In 1894, Mr. W. W. Putnam of Vermont moved to Staunton to make organs. At first, he rented a room in the YMCA. Business was so good, however, that two years later he opened a factory on the east side of town. At the same time he purchase 103 West Beverley [street] to operate as a showroom for Putnam Organ Works. – Edmund D. Potter, A Guide to Historic Staunton.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the biggest, most bustling business in our home city of Staunton, Virginia was the W.W. Putnam Organ Works, which claimed to be “the largest exclusive reed organ factory in the world.” At its peak, the Putnam firm had 200 employees, and a 50,000 square foot factory, pumping out more than 6,000 pump organs (also called harmoniums, reed, or parlor organs) a year, as well as an impressive three-storey downtown showroom.
Today, that showroom is the site of a popular microbrewery, the factory is long gone, and this vital piece of Staunton’s musical past has been almost completely forgotten.
Almost, that is. Putnam parlor organs still turn up from time to time at antique shops, estate auctions, and other nooks and crannies of the Shenandoah Valley, including, on one memorable occasion, on the main stage of the Heifetz Institute!
During the final week of our 52-event 2018 Heifetz Festival of Concerts, a 101-year old Putnam organ was given pride of place in Francis Auditorium. This particular instrument was rescued from the long-abandoned Shemariah Presbyterian Church in the small nearby village of Summerdean, VA, and after careful restoration by Staunton-based historical keyboard specialist Louis Dolive, was played for the first time in four decades!
And what better piece to play than a work composed for such an instrument: The Bagatelles, Op. 47 by Antonín Dvořák. Heifetz cellist Alex Fowler explains why, and then he and fellow violinists Yuval Shem-Tov and Huier Yu join Stefan Petrov on the “mighty Heifetz harmonium” to unite Staunton’s storied musical past and vital present. Enjoy, and remember you can check out all of our Videos of the Week here!