Siouxland Stories: Lake City company makes pipe organs played around the world

Siouxland Stories

LAKE CITY, Iowa (KCAU) — To the human eye, Lake City, Iowa looks like most Siouxland communities. City Hall, water tower, dusty streets. But to the ear, this community offers something unique.

One of a kind, in fact, in the Hawkeye state.

Since 1974, around two dozen professionals at the Dobson Organ Company have been designing and handcrafting pipe organs in this town of 1,700.

“Most people are surprised. I thought they didn’t make them anymore. I thought they were all electronic, especially surprised to hear they are made here in Lake City, Iowa, that’s for sure,” said John Panning, who now owns the business. “Literally 100’s of pieces shown on a drawing.”

Making music in small-town churches and worldly cathedrals from Oxford England to Saint Thomas Church New York City, a six-figure masterpiece can start with just a thousandth of an inch of metal.

“Pipe metal looks like this when we get it. Sheets of different thicknesses,” says John Panning.
“Everyone has a different dimension all cut from flat sheets wrapped around forms soldered around them.”

There can be thousands of pipes ranging in size from smaller than a pencil to as big as a utility pole.

“Thin piece of brass hard to see slight curve so it vibrates when air passes by. This wire determines how much of the tongue can vibrate which changes the pitch,” Panning said.

Call it an oversized thousand-piece puzzle.

“Good thing the people that build it are the ones who put it together. Pretty hard to tell someone or explain to somebody else how it all goes together,” Panning said. “All the pipes are stored in trays like this. This is what it looks like done with the different length diameter makes them speak properly.”

No organ exactly like the one built before it. Each with its own footprint.

“This is the toe board.  Everywhere you see a hole there will be a pipe standing there,” said Panning. “This organ has 1,800 different pipes so 1,800 different holes. All carefully fitted.”
       
On its own, a pipe is pointless but linked to a key or foot peddle, it comes to life.

“Each of these is connected to a key in the keyboard,” said Panning. “The linkage runs down and right through the floor and then across up into the organ.”

“This is the woodshop where all wood parts are made. There’s nothing unique to organ building.
Timbers of Mahogany, Oak, Cherry, Walnut, and Maple provide a big box for the pipes or whistles,” said Penning. “We use bones from cows to make the keys. Sharp keys are still ivory.”

When the pipe makers, voicers, draftsmen, and cabinetmakers finish their work, it’s on to the erecting room, where organs with pipes as tall as 32 feet come together.

“Being built for St. Christopher’s Church in Massachusetts,” he said.

 “As tall as this room we have had 8 or 10 organs that didn’t fit because been larger than the room,” Panning said.

Cables, connectors, linkage, and loovers all filling the massive cabinet.

“Really unusual thing because of the size. Same beautiful piece of wood you’d have in a beautiful piece of furniture but we’re building it the size of a house,” Panning says.

Each organ with its own personality. In a world filled with quick fixes and instant gratification, you could say the Dobson Organ Company in Lake City is a counter-culture success story.

“We build something that’s going to last a century or more. Everything is made to throw away not last. Doing this is really very different than everything being made today.  So when dedicated at the end and you hear it, it is really incredibly and satisfying that it’s going to last a long time,” said Panning.

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