Some notable New England pipe organs

The region is rife with some stunning instruments and their makers. Start nosing around, and you find them nearly everywhere. For starters, let me mention …

  1. Symphony Hall, Boston: Wish they’d showcase it more in performances but it really looks great.
  2. Busch-Reisinger, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Used by E. Power Biggs to advocate a then-revolutionary awareness of the classic and baroque sounds Bach was grounded in. Many new organs were commissioned with this ideal, while others were “slimmed down,” often ill advisedly.
  3. St. John Methodist/Grace Vision church, Watertown, Massachusetts: A four-manual Aeolian-Skinner instrument that escaped the Biggs’ touch, retaining what’s described as a sweet sound but in need of some serious, costly restoration.
  4. Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts: Built in 1909 to house the first concert organ in the United States after the instrument had been placed in storage. More than 6,000 pipes in what’s probably the largest hall built solely for an organ.
  5. Memorial Chapel, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Only the best for the best, and they do their best to maintain it. Or them, since the church has several in its space. Used daily, and visitors welcome.
  6. St. John Episcopal, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: An impressive instrument for services, but the tiny Brattle Organ up at the front right of the balcony is believed to be the oldest playable instrument in America. It was rescued from Boston and is said to have a bell-like sound.
  7. Merrill Auditorium, City Hall, Portland, Maine: The Kotschmar Organ built in 1911 by the Austin Organ company was the second largest organ in the world at the time, and it’s still a musical monster, as the ongoing series of concerts demonstrates. Organs were, after all, a mainstay of live entertainment as well as church services.
  8. St. John Methodist, Dover, New Hampshire: The 1875 Hutchings’ instrument was rescued from the old church in 1970 by two Boy Scouts when the congregation moved to a new site and then stored in a barn for 17 years until it was installed in the new sanctuary. The builder also created the first organ for Boston’s Symphony Hall.
  9. Durham Community Church (UCC), Durham, New Hampshire: A lovely two-manual baroque-style instrument, as the local guild of organists proved for a Bach birthday celebration a few years back.
  10. First Parish (UCC), Dover, New Hampshire: A hybrid machine with a classic New England core that’s been augmented several times and now includes electronics. Big sound, as the likes of Cameron Carpenter and Hector Olivera have proved in their appearances as part of an ongoing concert series. The bass notes can really make the whole house shake … notes you feel in your feet and then your ears.

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Not to leave Roman Catholic churches out, let me mention the Casavant instruments built in Quebec and found throughout New England. As an example, when the Shaker Village in Enfield, New Hampshire, was purchased by a monastic order, a Romanesque chapel was inserted into the site and a marvelous Casavant was installed, as I heard on a visit to what’s now mostly a museum.

I also want to mention Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, as another fine period instrument, one with hand-powered bellows rather than electrical fan. The bellows fellows sometimes get a bow of their own at the end.

This is the end of the road

But not a dead end. Rather, I see it as a destination, a place of arrival or culmination, rather than a fatal trap. Like Key West or Provincetown or Cape May that way. Or so I hope, only smaller and less touristy.

When I said it’s on the verge of being discovered, a neighboring couple shuddered and individually chorused, “I hope not!”

Well, an influx of income and youth wouldn’t hurt. Leave it at that.

Downtown Eastport in the dead of winter, as viewed from the Breakwater.

Maine has many fingers that reach out to the sea, but among them, tiny Eastport is unique. There are reasons it’s called the City in the Bay. Technically, it’s an island – or a group of them, with the two inhabited ones connected to the mainland by causeway. Moose Island, where most of us live, is still big enough for plenty of explorations, including a state park, forests, and rocky coves.

Along my life journey to here, I did write a novel about subways, which now has me thinking. A packed underground train can carry 1,200 to 1,800 passengers. Compare that to Eastport’s year-round population, around 1,300, swelling to 6,000 in high summer.

I can joke about coming here to die, but I’m not being morbid. Rather, I just don’t feel there’s anywhere else I’d rather live out my remaining years. Let’s call it focus.

Yes, I’ve loved big cities, though among them I’ve lived only in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Boston, close as it was, served largely as a place to visit, even if once or twice a week.

One thing that’s changed everything is the Internet. I’m not as isolated as I would have been even a decade ago. I can stream concerts, operas, and indie movies, as well as order self-published books or about anything I want retail, even download rare historic volumes, often for free.

In some ways, it’s seemed I’m just setting up shop – or camp – here.

Covid really has changed a lot of our social outlook. It made me hungry for face-to-face gatherings, which a small town can foster, yet it’s also made long-distance meetings more flexible. We don’t always have to drive for hours anymore.

I’ve long touted pedestrian-friendly communities, and that fits the tip of Moose Island where I’m living.

And, yes, via blogging, I can stay in touch with a world of folks like you.

Once the car’s parked, it can stay there as long as I want.

Just down the street

Weather Underground kept scaling back its anticipated snowfall here, cutting it to a tad over three inches. Instead, we woke up to this yesterday, about 9½ inches after a day of blizzard conditions. Seemed strange going from near whiteout one day to cloudless blue the next.

Gotta dig out to make room for more.
Should I mention this was a break in our ongoing gale conditions?

We’re bracing for subzero temperatures in the coming nights, but a minus four is still ten degrees warmer than just up the road. And then another half-foot is on the horizon.

I know we’re hardly alone when it comes to scenes like this, and I’m grateful I no longer have to commute through hazardous storm conditions.

How’s the winter kicking in where you are?

Rather than

thinking the cleaner bag full I discovered the rubber drive belt had snapped meaning a trip to the shop and the next day was Sunday as she had left it all the same, dust and sweep, wet mop, and rinse, move tall stacks about, sort items but what if we don’t? refill the trash can, love, after all, would expose this . honestly I won’t quit so simply whatever past is mine . pay dearly, of course, for these revelations. so make room for more labor . brush and chop, returning to the same spot rather than scurry onward

It’s the book I didn’t want to write, but it wouldn’t let go  

I thought we Dover Quakers – or more formally Friends – had our long history covered. I had even helped Silas Weeks, way back, in some of his research for his definitive volume on New England Quaker meetinghouses and burial grounds.

Frankly, after revising and republishing seven novels after the appearance of my eighth, I wanted a break.

A big break.

These are supposed to be my retirement years, OK? Admittedly, I had long imagined devoting myself to the writing as a big part of that dream, but really!

But then a casual request for an overview of Dover Friends history changed everything. It came indirectly, through someone in another denomination who was active in our Sanctuary movement. But then, going back through my filing drawers, I came up empty – couldn’t even find my folders of notes. What we did have was mostly about our three meetinghouses over the years – especially the structure where we’ve worshiped since 1768 – along with a few prominent events.

This left me unsettled.

Unlike many other denominations, the Society of Friends, or Quakers, is first and foremost about its members. Our definition of church is the body of believers – not the building or the polity and definitely not the ordained clergy. It’s why we call our building a meetinghouse and why we organize as Meetings, reflecting the times and ways our church-people come together. Church can happen whenever and wherever we are, even over dinner in our homes or chance encounters on the street or in the midst of social activism. And vitally it’s not just us – we’re meeting God, too.

I spent a lot of time at my impromptu workstation in Eastport, Maine, last year working on a history of Quakers in Dover, New Hampshire. And I arrived with what I thought was a largely finished manuscript. I was mistaken.

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WHAT NEEDED TO BE TOLD was the lives of the individuals and families who were the essence of one of the oldest Quaker Meetings in the world.

I resisted as long as I could but finally succumbed. Who were they? Why were they so willing to risk severe punishment and persecution imposed by the Puritan authorities? And in the face of that, how and why did a third of Dover’s population quickly become Quaker? And several generations later, start fading away?

With the 400th anniversary of the settling of Dover – and thus New Hampshire, too – coming up next year, the timing for our side of the history felt right.

Now that the book’s written and revised, I’ll be sharing some of my findings with you as well as news of publication itself as that nears.

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WHAT EMERGED IS A PARTIAL HISTORY, as in partisan, with my focus on a radical religious subculture that thrived in a unique, out-of-the-way, locale. Partial, as well, to the independent streak of New Hampshire against more powerful Massachusetts authorities to the south. Partial even in being incomplete as well as lacking footnotes, and not even the work of a professionally trained historian.

The story is also partial in being biased toward a sequence of unusual, sometimes roughhewn, figures and their families – not all of them Quaker – and inclined especially toward the narrative they shape.

The roots, as you’ll see, arise in the very beginning of English settlement. Forget what you’ve assumed about New England before Paul Revere and Sam Adams and the American Revolution and Boston as the Hub of the Universe.

A lot had already happened before the first Puritans sailed into Boston Harbor. Let’s look instead to Dover, which lays claim to being the seventh-oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the United States.

In the standard telling of the founding of today’s city of Dover, New Hampshire, two brothers arrived from England in the spring of 1623 and settled at the mouth of Great Bay on the Piscataqua River, upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. The brothers were fishmongers, members of one of the oldest and wealthiest guilds, or great companies, of London.

Except, as it turns out, one of the brothers didn’t arrive until a few years later.

Instead, the cofounder of the new settlement was a fishmonger apprentice who would be an important figure in the early years of the colony.

The meetinghouse, Dover Friends’ third, is home to the faith community today. It was erected in a single day in 1768.

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YOU’LL PROBABLY BY AS SURPRISED by this alternative take on New England history as I’ve been. It’s not just Quakers. There’s much more to New England’s past than a Thanksgiving dinner and a riotous tea party followed by a midnight ride and the shot heard ’round the world or even the notorious witch trials.

Here at the Barn, you’ll definitely be hearing a lot more about this big project through the coming year. Believe me, some of the findings will be startling.