Milestone & Makeover: South Bridgton’s Old Bertha

By Caroline Grimm Jordan

Special to The News

Affectionately known for generations as “Old Bertha,” the historic pipe organ at the South Bridgton Congregational Church is celebrating her 140th birthday this year.

Commissioned as a gift to the church by Colonel John Putnam Perley and Squire Samuel Farnsworth Perley in 1870, Bertha’s maker, Edwin L. Holbrook of Millis, Mass., built the organ and installed it in the newly built church in 1871. An organ recital was held to test the organ on July 6 of that year and the organ was featured in the dedicatory services of the new church on July 13.

As so often happens with age, Old Bertha’s wind chest is getting a bit wheezy. The wind chest is made from wood and Bertha’s must be rebuilt due to the cracking and drying of the old wood. Each of Bertha’s fragile pure tin pipes sits atop the wind chest. Air from the bellows of the organ is forced into the wind chest and up into each pipe creating the desired notes. As the wood in the wind chest dries and cracks, the organ becomes less reliable in the sounding of those notes.

A long line of dedicated organists have cared for Bertha down the years. The current organist, Natasha Proctor, has served in this capacity since May of 1984. Her involvement with Bertha goes far beyond just playing the organ on Sunday. She serves as a curator of the historic organ, lavishing great care and concern on Bertha’s health and well-being. Proctor has spent time researching South Bridgton’s organ and other organs built by Holbrook. At this time it is believed this is the only example of Holbrook’s work that is still in original condition and being played continuously in regular church services.

Old Bertha has the distinction of having heard every sermon and hymn in the history of the church building. Before being electrified in the 1950s, she was hand pumped by young “volunteers” which led to some amusing stories. In 1935, Warren Martin was volunteered for the job of hand pumping the organ. He was trained for this daunting task by Deacon Ed Bennett. Nellie March was the organist at the time.

As Martin explained it, “A space at the right of the organ had a chair where you sat to work the pump handle, above which was a gauge that told you how much air was in the organ. So the congregation could not see you at work, this space was curtained off; this caused the area to be very dark. As you pumped air into the bellows, the gauge dropped downward. The idea was to keep this gauge halfway between the top and the bottom. If you didn’t have enough air the organ would squeak or wheeze; if there was too much air, the organ belched or groaned.”

When the Deacon left the organ closet to take up the collection, young Martin was on his own. All was well until the organist made a change with one of the organ “stops.” Because of the darkness of the closet, Martin was not able to see the gauge well. He reported that the gauge rose well above the acceptable halfway point and Old Bertha began to squeak and wheeze. Grabbing the pump handle he “made a furious effort to get things under control.” This caused the gauge to drop almost to the bottom. Martin reported that, “Old Bertha had enough of this nonsense and began to belch and wheeze.”

Martin said the members of the congregation were in hysterics and he stayed in the safety of the organ closet until the congregation departed. He and Old Bertha came to an understanding that day with the help of Nellie March and he faithfully served four years as organ pumper without Bertha uttering any additional squeaks, belches, or gargles.

Warren Martin wasn’t the only organ pumper Nellie March and Old Bertha had to contend with. During the early 1940s when the Reverend William Richmond served the church, Charlie Johnson was the organ pumper. Rev. Richmond reportedly had a flair for the dramatic and was know for his inspirational sermons. After one such sermon, Peg Normann reported that Rev. Richmond raised his arms to heaven above, expecting a rousing organ response and got not so much as a squeak from Old Bertha.

“He turned back to see what was the matter. Nellie March was fussing furiously with the keys, the flowers on her hat still quivering from the impact of her exertion. She struck the chord again as Rev. Richmond repeated his dramatic gesture…but all we heard was a deep snore from Charlie Johnson behind the organ curtain,” Normann said. “Rev. Richmond shook Charlie awake, Charlie pumped, and the organ erupted its triumphant response.”

The project ahead of the congregation and friends of the church goes beyond repairing and maintaining the organ, which needs to be completely disassembled. In 1892, members of the church built an addition on the backside of the church to house the organ upstairs and an indoor outhouse downstairs. The organ was moved from the balcony at the back or street-side of the church into its current location in the front of the sanctuary. With time that addition has developed foundation problems and has done some shifting and sinking. As the organ is disassembled and removed for repair, the addition will be shored up and strengthened. The total cost for the project is estimated to be $25,000. Church and community members will be keeping costs down by providing as much volunteer labor as possible, employing “The South Bridgton Way” they have perfected over the last few years of finishing large projects on a church mouse budget.

Fundraising events are underway including another of the church’s popular “dinner and a show” events being held on Sunday, July 17 at 5 p.m. A few tickets are still available by contacting Esther Grimm at 647-3984. The suppers are always sold out so reservations are strongly encouraged.

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