I just learned that John Wessel passed away early Tuesday.
I met John through the Estey Organ Museum. He had worked at the Estey Organ Company in the pipe organ department, lived in Esteyville, and continued to build and restore organs after the company closed.
He would drop by the museum often, usually with some helpful criticism of how things were being done or displayed. He caught some errors for us, helped with events, attended everything, and was featured in the museum newsletter. He also helped repair organs and advise the museum on organs in the collection. He participated in round table discussions with other former employees. He also told some amazing stories.
One day he told me about being a child in Holland as the Nazi’s were invading his country. He described hiding on an upper floor and looking down through the floorboards as German soldiers came into the house to round people up and take them away. My heart was pounding just hearing about it.
He laughed about the prison train they loaded with people. It would start out of the town and begin a long slow climb up a hill. Everyone would jump out and come back to town, he told me.
He said food was extremely scarce and described to me how he caught a sparrow with a trap to have some meat to eat.
Fast forward a bit and we’d working in Brattleboro at the Estey Organ Company, who hires a german organ builder to be his boss. One can imagine the tension that caused.
These memories stuck with him his entire life, and he kept up a distrust of Germans to the end. He was always nice to me, but I’m not sure if he fully trusted me due to my last name. It didn’t matter, and we got along. He was happy to answer any question and teach me how organs were built.
He began his career at age 13 learning all aspects of organ building. In his early 30’s he took a job with the Estey Organ Company. Wessel was the only employee of the Estey Organ Company to continue steady work on organs for his entire life after the company closed in 1960.
John’s specialty was voicing organ pipes, a process of taking a set of pipes in production and adjusting parts of it to make it sing rather than simply make noise. He knew the different sounds that could be made from various metals and woods, understood the wind requirements, and knew tricks of the trade to get the voice he was after.
John’s garage was an Estey museum in its own right. He had a fully functioning organ workshop with all the tools of the trade, as well as some rare and specialized tools. He knew the insides of Estey pipe organs better than anyone.
John Wessel was a very smart, sweet person and will be missed. I certainly won’t forget him.