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. 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.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.