History of the Pipe Organ 
in Morrill Hall Chapel
by Dennis Wendell 






Organ pipes from Morrill Hall Chapel organ.


This brief historical sketch begins in 1891 with the completion of the construction of Morrill Hall and the recorded sale of "the old organ" which had been used in Old Main.  The minutes of the Board of Trustees meeting on December 14, 1894 note that Pres. William M.  Beardshear and Trustee C.F. Saylor were appointed to a committee to purchase a chapel organ, and that the sum of $2000, in addition to the $300 obtained from the sale of the old organ, was authorized. In 1895, the firm of Henry Pilcher's Sons of Louisville, Kentucky was selected to provide the instrument. The founder of this respected organ building company had operated in Dover, England in 1820.  Twelve years later, he emigrated to the U.S. where he built organs with his sons until his retirement in 1859.  His successors were his sons and grandsons who eventually sold the business to M.P. Moeller in 1944.

The organ was installed in an alcove provided by the architect on the north wall of the second-floor chapel.  Two manuals and pedal keyboard controlled perhaps 17 ranks of pipes using a tubular-pneumatic action.  Upwards of 1,000 pipes would have been mounted on windchests behind the display pipes seen in vintage photos of the chapel.  One undated early photo in University Archives clearly shows the organ case with its 36 painted and stenciled façade pipes, barely visible swell box, attached keydesk, and about 21 drawknobs.  In another photo may be seen the foot-operated lever which would have been pumped by an assistant to provide a steady supply of wind to the reservoir and windchests.  The designated 'bellows boy' would have been alerted by the organist to pump faster when more wind pressure was needed for performing rapid passages or large chords.

The new instrument was celebrated in a dedicatory recital given on May 16, 1895 by Mr. Herbert Oldham, F.S.Sc., of Le Mars, Iowa.  Educated at the London College of Music, Mr. Oldham directed a music conservatory in Le Mars, and was widely known as a brilliant performer on the pipe organ.  No evidence survives in the archives of either Westmar College or Le Mars Public Library concerning Mr. Oldham or his conservatory.  However, the Iowa Agricultural College Student published the recital program for that evening's 'Grand Organ Opening Concert':

Part I
1.  Organ solo  
            Triumphlied Victor Ernst Nessler (1841-1890)
            Reverie Gustave de Lille
2.  Song (organ & piano acc.)
            Sancta Maria Jean-Baptiste Fauré (1830-1914)
3.  Organ solo  
            Funeral March Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
            Wedding March August Johan Södermann (1832-1876)
Part II
1.  Organ solo


Joseph Joachim Raff (1822-1882)

Phantom March

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
2.  Piano and organ duet

Arrangement from Faust

Eugene Ketterer (1831-1870) and Marie Auguste Durand (1830-1909)
3.  Organ solo


Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869)


Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833)

From the above program, it can be seen that the performer included few works specifically written for the organ, and that most were transcriptions, reflecting contemporary performance practice.  The newspaper account noted that Mr. Oldham was assisted by the Misses Chambers and Westermann [sic], vocalist and pianist respectively.  Both women were members of the college faculty in 1895 and were pictured in the college yearbook, the Bomb, of that year.

Marie Lewis Chambers was Director of Music and Professor of Elocution.  A native of Iowa, she had been a student at Coe College for several years, and studied music privately in Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York. Genevieve Westerman was Instructor of Piano and Organ, and taught theory and harmony as well.  An Illinois native, she had graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1890.  Interestingly, she performed in another typically nineteenth century institution, the Chautauqua.  The 1895 Bomb notes that she was accompanist and pianist at Lake Madison, S.D., Chautauqua during the 1891-92 and 1894 seasons.

Daily week-day chapel services were mandatory for students in the early years of the College.  The Music Department provided a 24-voice choir to lead the singing of hymns and furnish a voluntary on Sundays, and an organist to accompany hymns and perform two voluntaries.  Dr. O.H. Cessna, head of the Department of History and Religious Education, conducted services.  Doodles and graffiti in surviving hymnals of the era reveal that wandering minds ill at ease in the hard, wooden auditorium seats were not always intent on Dr. Cessna’s morning remarks.

Besides furnishing music for chapel services, the organ was used for commencements, special concerts by faculty, and student recitals.  Private organ lessons were available at a cost of ten dollars a term for twenty lessons.  Use of the organ for two hours daily practice was fifty cents per month, and twenty-five cents per month for one hour daily practice.  Piano forte proficiency was a prerequisite for studying organ.  The methods of George Whiting of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston were used, along with works by Mendelssohn, Guilmant and others.  The course of study provided in voice, piano, organ and violin was described as “thorough, comprehensive, strictly classical in character, and imparted with the most effective modern method.”  Given all the organ practicing and lessons, one can only wonder how patrons studying in the Library on the floor below could concentrate.  It should also be kept in mind that an organ pumper was always needed whenever the organ was played.  While the exact remuneration for organ pumpers is unknown, Board of Trustee minutes record that the sum of $200 was appropriated in 1896 for the repair and pumping of the organ. The need for student 'muscle' at the bellows was finally eliminated in 1906 by the purchase of an electric motor.

With the end of World War I, mandatory chapel services ceased and the organ fell into disrepair.  Although the College had used the organ for only twenty years, it had proven to be a good investment.  About this time the organ was sold to the First Baptist Church in Ames for $400.  It was subsequently installed in their church then located at the corner of 5th and Kellogg streets and used until the last service held there on May 1, 1949.  Building plans called for a new organ, which the church could ill afford.  Before the organ was removed and the old church demolished, William Harrison Barnes, a well-known organ architect and organist at First Baptist Church of Evanston, Illinois, was called in as consultant.  Dr. Barnes is also author of "The Contemporary American Organ," a landmark reference work first published in 1930, and enjoying nine editions over a span of forty years.  The advice of the consultant was to save only the pipework and discard the windchests and console, wise advice for anyone familiar with the tubular-pneumatic system with its plethora of lead tubing.  Accordingly, church members removed all organ pipes and placed them in storage in the basement of the parsonage awaiting re-installation in the new edifice at 200 Lynn Avenue.

Eventually, Dr. Barnes located a 1925 Austin organ that had been installed in the Philadelphia residence of architect Frank R. Watson.  This Austin opus 1318 soon joined the 1895 Pilcher organ and was installed in the church's new building under the guidance of James D. Trees of Chicago.  Dr. Barnes selected only six ranks of the Morrill Hall chapel organ for re-use: Stopped Flute 16'; Open Diapason 8' (Great); Open Diapason 8' (Swell); Violina 8'; Octave 4' (Great); and Harmonic Flute 4'.  Unused ranks of pipes from both organs were sold to Frank Wichlac, an organman also from Chicago, who specialized in re-installing old theatre organs in churches.  Dr. Barnes himself played the dedication recital on May 10, 1950.

As part of the hybrid Barnes organ, the six ranks from the Morrill Hall chapel organ spoke boldly from their rear gallery home for the next 52 years until mid-May, 2002.  By then, the church had decided that it needed a new instrument, and opted for a three-manual Rodgers Trillium 957 digital organ.  Fenris Pipe Organ Company of Kilkenny, Minnesota was contracted to remove the old organ.  In order to locally preserve some of the historic Morrill Hall chapel pipework, Dennis Wendell contacted the church and Wes Remmey, owner of Fenris Organ.  Mr. Remmey graciously agreed to leave Mr. Wendell the following pipes: Swell Open Diapason 8' (61 metal pipes); Great Open Diapason 8' (five painted and stenciled display pipes), and Stopped Flute 8' (43 wooden pipes).  It remains the vision of Mr. Wendell to incorporate some of the original pipework into the renovated Morrill Hall.



Bomb,1895, p. 53.

First Baptist Church.  “Dedication of the Organ, May 10, 1950.”

Fox, David H.  A Guide to North American Organbuilders.  Richmond, Va. : Organ Historical Society, 1991, p. 187.

Iowa Agricultural College. Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees, 1886 &1887, p. 92; 1888 & 1889, p. 69; 1890 & 1891, p. 72; 1894 & 1895, pp. 76-77.

Iowa Agricultural College. Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 1894, pp. 77 & 81; 1896, p.277.

“Organ Parts Still Good as New,” Iowa State Daily, June 14, 1949, p. 1.

Pilcher records, Organ Historical Society, Richmond, Va.

Untitled article, I.A.C. Student, May 13, 1895, p. 4.

Wells, Rev. Ronald V.  “The Story of the Organ,” November 1990.


<>     HISTORY     <>     LIBRARY     <>     CHAPEL     <>     MUSEUM     <>    IMAGES     <>

2002 Special Collections Department, Iowa State University. All rights reserved.