Present and Accounted For: Pilcher Activity in Brooklyn Circa 1900

Article excerpt

ANYONE INTERESTED IN THE PILCHER ORGANBUILDING FAMILY quickly learns that its members worked in many locations and professions-in two countries-over a long period of time. Some of this extensive activity is easy to trace; for instance, the American Organ Archives of the Organ Historical Society contains significant original material from Henry Pilcher's Sons of Louisville, providing a clear picture of that firm's activity in more than a half-dozen states. This firm also advertised regularly in organ journals during the early decades of the 20th century.

But Henry Pilcher's Sons is only part of the story. His brother, William - Henry Sr.'s younger son - represents another lineage entirely and pursued an entirely different professional and personal destiny. This article is concerned with William's family and its work in a hitherto-unsuspected place.

William and Henry Jr.'s parents, Henry and Frances, emigrated from England - where Henry Sr.'s brother William remained and worked as an organbuilder - and settled in the New York City area, living for a time in New Jersey and Connecticut. Eventually the family relocated to New Orleans, then St. Louis.1 The Civil War led to their moving to Chicago. The Great Fire of 1871 caused them to move yet again. This time, the two brothers-who had married the Wendover sisters-parted ways: Henry Jr. moving to Louisville, Kentucky, and William back to New Orleans.

Although the family name is not in evidence, members are known to have worked with men such as Philip Werlein,2 Lewis C. Harrison, and Myron C. Beman.3

For a quick glance at the family and its work, there exists a reference sheet compiled from available OHS resources by the late Elizabeth Towne Schmitt.4 This sheet is as complete as the information at the OHS archives at the time; it is important to note this qualification of the term "extant" in its title. Nevertheless, it is a good and helpful starting point.

There is a more complete account of the Pilcher family compiled by Schmitt along with James H. Barr HI and William H. Bauer. This volume, Henry Pilcher, 1798-1880, Founder of the Pilcher Organ Company: History of His Descendants, contains information on all members of the family, regardless of whether they worked in organbuilding. It is, in other words, genealogical in intent. As such, it would be more useful if it employed standard genealogical devices, such as the numbering of individuals and generations. The information is also compressed to the point of becoming cryptic - as in its system of documenting academic degrees - so that the raw data swamps any possible narrative. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine proceeding without this resource, and praise is due its creators. One of this author's first tasks was to create a pedigree chart, which immediately sheds a clear light on the family's divergent structure.

More to the point, the available reference materials still contain telling gaps, with several members of the family consistently unaccounted for between 1893 and 1906. Schmitt, for instance, citing Midwestern city directories, finds "[n]o firm listings between 1893 and 1905." She is obviously excluding Henry Pilcher's Sons of Louisville, whose activity during those years is well documented. Fox's entry for William H. Pilcher contains a question mark regarding his whereabouts up to 1906.5 But recently, information on some missing Pilchers from this period has come to light.

In particular, we have significant new information on the activities of William and Charles Hobart Pilcher around the turn of the 20th century. These names are missing from the city directories in St. Louis, Chicago, and Louisville because much of William Pilcher's family was living and working in Brooklyn for most if not all of the years in question. We also learn a good deal more about Dr. William H. Pilcher, an organist of some note.6 The evidence, both documentary and artifactual, is both incontrovertible and exciting. …