The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

December 9, 2012

Pump organ a tie to simpler times


Laura Belle Monroe lived across the field from my home when I was a boy. No one called her Laura; she was “Belle” to friends and family. I always called her Mrs. Monroe because she seemed ancient to me.

She was born in 1865 while Lincoln was president. Her husband died young and she raised their four young children. My father had been in her Sunday school class when he was a boy, and he often took me with him when he visited Mrs. Monroe. She was of fine, pioneer stock, he would tell me. Her back porch was filled with crocks, canning jars, and other items she had used in the past. Mrs. Monroe knew all there was to know about being self-sufficient.

There were hedge rows around her farmstead and it was a haven for an out-of-control rabbit population. When I was given my first rifle, she gave me the task of reducing their numbers when hunting season came. There were two stipulations — hunting had to take place on Sunday mornings when she was at church, as she didn’t like to hear gun shots, and the coveys of quail that lived in the hedge rows were off limits. Mrs. Monroe had a soft spot in her heart for the quail.

Hunting on Sunday morning was fine with me. It meant I would walk across the field with my rifle and spend the morning hunting while other family members were at church. It was a sacrifice a boy could make.

I enjoyed hunting rabbits at Mrs. Monroe’s place, but the real attraction in her home was her Chicago Lakeside pump organ. Her daughter, Grace. played the organ and I believe Mrs. Monroe bought it when the Lake Shore E.U.B Church, that once stood on the old State Road, closed. Over the years she showed me the organ’s fundamentals and allowed me to struggle through a few tunes on it when I visited her.

When her health began to fail, her son. Tilghman. told me she wanted me to have the old organ. It didn’t seem right to just take it, so I offered to buy it. He didn’t want to take anything for it, but he finally agreed, if that was the only way I would take the organ.

We were putting up hay on her farm at the time and I had been helping. I offered to give him my wages in return for the organ. He smiled, probably realizing that was my total assets at the time, and said that would be fine. For nine dollars, I became the new owner of the organ.

When he delivered it to my house, his wife, Myrtle, included a hymn book from the old Lake Shore Church. The book would fall open to a couple of hymns, if given the opportunity. When I mentioned that fact to her years later, she responded with, “Back then, we sang what we knew.”

Mrs. Monroe’s pump organ provided music for my family members for more than 50years. A few pedal straps were worn out and replaced, but the bellows in the organ remained as reliable and sturdy as the lady who once owned it. It was often suggested the organ should be electrified, but that would have destroyed the character of the wonderful instrument.

A few weeks ago, two of her great-great-grandsons and their father picked up the organ. It is now back with Mrs. Monroe’s family, where there are several musicians. I think she would like that.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.