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Boalsburg Church to Celebrate Pipe Organ's 150th Anniversary

by and on October 12, 2018 4:00 AM

The congregation of St. John’s United Church of Christ, 218 N. Church St. in Boalsburg, will hold a birthday party for its organ at 3 p.m. Sunday. Yes, that's right — a party for an organ, and one that's 150 years old at that.

The church’s Charles F. Durner Tracker Pipe Organ was installed in St. John’s in October 1868. No record has been found to tell just exactly how the organ was delivered, but, at that time, it must have been by wagon.

In 1861, men used clay from the area in back of where the church now stands to build the structure. Joseph Meyer played a pump organ there until 1868.

Charles F. Durner, an organ builder from Quakertown, traveled to Oak Hall to court Mary Spyker and became acquainted with Meyer. Meyer contracted Durner to build a new organ for $2,200 — what would be about $38,000 now.

As Meyer was practicing with the choir in October 1868 for a dedicatory service in honor of the new organ, he became ill. He died that same night, never having the chance to play the new organ at the service.

In 1902, the church added front stairs, new pews and new altar furniture, among other upgrades. The organ had sat against a back wall.

The organists’ backs were to the congregation as they played the instrument. As part of the changes in 1902, the remodelers cut the organ apart and turned the console 180 degrees, repositioning it so that the organist faced the congregation. The pipes were placed into a recessed area in the front of the church behind the organ.

H. Ryan Ditmer is the current organist at St. Johns UCC.

“The organ here is the oldest in Centre County and the first in Centre County, before State College was a borough,” said Ditmer. “To the best of my knowledge, it is the oldest Durner still used in regular services in Pennsylvania, if not the U.S."

The organ received a citation from the Organ Historical Society for its exceptional historic merit. Two other organs in this area that received citations were those at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bellefonte, and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona.

The Durner is a tracker or mechanical action organ. When a key is pressed, the tracker attached below pulls down on the pallet or valve. Wind under pressure rushes into and up the pipes.

“Originally, there were levers out the side of the organ and two boys would pump the organ to provide the air for the pipes. There is graffiti on the back where two of the boys signed their names — Nevin Fisher and Mack Mothersbaugh — as being the pump boys," said Ditmer.

“The organist operates the knobs in and out for different sounds. There are three keyboards, two that the organist’s hands play and one pedal board that their feet operate.”

The organ did not remain a pristine instrument. The furnace at the church blew up twice and the pipes were cleaned and painted in or around 1960. Then, its future became uncertain, when, in 1969, it was wearing out. But, the congregation voted to save it and renovate it. Some work was done, and the organ returned.

By 1989, bids went out to fully restore it. Raymond Brunner, of Silver Spring, restored it over six months and gave the organ a new bench and a new flat pedal board as part of the $32,000 project. Before that, the pedal board had an upward curving area that caused the organists to bump their knees as they played.

Ditmer served as church organist from 1993 until 2003, then took a sabbatical, during which Mona Hill played the organ. In addition to Ditmer, two other organists, Victoria Petrosky and Paula Basset, cover the church's worship services.

The birthday party will include “Hidden Jewelry” and a few organ pieces in keeping with its history. And, of course, there will be cake.


This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Connie Cousins covers Centre County for the Gazette.
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