HIGHLAND • Hands shot up when Scott Wick asked a couple of dozen schoolchildren how many pipe organs his family’s company has produced.
“One thousand, six hundred,” a boy answered confidently.
Sorry, not even close.
With a hint of a smile, Wick told the visitors from Holy Childhood School, in Mascoutah, the number since Wicks Organ Co. began production in about 1906 is 6,476 — and counting.
For a time, the counting stopped.
Four years ago, Wicks decided to end production of custom-built organs and shift to providing parts, maintenance and repairs. Behind the retrenchment was the recession, which lightened church collection plates, and the rise of “praise bands” at churches that had abandoned traditional organ music to embrace more modern sounds of guitars, drums and horns.
The company has shriveled from its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, now occupying only a small part of its factory in Highland. But the lights never went out and the company pulled out all the stops — so to speak — to reinvent itself.
Wick, 50 and the third generation of his family to run the company, led the soul searching. The economy had rebounded and demand for repair work remained strong so why not keep doing what Wicks had done for a century?
“We decided to keep building organs,” he said.
Construction methods are largely unchanged but the business model is new.
Some former employees, many with decades of experience, are now Wicks subcontractors. The company — down to only 18 employees and subcontractors — saves on salaries and the subs are free to work elsewhere while doing piecework for their former full-time employer. An example is a longtime former employee who bought the Wicks pipe-building shop.
“This way, he keeps his skills honed and keeps all his equipment in place,” Wick said.
Still, the U.S. pipe organ industry is in slow decline. Wicks once had 140 workers who turned out more organs in a year than the entire industry’s current annual output of about 50 instruments, Wick said.
After resuming production, Wicks put organ number 6,475 in service this year at White Plains United Methodist Church, in Cary, N.C. Installation of the $560,000 organ with 1,844 pipes began last year. Next came a $700,000 project, organ number 6,476 (Opus in industry lingo) for Christ United Methodist Church, in Rochester, Minn.
(Opus 1, a hand-pumped organ built before 1906, sits in the Wicks showroom and remains playable.)
The company’s newest organ, Opus 6,477, is a relatively modest $140,000 instrument built for St. Mary’s Church, nearly destroyed in a fire on Christmas Eve 2011. Flames sparked by an electrical short circuit in the attic gutted the church in Brussels, Ill., but parish members rallied to rebuild the brick structure erected in 1863.
Modeled to fit the spot of an older Wicks organ, Opus 1772 from 1938, that was destroyed in the fire, the new St. Mary’s organ is scheduled to begin service today at a celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Don Roberts, said the new organ is a key part of the $2.75 million building restoration done by HBD Construction, of St. Louis. HBD brought back the church’s appearance. Wicks restored its sound.
“Everything that’s gone back is to reach harmony with the architecture of the church,” Roberts said.
The pastor added that choosing a new Wicks was easy because the company had maintained the previous organ. Wicks Opus 6,477 “just looks great from what I can see,” Roberts said.
“I’m very pleased,” he added.
Even as the new-construction part of the organ industry shrinks, thousands of the big, complex instruments still need repair and maintenance. Wick estimates that more than half of his company’s organs remain in operation.
Richard “Ric” Parsons, president of the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America, said more churches are investing in organ upkeep, providing the industry a boost.
“From what our members are seeing, the industry is tracking with the economy,” he said. “It’s getting slowly better.”
Parsons, who also is president of Parsons Pipe Organ Builders, in Canandaigua, N.Y., said some churches are rediscovering the majesty of traditional organ music.
“It’s interesting to watch the pendulum swing on changing tastes,” he said. “It’s coming back toward tradition in all parts of worship.”
Parsons has a standard line for church officials thinking of discarding an organ: “Don’t do it. You’re going to want it back.”
At the reinvented Wicks, efficiency is important.
It shares with a companion firm, Wicks Aircraft Supply, the Sitka spruce used in some organ pipes. Wicks Aircraft, a producer of kits to build small airplanes, found that the spruce is ideal for making spars and other wing parts.
Unless Wicks invents a flying organ, only 1 percent of organ industry business will continue to come from homeowners. Wick said schools make up another 1 percent while churches provide 98 percent of the revenue. “Dozens and dozens” of recent inquiries from churches show Wicks is reviving, he added.
“I think some of them will come through,” Wick said.
Another sign of the company’s resurgence is the return of schoolchildren on field trips. Students from Holy Childhood School recently got a tour that included a brief concert by Joan Schuetz on a 1950s Wicks organ (Opus 3011) the company is refurbishing for a church in New Baden, Ill.
Schuetz, a church organist in Highland and former Wicks employee who volunteers to play for visiting schoolchildren, worked the keys and foot pedals as organ music thundered in the factory section that has a 45-foot ceiling.
Back in the day, the high ceiling was needed to accommodate the company’s largest organ pipes. No order for such a $1 million behemoth is in hand, Wick said.
“No, none right now, but we’re looking for some,” he said.