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Organs from Westfield Found Around the Country

There are some questions from constituents that I just can’t answer.

One woman, for example, wanted to know the history of the Westfield Brickyards. And, frankly, I can’t find anything about it.

And most questions and problems repeat themselves–problems with Fast Pass, Title V regulations, applications for the new veterans cemetery, jobs on the Turnpike. And many, many more.

But one inquiry from a constituent fascinated me, so my Aide Tim Cheever did some research, and here’s the answer. Oh, the question? What do you know about organs made in Westfield?

They were made by the Johnson Organ Company, founded here in 1847 by William Allen Johnson. Johnson Organ produced 860 organs over a period spanning five decades and two generations and you still find them across the country.

William Johnson moved to Westfield with his parents when he was three. He was apprenticed to a mason as a young man and became a bricklayer and contractor by trade. He resided in Westfield on Elm Street with his wife and children.

One time, according to legend, he was plying his building skills in a church and became fascinated with the pipe organ. Johnson decided to try to build one.

Working in his own home with newly purchased tools, he completed his first organ in the winter of 1843-1844. A "parlor organ," it was much smaller than traditional church organs.

Johnson’s fascination grew and, two years later, in 1847,

he quit the contracting business to take up organ building full time.

The factory he opened on Elm Street became the birthplace of the famous Johnson Organ name.

When the Elm Street facility, at the corner of Orange, was destroyed by fire in 1871, Johnson and his son worked out of a spare room in Westfield’s First Church, until their new factory was opened in 1873. This new factory was located at the southeast end of the Great River Bridge, and housed the Johnson & Son operations until William H. sold the business in 1898. He sold to one of his employees, and the factory closed within a year.

Today, Johnson & Son organs can still be found everywhere in the Commonwealth, from the First Baptist Church in North Adams to Wesley Church in Provincetown, and many other churches in between.

Indeed, Johnson organs can be found across the entire nation. From the Methodist Church in Portland, Maine, to the Deaf, Dumb & Blind Asylum in Oakland, California. From the First Methodist Church in my home town of Sioux City, Iowa, to Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas.

I even found one in Stoddard, New Hampshire.

The first proper "church organ" built by Johnson & Son was produced in 1848 and the 860th and final Johnson & Son organ was built in 1898–a 3-manual Aeolian-Skinner, sold to St. Paul’s Church in Chicago. As an interesting historical note, 13 Johnson & Son organs were destroyed in Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871.

Johnson & Son organs were highly prized for their quality of workmanship and superior sound. In a book on Johnson & Son organs published originally in 1955, John Van Varick Elsworth lauded the Westfield-made organs. He referred to their "splendid dignity," and "pervasive power."

Indeed, according to Elsworth, "a poor sounding combination was next to impossible to achieve" with these organs’ "remarkably fine balance."

Elsworth, a native of Watertown, NY, summed up his fascination with the Johnson organs by deeming William Johnson "one of America’s greatest organ builders."

And, just one of many interesting people who have made Westfield history.


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