Accessibility links

Breaking News

Family Finds Niche in Crafting Pipe Organs - 2003-08-29

Mention Nashville, Tennessee and people all over the world immediately think "country music." Radio shows emanating from the famed Grand Ole' Opry spring to mind, along with the distinctive sounds of the dobro, guitar, mandolin and fiddle. But in certain circles, Nashville is equally well known for the creation of a very different kind of instrument and a sound more closely associated with the great cities of Europe.

The majestic sound of the pipe organ, an instrument little changed since its appearance in European cathedrals more than a thousand years ago. The creation of these massive, hand-made devices requires a level of old-world craftsmanship not generally associated with the United States, a nation better known for assembly line mass production.

So the rolling hills of Tennessee seem an unlikely place to find a clan of organ builders. Nonetheless, three generations of the Milnar family have found ample work creating and maintaining hundreds of pipe organs. Family patriarch and master organ builder Dennis Milnar came to his craft completely by chance. Living in rural New York State in the early 1960s, newly married and desperate for work, Mr. Milnar went looking for a job in the midst of a blinding snowstorm.

"I just started knocking on doors and went to a pop bottling factory," he said. "There was a drafting company. It was a small industrial area. Then I went up to this door and the snow was blowing and I couldn't really see what it was and it was Delaware Organ Company."

Although he was hired initially just to work in the shop, Mr. Milnar was quickly offered a seven-year apprenticeship. He learned woodworking first, then moved on to leather craft, tinsmithing and electrical wiring. The most difficult task came last, learning how to adjust the organ's "voice."

"That's the top of the scale in organ building," explained Mr. Milnar. "You have to study the physics of how air passes through a pipe, the aerodynamics of what the air does, how to adjust the aerodynamics of the pipe. They didn't teach business, though! That you had to learn on your own."

And learn he did, launching his own company in the late 1960s. He discovered there were few organ builders in the American south and so moved his young family to Nashville after just one short visit. Mr. Milnar involved his four sons in the craft early, hoping they might decide to join the business.

"Well, it's something that I've always wanted, is to have the sons involved, from early on," he said. "Derrick, my oldest, he started holding keys when he was twelve. And all of my sons had something to do, as they were growing up, with the company."

The Milnar boys enjoyed learning the family business. For one thing, it made them a frequent topic of local conversation. Todd says the neighbors didn't know quite what to make of the Milnar clan.

"When we first moved out here in the 70's, the neighbors thought we were building missiles for NASA because of these giant pipes and we put them in the barn and [they'd think,] 'What is this?'" he recalled. "It's very highly unusual and I get a little satisfaction out of we're in a kind of a niche type of market."

Unlike his older brothers, Greg decided to find job satisfaction in the corporate world. After college, he went to work for a computer company. But he soon returned to the family business, disheartened, he says, by cutthroat competition and the emphasis on short-term profit.

"You know, all through college I was working here also in the summer," he said. "And to see what the corporate life of a family business is to actually working for a corporation after college for four years is a drastic change. In the family business, you have brotherhood that you don't see in the real world."

Oldest son Derrick does the design work for each new organ. Jeff does most of the woodwork. Todd oversees the restoration of older instruments. Greg maintains the company website. Now in his 60's and starting to ease his way into retirement, Dennis Milnar is confident his sons have a firm grasp of the craft.

"When I'm gone, I feel comfortable. I don't have to be on the phone, 'What's going on? What's happening?' and they've very seldom had to call me for anything unless its some kind of emergency," said Mr. Milnar. "So yes, I'm going to feel very confident."

Mr. Milnar also has some hope that his organ company will stay in the family. One of his five grandsons is already at work in the shop. But even if the business doesn't pass to a third or fourth generation, Mr. Milnar draws great satisfaction from knowing that the instruments he creates will outlive him by decades if not centuries.

"When the acoustics of the building are right, the congregation is singing fully and the organ is leading strongly, that's a special moment where you can feel a tingling up your spine and you know that you made it, uh, were a part of that," he said. "That makes it very special. It's not a business to make a lot of money in. But it's a business that will give you warmth in your heart."

This warmth is matched only by the full, rich sound issuing from the giant base pipes of a Milnar family organ.