Janet Hubbard had only played a few chords when she said, to no one in particular, that she could hear it … something more than just the music responding to her fingers.
Then she closed her eyes and said she could almost see it – an antique pump organ playing on a Sunday morning in the very early years of Spokane with a 12-person congregation gathered around it, singing hymns together in worship.
In the home of Henry T. Cowley in 1879, or even in the small wooden church with a steeple built for the First Congregational Church in 1881, the organ wouldn’t have been an antique. But it certainly would have sounded like this.
Just like this.
She was playing the exact organ that 140 years ago was the soundtrack to Sundays for the church founded by the pioneer missionary. And Hubbard – the church musician for Westminster who plays the church’s current organ each week during services – knew exactly what melodies to coax from the richly stained instrument that still looks as impressive as it must have nearly a century and a half ago.
The sounds of faith from a young country expanding westward and still healing from the divisions of the Civil War were what this “Cottage Gem” was constructed to play:
Lord of All Being, Throned Afar.
Jesus, Saviour, Pilot Me.
Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us.
These were the songs Hubbard knew would be best to bring the almost hidden-away instrument back to life. These were the hymns that would have resonated from the organ in 1879.
Many of the hymns had poetic titles with lyrics explaining deeper connections to faith.
“These were songs about very personal relationships,” she said. “With everything going on in our country at that time, people were looking for a very personal connection.”
Some of these are still in Westminster’s hymnal.
This was both the instrument and the music that provided a direct connection to Westminster’s congregations of the past – then known as First Congregational Church – that was undeniable to her.
“You can just feel it,” she said as she sat at the organ. “A group of people dressed in a certain way, singing together in a home in worship.
“It’s a different sound than any of the instruments that we have today and its resonance belies its size. This was an instrument designed for people to sing over, yet still be heard.”
Its differences are found in more than just the tone.
You even have to play it differently. You find yourself going slower. Holding notes longer. Part of it is simply because of the way a pump organ works, sustaining notes to make sure you give enough time for the reed to open.
The church’s internal records indicate its first organ was purchased in 1900.
“A fine organ costing more than $4,000, installed and fully paid for” in 1900, thus “establishing music as a strong part of the church’s ministry.”
That was an astronomical sum of money for the time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, that’s roughly $121,000 today.
It also makes it a bit confusing as to how Hubbard was playing an organ with ties to the church dating back to 1879, if the First Congregational Church didn’t pay for its first organ until 21 years later. Well, part of the answer lies in where she was playing it.
In what might look like a scene from an ancient movie involving a princess or maybe a phantom, she was playing it near the top of a turret that has long watched over Spokane.
It was in the clock tower of The Spokesman-Review.
As odd as that might seem, the organ also felt like it was in the exact environment for something steeped in historical value and perspective. An organ from an 140-year-old church fits in pretty well in a similarly aged newspaper building that looks a little like a castle.
If you ever get to browse through a catalog from that era by famed organ maker J. Estey & Co. of Brattleboro, Vermont, you eventually spot the organ. Depending on variables, a five-octave reed organ with six stops would cost a little more than $200. When you figure in inflation and the value of the dollar, that would bring the organ in at more than $4,600 today.
It’s the perfect size to make the trip across the country in a stagecoach or possibly by train, which still would have meant horses were going to have to help with a significant portion of the trip.
That made this type of organ perfect for a Protestant missionary moving across the country to Spokane.
A few years after the church was founded, Cowley became the publisher of The Chronicle. Cowley had learned the printer’s trade in 1856 at Edwin Cowles’ Cleveland Leader. His granddaughter, Margaret Paine Cowles, was the wife of W.H. Cowles, the grandparents of current Spokesman-Review publisher Stacey Cowles.
On Dec. 3, 1930, Margaret married W.H. Cowles.
In the Westminster Congregational Church.
And 140 years later, after the church’s 12 charter members including Enoch Selquawia, a Spokane chief, and his wife – along with the Rev. Henry T. and Lucy Cowley – first worshipped through the music echoing out of a non-assuming organ, its music of faith rang again on an Easter weekend in Spokane.
Hubbard knew what all of that meant as she played. She also knew that an organ’s size was no way to measure its legacy.
She could feel it.