Hook & Hastings Organ Factory

Major change came to the district in the late 1880s when the firm of E. and G.G. Hook and Hastings, nationally known manufacturer of church and concert hall organs, moved from Roxbury to Weston– to a large wooden factory in a farm field at the corner of Viles Street and the Fitchburg Railroad tracks.8 Hook and Hastings was the largest industry ever established in Weston and moved to town when many small local mills were closing. At a time when the town’s population was about 1,700 persons, the factory employed over 70 workers; and its presence influenced not only the Kendal Green area but also the economy of the town as a whole.

Because of the organ factory, Kendal Green developed somewhat differently from other parts of Weston. Because factory worker housing was scattered within the Kendal Green Historic District and just outside its boundaries, the area does not have the appearance of a “company town.” Nevertheless, almost one quarter of the district’s housing stock is made up of small houses on small lots built in the 1890s by and for workers. The center, south, and northwest sections of Weston tended to be more popular locations for large estates–a preference which reflects the impact not just of the factory but also of the railroad and busy North Avenue. The factory was quite compatible with existing farms, some of which remained in operation until the 1950s.

The history of the organ factory begins in 1827, when Elias Hook (1805-1881) and his brother, George G. Hook (1807-1880), formed the organ building firm of E. and G.G.Hook. By the 1850’s, the company was located on Tremont Street in Roxbury and was the largest organ factory in the country. Francis Henry Hastings (1836-1916) joined the firm in 1855 at age 19. Hastings had grown up in Weston in the “Hastings Homestead” at 199 North Avenue (Map #14, MHC 14), and received his only formal education at the nearby District School #4. He left school at age 14 to work as an apprentice, making tools in a machine shop, and five years later took a job at the Hook factory. His mechanical ability and business acumen proved valuable and in 1866, the Hook brothers took him into the firm as a co-partner, later changing the name to “E. and G.G. Hook and Hastings.” In 1880 and 1881 the Hook brothers died, and Hastings purchased their share of the business. Long after their deaths, Hastings kept the prestigious “Hook” name–even when the firm was reorganized as a corporation in 1893.

Not long after Hastings took over control of the company, he moved his residence to Weston, to a fashionable new Shingle Style house built on family farmland almost directly across from his childhood home. The house, with the picturesque name “Seven Gables,” still stands at 190 North Avenue (Map #31, MHC 16). Across the street, he built a stable (191 North Avenue, Map #13, MHC 15) and caretaker’s house (189 North Avenue, Map #12, MHC 17).

In 1887, Hastings began building the west wing of a new organ factory located just a few hundred yards from his house. As the town had no zoning regulations, nothing prevented construction of a factory amidst farm fields, nor did local residents seem to object. The company moved to the new building in 1889 and the east wing was added in 1891.

Postcards and photographs document the appearance of the huge wooden building, torn down in 1936. The three-story structure had an 80-foot long center section with a hip roof plus the two flat-roofed 100-foot wings. The complex included a lumber storage shed and railroad spur line used to bring lumber and materials directly onto the property and load finished organs onto railroad cars for shipment throughout the country. Inside the factory were rooms for the manufacture of wood and metal pipes, mill rooms where fine cabinets were constructed to house the organs, and a “Voicing Room” where employees perfected the individual sounds of each stop and the proper blending of the whole. The finished organs could be assembled in the monumental central “finishing” or “erecting” room, where hundreds of employees and neighborhood residents would assemble for a concert before an important organ was dismantled and crated for shipment.

Numerous reasons have been put forward as to why Hastings chose to move the factory to Weston. His parents were growing older (his mother died in 1888 and his father in 1889). Family farmland now available for new uses was conveniently located on the railroad line. Hasting’s only child was sickly and might benefit from the rural air. Labor troubles may also have been a factor. In an article in the Boston Herald in 1890, Hastings outlined his hope to create both a harmonious work-place and community at Kendal Green. Histories of the company indicate that he succeeded in avoiding the strikes which were endemic to the period.

The Boston Herald discussed at length the harmonious relations between Francis H.Hastings and workers at his factory and how the community which grew up around the factory “represents almost the ideal of relations between man and man.”9 It described how Hastings helped workers who decided they wanted to live in the Weston rather than commuting back to Boston on the train each night. He built the cottages, “renting them for less than you could get two or three rooms in the city” for rental periods of one year. He purchased existing houses and rented them to employees. He also encouraged the men to buy their own land and build their own houses, thus becoming “resident proprietors.” According to this article, Hastings laid out White Lane–now the south end of Brook Road– and sold the lots for a moderate price, asking only that houses be built within two years and that none cost less than $1000. This stipulation was made “as much in the interest of the men as of Mr. Hastings, for the better the house, the more assured the value of the property.” Hastings helped by grading the land and assisting with finding a water supply.

The factory employed highly skilled craftsman, many of whom worked for the company for decades. Hastings once remarked that “a large factory like ours must comprise almost every branch of mechanics…workmen in wood, in metal, in leather, knowledge of music and acoustics, architecture, electricity, pneumatics, hydraulics….”10 Scandinavians, particularly Norwegians and Swedes, were well-represented in the workforce.

The Kendal Green Historic District contains three groups of cottages built by Hastings or by employees themselves. Another cluster of three double cottages is located on Lexington Street just outside the district (MHC 183). According to newspaper sources, workers’ cottages were deliberately scattered on three different farms owned by Hastings to avoid the appearance of a “factory town.” The first worker housing to be built were the two double houses at 126 and 130 Viles (Map #22 and 21, MHC 184 and 185) and three cottages on Lexington Street, built in 1887 when the factory was still under construction. A third house of a different style called the “Block House ”(since demolished) was already located on Viles Street close to the railroad tracks and had four three-room apartments for factory workers.

In 1893, Hastings built the three cottages on North Avenue (#225,227 and 231 North Avenue, Map #17,18,19, MHC 186-188) and also #6 “White Lane,” which was one of the row of houses on what is now Brook Road. By 1895, seven houses on White Lane housed factory employees (now 75 to 87 Brook Road, Map #30-25, MHC 189-195) One of these was purchased from its first owner, a Mr. Andrews, in 1895. The Andrews House is believed to be 81 Brook Road (Map #28). A reservoir built in the woods on the west side of Cat Rock Hill supplied water to workers cottages and factory buildings.

Hastings also built Hastings Hall, a community center used by both employees and neighborhood residents. Hastings Hall, which was demolished in 1944, was located on the west side of Viles Street just north of the railroad tracks. The two-story building had meeting rooms used for entertainments and lectures, a reading room with daily and weekly papers, journals and magazines, a small library, and a room for games. Near the hall was the large playing field which now belongs to the Town of Weston (Map #24) and was used, when the factory was in operation, for events like company baseball games against the rival Waltham Watch Company.

Hastings was the driving force behind many major community social events beginning with the 1893 reunion of the North Avenue School. The one-room schoolhouse, which was used until the 1930s and has since been demolished, was located on the north side of North Avenue just southeast of the three North Avenue worker’s cottages. The schoolhouse was built in the early 1850s to replace an earlier one-room schoolhouse which appears on the 1795 map at the same location. Francis Henry Hastings himself received all his formal education in the 18th century schoolhouse. At the reunion, visitors played badminton on his lawn and a reported five hundred former students and their families and guests enjoyed a catered supper served under a large tent on the Hastings property. Six years later, at age 62, Hastings married the schoolmistress, Miss Anna Coburn, who was then 46 years old.

The company frequently sponsored recitals showcasing newly completed organs and, in 1904, held a banquet and recital at Hastings Hall for employees and their families to celebrate the completion of the company’s 2,000th organ. In 1906, when Hastings was 70 years old, his employees gave him a party reportedly attended by 300 neighbors and friends who gathered at “Seven Gables.” Seventy-one employees signed an engraved testimonial recognizing not only his important influence on the community but also his position as “head of his profession–that of The Art of Organ Building.” Hastings died in 1916 and was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Arthur Coburn, who had joined the company as Secretary of the Corporation and Superintendent in 1897.

In its 108 years of operation in Boston and Weston, E.and G.G.Hook and Hook and Hastings produced an estimated 2614 organs ranging in size from eight to 80 feet and costing from $900 to $40,000 or more. The company made 650 organs for churches and halls in Massachusetts, including instruments for the Tremont Temple (1845, 1853, 1880), Church of the Immaculate Conception in Boston (1863), First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston (1906, 1928), and St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston (1921). Their works were known for superior standards of craftsmanship and are considered among the finest examples of 19th and early 20th century organ building. Organs such as the one built for the Cincinnati Music Hall in 1877–with its four manuals, 96 speaking registers, and 6237 pipes–were the largest in the country when built. Such organs attracted widespread public attention, and the firm’s ability to handle the problems of producing and installing large instruments contributed to its fame.

After Hastings death in 1916, management of the company passed to Arthur Coburn, president, Norman Jacobsen, vice-president and supervising designer, and Alfred R. Pratt, secretary and superintendent– all associates of Hastings for two decades. In the late 1920s, the company built its most famous modern organ, the “Rockefeller Organ” for the Riverside Church in New York City. The instrument required one year to construct at the factory and nine-months to install the 20 truckloads of organ parts. It contained 167 stops, 2900 magnets, and 22,000 contacts, and the wires, if placed end to end, would extend a distance of more than 100 miles.

The following accolade was written by the organist and choir director after the job wascompleted in 1931:

In this age of mass production and constantly increasing mechanization of life, it is encouraging to find at least one group of highly skilled artisans such as your company has, who put into their work the best that is in them, and who obviously regard the construction of an organ as a work of art and not merely a commercial ‘job’.

Despite its continued reputation for excellence, the factory closed not long thereafter. Talking pictures had eliminated the need for organ accompaniment, and municipal and church budgets were drastically reduced during the Depression. After A.L.Coburn died in 1931, the company continued for a few years under Alfred Pratt and then closed its doors in 1935. In 1936 thefactory building was demolished by a professional wrecking company.

The history of firefighting in the Kendal Green district is, not surprisingly, linked to the history of the Hook and Hastings and its large wooden factory building. Francis Hastings was instrumental in the establishment of fire protection services in the area; and firefighting apparatus was stored in the Hastings Barn until 1908, when the Kendal Green Fire Station was built (Map #32, MHC 240). This station was used only until 1917, when it was closed because of World War I to save money. By that time motorized fire trucks from the town center could reach the northside. Local tradition holds that the reinforced concrete fire station, which is sited directly at the edge of the road pavement, was part of a decade-long effort to prevent the establishment of a trolley line along North Avenue.

Although the tannery and later the organ factory were major industries in the Kendal Green area, they do not appear to have detracted from the picturesque quality of the rural landscape. Late 19th century photographs show the factory set within a landscape of rolling hills and open fields divided by stone walls, with many fewer trees than exist today.

Beginning in the early 19th century, this pastoral landscape attracted city dwellers during the summer. The earliest known summer resident was Deacon Samuel Barrett, who lived in the house that Jonas Hastings tore down in 1823. In the late 1870s, Boston wool merchant Albert L. Brown and his wife, Mary, purchased several parcels totaling 60 acres extending from North Avenue to the railroad tracks and the Waltham town line and also including the old tanyard (Map #1) and part of Hobbs Pond, which became known as Brown’s Pond. The Browns built a large clapboard house in the Italianate style where they spent each summer (70 North Avenue, Map #40, MHC 28). Brown laid out private roads through the woods and fields of his estate so the family could drive their guests around in carriages without being inconvenienced by traffic on the road. Although the family returned to Cambridge each winter, local residents used Brown’s Pond for skating and cutting ice.

Those who could not afford their own country place could stay at the Drabbington Lodge (Map #7, MHC 22), Weston’s most important summer resort hotel, established in the 1890s by George A. Thurston and his wife Sarah, who came from Drabbington, England. Initially, the operation was housed in a picturesque early farmhouse and barn which burned to the ground in 1898 and was replaced by the present Shingle Style structure designed by architect Frank W. Weston in 1899. The lodge had an open porch across the front, first floor reception rooms, parlors, sitting and dining rooms, and about 30 bedrooms on the second and third floors, with two bathrooms on each floor.13 The location on North Avenue combined all the advantages of the country within easy commuting distance of the city. According to early advertisements, the lodge was “delightfully located on high land, where cool breezes blow in the summer and a charming view may be had all the year around. There is every opportunity there for golf, tennis, croquet and other amusements, while the ample gardens furnish a supply of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as flowers.” The lodge had its own nine-hole golf course behind the inn. As described in a local anecdotal history,Once Upon a Pung, “well-to-do people would spend several weeks there rocking on the porch, playing golf, or walking….” Newspaper clippings from the early 20th century gave the names of guests arriving each week, usually from Boston. In the early 20th century, Drabbington Lodge was also open during the winter, with coasting and sledding as two favorite activities.

The “Thurston Cottage” to the west of the lodge at 153 North Avenue (Map #9, MHC 20) was built in 1902 and used as overflow guest quarters and the Thurston family summer home. In 1904, the Thurstons built the “Bungalow,” (147 North Avenue, Map #8, MHC 21) a rustic log cabin style house reportedly used as the family’s winter residence. Postcards show the log cabin labeled as the “Drabbington Annex.” In the height of the season, all three buildings were filled. The stable for the lodge was located across the road until it burned down in 1928. Sarah Thurston died in 1910 and a year later, George married Lenore Allen. Lenore ran the inn from the time of her husband’s death in 1923 until about 1935.