Old Pump Organs

During my growing up years, we worshiped at the Presbyterian Church in Dexter, where my Aunt Nadine (Neal) Shepherd was the pianist, organist (a pump organ), and choir director. Because so many choir members were from farm families, several months during the year, the choir became smaller.

We Neal cousins went to the Dexter school, just a couple of blocks from the church. Dexter had such a wonderful music teacher, Ruth Sellers, so in no time at all we could read music. Several of us also took piano lessons. Aunt Nadine recruited us for a youth choir, which eventually became the main choir.

When I was a junior in high school, Aunt Nadine was pregnant and needed substitutes at the organ and piano. I’d played piano for Sunday School, but the organ was a pump organ. That means that while you’re playing the keyboard, you also need to pump the bellows that made it play!

The pump organ is the instrument on the left. (The rear-view mirror is to be able to coordinate music with ushers, the pastor, and even when the choir processed in from behind the organist. I’m in the back row, second from left. My sister is on the front right. Eight of us are Neal cousins! Aunt Nadine is at the back right. Taken about 1961, First Presbyterian Church, Dexter, Iowa

The keys operate reeds, so when you press the key, air from the bellows flows up the reed and makes a sound. You can change the sound by using the stops, which are pull knobs that add extra features. The expression “pull out all the stops” refers to using all the knobs of an organ at the same time.

The Dexter church eventually traded the pump organ for a Hammond electronic organ, which I enjoyed playing, but if I’d had the money at the time, I would still own that old pump organ. I enjoyed playing it and had figured out how to repair the bellows when needed it.

A Depression-Era Pump Organ

While working on Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression, I became acquainted with Mary Wilt, a neighbor of the Wilsons back then. She knew that Leora Wilson could play the piano and that the Wilson girls played in the Dexter band, so she said they could have her pump organ since she didn’t play it anymore.

The surprise was that the Wilson family was so strapped for life’s necessities, there was hardly money for extras. They had even needed to burn furniture so they could heat part of the house they rented.

Dale needed a project for manual training. He transformed wood from that old organ into a radio table.




Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression


    • I’m betting that Leora moseyed right over to see if she’d be okay with it. Those boys had gone to the elevator to pick up wheat for her, and dug dandelions for her dandelion wine!

  1. Thank you for this Joy! My grandparents had a pump organ with the stops. My older sister inherited that organ (good choice as she was the only one in the family who could play). They sure had a distinctive sound.

    • Oh, I’m so glad it stayed with the family! Sometime would you tell its story for us (with photos of the original owners, etc.)? An heirloom with a story is the very best kind!

  2. We had an old broken pump organ at our church when I was a kid. I remember we kids trying to get it to work, but it never did. My piano teach had an Hammond organ that she’d have me use once in awhile.

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