The history of one of Asheville’s oldest pipe organs

WALL OF SOUND: Inside the 1901 organ, 1,694 pipes — ranging in size from as small as a pencil to massive enough to fit a child inside — are precisely voiced, regulated and tuned for optimal volume and sound quality.
WALL OF SOUND: Inside the 1901 organ, 1,694 pipes — ranging in size from as small as a pencil to massive enough to fit a child inside — are precisely voiced, regulated and tuned for optimal volume and sound quality. Photo by Devon Kelley-Mott

When Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church was constructed in 1919, the church leaders purchased a 1901 Felgemaker pipe organ from the First Baptist Church of Asheville. Rumor has it that the First Baptist sold the Felgemaker to make way for a “modern” organ for its newly built chapel on Oak Street but soon came to regret that decision. But Mount Zion couldn’t bear to part with the instrument, and what is likely the oldest working pipe organ in Asheville has remained in its sanctuary for nearly a century.

The Felgemaker is enormous. Its decorative facade features more than 50 speaking pipes in a white oak casing, and spans the entire back wall of the sanctuary. Inside the organ, 1,694 pipes — ranging in size from as small as a pencil to massive enough to fit a child inside — are precisely voiced, regulated and tuned for optimal volume and sound quality. The 26 sets of pipes, called stops, are controlled by two keyboards and a pedal clavier at the organist’s feet.

The Felgemaker was the main source of music at Mount Zion for 30 years, until a minor tragedy struck. In the late 1950s, the South Carolina-based Standaart Organ Co. persuaded the church to make some improvements and tonal revisions to the organ. The newly electrified instrument “didn’t sound the same after that,” says Treva Chavis, Mount Zion’s organist for the last 24 years.

Then, an amateur organ tuner (whom Mount Zion declines to name) attempted to fix it. He failed and then disappeared, taking some of the more valuable pipes with him.

By 1985, only half of the organ was playable, and some parts were on the brink of collapse. A church committee, led by then-organist Ollie Reynolds, reached out to the organ-building company of J. Allen Farmer in Winston-Salem. Hundreds of hours cleaning and refurbishing went into the instrument and, after the successful restoration, it took its rightful place at Sunday services again.

These days, however, the organ is played infrequently. According to Randy Weston, the church’s current musical director, the last time it was used in a service was for a Christmas concert in 2015. “We used to play the prelude on the organ every Sunday, but not so much recently,” he says. Upkeep is expensive — a tuneup could run $4,000. Most of the church’s music is currently performed on piano or a new electric stand-alone organ, which sits in front of the old Felgemaker.

“We don’t play the old one as much these days,” says  Chavis. “The kids like the electric one.”

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