Group to save chapel forms

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Marcia Nelesen
Monday, October 28, 2013

JANESVILLE--As if by divine intervention, things are falling together for the chapel in Oak Hill Cemetery.

First, residents seeking to save the century-old church from demolition found stored in the basement much of the stained glass that had fallen from the windows.

Now, the owner of the original pump organ has offered to donate the instrument back to the church if the building is restored.

The Friends of Oak Hill Chapel has formed into a nonprofit organization. A website is up, and brochures have been printed.

A Saturday open house for interested residents is planned.

City staff recently recommended to the Janesville City Council that the Gothic Revival chapel be demolished because it would cost too much to fix. Residents protested, and the council gave them until February to come back with a plan to save the chapel.

Ken Conner, a member of the newly formed group, remembered a conversation he'd had with Jon and Shirley Harrie when Ken was fixing the clock in their Fremont Street home. The couple told him the pump organ in the corner had come from the chapel.

The Harries now have offered to donate the organ to the chapel after it is renovated.

Jon, who bought the organ for $5 when he worked at Oak Hill Cemetery in 1958 or so, said he feels a responsibility toward the organ, and he'd like to see it back in its original place.

Jon worked at the cemetery right after high school, mowing grass and setting sod. He recalls how “old John,” an immigrant from Germany, played the organ.

When Jon learned they were cleaning out the chapel, he offered them five bucks for the organ.

What did a 20-year-old man want with an organ?

On Monday, he looked at his wife, Shirley, and smiled before explaining that she had studied violin and organ when young.

“That was my wedding gift to her,” he said with a chuckle.

The Janesville natives have known each other since kindergarten and have been married 54 years.

“It's just one of those things,” he said in trying to describe his interest in the organ. “Something pulls on you.”

The organ is in good shape and still sounds deep and rich.

“It's got a lot of pitch,” said Shirley, playing chords on the keys.

The manufacturer was A.B. Chase of Norwalk, Ohio. The company was known for the quality sound of its instruments.

The company made organs from 1875 to about 1900. The firm won the grand prize for the quality, tone, and pedal system of their products at the 1893 World's Fair, which is about the time this organ was produced.

It is on wheels and stands about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It is likely walnut crafted in a Victorian style. It comes with a square stool and has ornate spindles, balls, fretwork and mirror. The stops have German writing.

The Harries found a wooden cigar box in a music storage area behind the stand. Inside was a paper pouch of Summer-Time tobacco. That is still there today.

Through the years, the organ has sat in one corner or another of the house. In the 1960s, it took a field trip to Craig High School, where it had a featured role in the play “Our Town.”

The Harries, both 75, have been wondering what would happen to the organ. None of their three children is interested in it, and the couple didn't want it to end up auctioned in the front yard.

“I've been wrestling with the idea of what's going to benefit the organ itself,” Jon said.

“We don't want to see the chapel neglected and forgotten, and there sits that organ, deteriorating,” she said.

Jon is involved in genealogy and appreciates history.

For now, the organ remains in the Harrie home, where it has been almost as long as its tenure in the chapel.

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