This shop in Ooltewah makes some of the world’s best pipe organs
Most of us have experienced sitting in a hushed chapel as the sound of a pipe organ, rich and other-worldly, fills the air around us. For most of us, it’s unforgettable. But for some of us, it’s a life-changing event. Just ask the folks at Richards, Fowkes & Company who have been making some of the world’s best pipe organs since 1988. And they do it all right here in Tennessee.
Based in Ooltewah — on Volunteer Energy Cooperative lines — Richards, Fowkes & Company has organs in Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, Kansas and Michigan as well as London, England.
Bruce Fowkes, a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, became interested in the organ after attending a concert at the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. He studied organ at Brigham Young University and Utah State University, becoming an accomplished player. His first experience actually making organs came as an apprentice with the renowned Michael Bigelow & Company based in American Fork, Utah. He then traveled to London, where he saw countless historic English organs that were hundreds of years old. In 1983, he returned to the U.S. and worked with master organ builder Michael Bigelow of John Brombaugh & Associates, which is where he met Ralph Richards.
Bruce and wife Karla (also an organist and choirmaster in Chattanooga, where they live), have a 20-year-old son, Keaton, who also works in the family business.
Ralph Richards grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. At the age of 15, he started organ lessons and went on to study organ at Oberlin College in Ohio. There, Ralph became friends with the folks at John Brombaugh & Associates and then located in Germantown, Ohio. After a short apprenticeship, he started his own company with another partner in Tacoma, Washington. After nine years with that company, Ralph began his partnership with Bruce Fowkes.
Currently, 15 employees produce one to two organs a year for the company. The parts are precisely tooled, and the handcrafted carvings are all done by staff and crew right here in Tennessee.
Operations Manager John Brown says Richards and Fowkes chose the Chattanooga area for “the ease with which we can procure all the materials we need and because the cost of living is so good. We love this area. It’s a great place to raise a family and run a business.”
Currently, the crew at Richards, Fowkes & Company are “all hands on deck” at an installation of its largest organ to date at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. When an organ is commissioned, weeks of meetings take place to discuss the wishes of the client to ensure just the right sound and look are attained. Plans are carefully crafted and pored over before construction begins.
Pipe organs produce sound by driving pressurized air through keyboard-selected pipes. Each pipe produces its own note attained by its depth, width and shape. Much like a chorus of singers who produce individual notes that together make chords, the organ player selects notes on the keyboard, selecting induvial pipes. Most organs have multiple ranks of pipes that a player can select through the use of controls called stops. Mastery of these stops is one of the things organists say divides the pros from the amateurs and, indeed, raises the complexity of organ-playing.
As you enjoy holiday choirs this Christmas season, take particular notice of these beautiful, hand-crafted inventions that give our sanctuaries the calming notion of another world far away from the stresses and pains of every day.
“Our goal is to build pipe organs of the highest artistic merit using traditional handcrafted organ-building techniques. By studying the great masterpiece organs of northern Europe, we have incorporated the organ-building techniques that were common in all of the great masters’ work into the production of modern instruments.” Richards, Fowkes & Co. Mission Statement, Bruce Fowkes, co-owner