two octaves and it’s now a 16-foot pipe. Dive down one more octave and you reach the sound of the 32-footer.

Glasgow sits down to play an instrument manufactured by the Estey Organ Co. of Brattleboro, Vt. It’s on loan from the Oberhaus Museum, a private collection of historical items that’s located in Archbold.

Glasgow spent last winter refurbishing the organ. It features two sets of reeds—two for each key.

“You can get quite a lot of variety out of two sets of reeds,” he says.

Next he walks to a sturdy-looking chapel organ—an instrument with a finished back that presents a more pleasing appearance to those sitting in the pews of a church. It features six sets of reeds, plus a bass.

At one end of the organ, a protruding stick of wood is visible. Pull it out and it becomes the handle of an air pump. Nearby is a gauge that shows the level of compressed air inside.

There’s one organ left on the Opera House stage.

“This is probably the most valuable instrument we have here,” Glasgow says, opening the closed top of a German made organ that was once sold in Scotland.

It’s not that the sound is better than others. What makes this one valuable is the mechanism inside. Pressure is built up like a balloon and it produces a brighter, more biting sound.

“Not too many European pressure instruments were made,” Glasgow says. “It won’t be on loan here for very long.”

Most reed organs have celluloid keys; this one features the real thing—ivory.

There are two other reed organs located downstairs and at least three more will arrive for the festival this weekend.


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