One of Florida’s Oldest Organs in Continual Use — and the Man Who Keeps It Alive

| By Kathryn Deen |

Majestic. Powerful. Traditional.

That’s how Hugh Dial describes one of Florida’s oldest organs in continual use. And he’s the man who keeps the 1844 Pilcher pipe organ alive at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in downtown Clermont.

Perhaps you could say they complete each other.

For 19 of the organ’s 175 years, the two have danced. They’ve logged about 2,000 hours together in weekly services alone.

It’s not a common instrument these days, but Hugh fell in love with playing organ at the young age of 13. He was living in Concord, North Carolina, and the church organist at Forest Hill United Methodist Church took him under her wing.

“I was fascinated,” Hugh said.

He subbed at that church until he graduated high school and became a music major in piano at High Pointe College and then at UNC Greensboro. All the while, he continued playing organ at churches on the side.

After graduate school, he moved to Edenton, North Carolina, where he spent 11 years playing organ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church part time.

He received his Master of Music in Organ at Norfolk State University in Virginia Beach and then found his way to Florida in 1996 — Orlando, Davenport, and now unincorporated Clermont.

He’s been with Disney for about as long as he’s been with St. Mattias, working in merchandising. He’s retiring from Disney — but he’ll play organ “as long as he can.” After all, it’s in his blood.

He loves picking music for the diverse congregation at St. Matthias.

“It’s great fun,” he said. “We get to do some music from Africa, America and some Island music.”

It’s a small church that draws under 200 people at its peak service. It faces an apartment complex and lies just east of Clermont City Hall on Montrose Street, the main vein of the historical area’s quaint shops and restaurants. Beyond worship services, Hugh plays for the congregation’s highs and lows — weddings and funerals.

But getting comfortable on this particular organ took some adjustments.

“It’s very small,” he said.

For starters, it has one keyboard, while most organs have at least two. And it has no solo stop. Plus, it’s a tracker organ, a product of the 16th century whose pipes move mechanically, as opposed to electronically. That makes the keyboard’s 54 ivory and ebony keys feel particularly light and sensitive.

“I just adapt,” Hugh said.

The silver lining?

“Because it is so small, it has a limited sound that’s perfect for this building,” Hugh said.

Hugh marvels at this particular organ’s bright sound, walnut accents and rich history. Made by Henry Pilcher in New York in 1844, you’ll find it today registered with the national Organ Historical Society.

Originally in a church in Prattsville, N.Y., it moved many years later to another Episcopal church in Cobbleskill, N.Y. and then to a Lutheran church in Andover, Mass. In 1996, it found a new home in a private residence in Grafton, Vermont.

Hugh’s predecessor organist and choirmaster at St. Matthias, David Perkins, discovered the organ for sale in 1999. St. Matthias bought it for about $5,500 with an insured value of $75,000. David and his brother, Harley, dismantled and transported it to Clermont about 50 years after the church purchased its property. Several volunteers, including the Rev. Michael Stichwech, reassembled the organ in less than a week. It stands about 11 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

Once it came to St. Matthias, Darwin Klug, an organ technician with D.E. Klug and Associates, Lakeland, became its fixer. He had foot pedals added (there were none) and sawed three of its wooden pipes to fit it into the cubby just left of the altar. He calls it “a little gem.”

The church is proud of all they’ve poured into it, and staff is sure to include a stop at the organ in their church tours.

“It’s the continuation of ‘to God be the glory,’” he said. “It’s part of me to be a church musician and lead other people in singing and praising God.”

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Have a listen while Hugh plays one of Florida’s oldest organs continual use at St. Matthias in Clermont.

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