Written by: Lydia Hoffman
The Davis-Ferris Tracker Organ is presently located in Round Lake, New York. In addition to being the earliest surviving and most intact example of an Antebellum three-manual instrument of American manufacture, the Davis-Ferris organ participated in and reflects sweeping trends of religion, performing arts, popular culture and recreation in developing America.
The Davis-Ferris Organ was commissioned for the new Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City in 1846 and upon completion in 1847 was one of the largest, most sophisticated instruments in America and was widely praised. The completed instrument showcased the technical and mechanical achievements of pre-Civil War American manufacturing, and American organ building in particular.
The Organ was the first to incorporate the use of zinc pipes instead of lead pipes. The use of newly available materials in the early Industrial Revolution was an innovation that affected the structural integrity of the Organ, solved age-old problems, and created a more brilliant sound. The ingenious use of near complete structural separation between the Organ’s mechanism and its decorative outer case allowed for greater separation of labor and ease of transport and installation, heralding the efficiencies of the industrial age.
For decades the Organ was an integral part of Calvary’s worship services and highly regarded music program and New York cultural life. In 1888, after years of service at Calvary changing trends in theology, American culture and ecclesiastic music led the church to sell the Organ to the Round Lake Camp Meeting Association in upstate New York.
The Davis-Ferris Organ was moved in its entirety to Round Lake, a Methodist summer community. An existing Auditorium structure was altered to receive the Organ, and there it was reassembled and remains today. The Organ anchored and accompanied summer worship and religious activities of the very popular Methodist camp meeting, in an entirely different religious setting.
Within a few years of arriving in Round Lake, the camp meeting was transitioned from a primarily religious orientation to a Chautauqua-style institution of culture, education and enlightenment. The Davis-Ferris Organ served as the anchor and emblem of the Round Lake Music Festival, a key component in this transition.
The popularity of summer resorts diminished in the early 20th century as popular culture turned to other amusements, resulting in long years of benign neglect of the organ as the resources of the Round Lake Association, and later the Village of Round Lake dwindled.
The Organ’s survival is likely due to its relocation to Round Lake and, ironically, the waning fortunes of Round Lake over the 20th century. All other examples of organs from this era that remained in situ have been lost or unrecognizably altered and “improved”. In the last part of the 20th century, piecemeal volunteer efforts began to maintain and preserve the Organ. However, a major restoration was never undertaken, and today the Organ retains over ninety percent of its original pipes and still exhibits its original faux-grained and gilded finish.
Changes made to the Organ over time have been relatively minor, but they also contribute to its significance, reflecting historical changes in musical tastes and performance practices in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since its installation at Round Lake, the Organ has been maintained in playing condition. The instrument has been tuned and repaired exclusively on an as-needed basis with only a few changes have been to replace missing components or to keep the Organ playable for today’s organists.
The core sound of the 1847 Davis-Ferris Organ remains intact 169 years after it was built. The minor changes that were made are a historic record reflecting the evolution of sacred and secular music-making during the life of the Organ. The Davis Ferris Organ today provides an aural link to persons attending a staid church service in 1847 New York, a Methodist camp meeting in the 1880s, those seeking education and enlightenment at the turn of the twentieth century and to the many organists and music-lovers over the years up to the present.