The Pipe Organ Database is the definitive compilation of information about pipe organs in North America. First started in the 1950s and targeting extant historic tracker organs, the database has since grown to cover information on pipe organs, past and present, across the continent. As the database has grown, it has existed in many different formats. The tabs below contain personal accounts, each of which tells the story of the Pipe Organ Database through the years.
In the 1950s various people began swapping typewritten lists of old trackers they'd encountered on organ crawls (or had heard about). Eventually some people began compiling them together.
I think Ed Boadway was one of the first to try to organize them by states, mostly New England and parts of Canada. Tom Eader produced lists for Maryland and DC, Bob Reich for upstate NY, Ken Simmons and Gene McCracken for eastern Pennsylvania. I did Connecticut (where I was living at the time), and so on.
Some people specialized in one builder - John Elsworth with Johnson, for example. Then a couple of west coast folks - Gene Nye and Jim Suttie - began compiling a list for the entire country that combined known organs with those on various builder worklists. Unfortunately a lot of incorrect information and hearsay got onto their lists, because much of what they were working with was second or third hand.
Eventually the OHS got involved, encouraging members all over the country to send in lists, and - long before the invention of the PC - David and Permelia Sears volunteered to enter them in a card file list. When PCs finally came along, Soosie Schmitt took it over and really worked at cleaning up and reorganizing it.
OHS Pipe Organ Database had its beginnings in 1958 when Donald R. M. Patterson, then Vice President of OHS, requested the membership to help compile "a list of all early American organs [built prior to about 1900] known to exist at the present time." Mr. Patterson was not named in The Tracker formally as chairman, but requested that the lists be sent to him.
In 1962 a committee was appointed, called the "Organ Research Committee" consisting of Barbara Owen, Edgar A. Boadway, and Alan Laufman, with Barbara Owen as chairman. The objective was to prepare lists of extant early American organs for publication in The Tracker. Maine was the first list published in The Tracker in the Summer issue of 1964 (Vol. 8, #4). Some of the other contributors to those early published were Rev. Donald C. Taylor and Robert J. Reich.
By 1965 the committee was called the Extant Organs Committee, and Alan Laufman was the chair. He led the committee for more than 12 years, with many of the state extant lists published in The Tracker. By 1970, modern trackers were included on the lists.
In 1977, when Alan Laufman became president of OHS he turned the reins of the committee over to David and Permelia Sears. David and Permelia kept the information they were sent on index cards for ease of maintaining them in order. They published the Extant Organ lists by section of the country (6 sections), organized by state. The lists were updated at intervals, and sold them to OHS members to cover the printing and mailing costs. David and Permelia continued to keep the records until 1993. By this time there were nearly 5,000 instruments on the lists and it was difficult to keep the published lists up to date.
In 1991 Council recognized that many early non-tracker instruments were slipping away from us, such as the E. M. Skinners. They authorized the Extant Organs Committee to prepare first draft lists of non-tracker organs that were then known.
By 1994 OHS National Council decided it was time to put the Extant Organs lists on computer. Donald R. Traser in Richmond undertook the task of transferring the information on the Sears index cards into a computer database.
I became the chairman of the Extant Organs Committee in 1994. The Richmond office sent the computer files they had compiled to me. I then transferred the information to an MS Access database, and expanded the types of information on each instrument that could be entered, including stoplists. Organs with all types of actions were entered. The "cut-off" date that was set, with Council approval, was World War II.
It soon became clear that some instruments were listed more than once in the database, due to confusion over church or town names, movements of organs from one church to another, etc. Many of these entries were combined into one entry. Where an organ had been rebuilt or moved to a new location, a means of linking the entries for a given organ was provided before and after a rebuild or for the same organ in different locations. Zipcode information was added to all the entries where possible, which made it possible to select out portions of a state.
In addition I compiled similar tables for information on organs that were no longer extant. This was primarily used for odds and ends of data that came to hand, and could be difficult to locate again such as old newspaper clippings and transcripts of information from old Episcopal diocese records. No attempt was made to acquire the information. Information on the occasional post-World War II organ that was sent to me by members was entered into a 3rd table of modern instruments.
Organs that were "lost" were formerly removed from the Extant Organs lists. With the database, however, they were not removed from the database, but instead that information was incorporated into the entry. So the name was changed to the OHS Pipe Organ Database to reflect that change.
In 1996, the information contained in the database was condensed into compact entries, printed by OHS and mailed to the entire membership. It was presented, on newsprint, as a draft or working document. OHS members were asked to check the document for inaccuracies and forward the information to me. A great deal of information came in as a result of this document.
In 1997 David Schnutte of Hot Springs, SD volunteered to extract information from The Tracker on extant organs mentioned there, but not entered into the database. Additional material was entered from The American Organist (new AGO magazine), The Organ Handbook (OHS convention handbooks), and similar sources. Data was noted from articles, advertisements, meeting announcements, position available ads, etc. that indicated the existence of an organ that could be clearly identified. Sand Lawn, George Nelson and David Scribner were added to the committee.
With the use of e-mail spreading, much of the collection and dispersal of information from the database was sent through the Internet. Lists from the database organized by state, or city, or builder, were easily compiled and forwarded to OHS members and others who requested information. These were sent out in database format, spreadsheet format, or in a text format determined by the requester. During this period we began to look into ways to place the entire database onto the Internet. The first forays in that direction fell through for various reasons.
In 2003, OHS member James Cook began a correspondence with the Richmond office. He had preliminary plans to develop a pipe organ database on the Internet and didn't want to compete with OHS or interfere with OHS plans. The correspondence was forwarded to the OHS Database Committee members. We proposed to Jim that he and OHS join forces and provide the contents of the OHS Pipe Organ Database to him and cooperate with him in placing the data on the Internet under OHS sponsorship. The database, as it stood then, was forwarded to Jim Cook later that fall, and he began the arduous task of converting the database for use on the Internet, while retaining the ability to continue to add information to the database in the interim. Jim was formally added to the OHS Database Committee as a joint chairman in early 2005.
Editor's Note: Elizabeth Towne 'Soosie' Schmitt lost a long-standing battle with cancer in 2007. The content of the Database that is accessed through this website is firmly rooted in her contributions and is a lasting tribute to the value of her contributions to OHS.
I didn't join the OHS until the late 1990s, and I must have been in a fog during the first couple of years of membership. By 2003, I had only heard that there was an OHS Pipe Organ Database, and I had never seen any data from it. To me it was only a rumor, because my association with the Society hadn't put me in contact with any of the published lists. So at the second OHS Symposium on organ research, I was particularly intrigued by references to its existence. As I began to formulate a proposal for a Sabbatical research project, I made contact with the OHS Council, and through them the Database Committee. In the end, after several conversations, I received a copy of the OHS Database from Soosie Schmitt in August of 2004 and started the process of putting its contents on line.
The more time I spend with the database, the more I realize the degree to which its present form, and especially its content, was determined long before I started working on the project. I am repeatedly amazed when I discover another hidden gem of information, and I marvel at the attention to detail evident at every turn. Every time I think that I once planned on doing something like this by myself, starting from scratch, I realize how fortunate I am that things didn't turn out that way!
I hope this database will be a readily accessible, reliable and content-rich resource for anyone who is interested in the organ in the United States. The scope of the database was enlarged by vote of the OHS National Council in March, 2005, giving the database the potential to become the largest and most valuable online organ resource in the world. This potential will be realized, however, only with the continued participation and contribution of organ scholars on a widespread basis, continuing the practice that generated both this database and the OHS itself. It is that spirit of cooperation in service of the instrument that makes the OHS an important force today, and will surely lead to further development of this resource in the future. And it's that cooperative spirit that I hope you see on every page.
I have been an active user of the Pipe Organ Database for many years. In August of 2019 I reached out with a question about a feature request and that was how I became aware of the state of the old database website. I decided to offer my help if it was needed, and in January of 2020, I began work on what would become this new website.
While the original plan was to put a new interface on the old database, I soon realized that it would make much more sense to start over completely. For the next 4 months, I designed and built a database and interface that would look better, allow us to grow even faster, and expand on the types of submissions we could accept.
Released in April of 2020, I hope this website will continue to foster learning in the pipe organ field. I have always seen it as a very valuable asset and feel honored to now be a part of its long history.