Pipe Dreams

Originally published in CHS Magazine on January 19th, 2007 – by Caroline Peterson

When David Salmen plays his huge pipe organ, the corn stalks in the field behind his house quake from the bellow of the pipes. South Dakota’s largest pipe organ fills one-third of a cavernous room in Salmen’s Wessington Springs farmhouse. The organ’s 3,000 pipes, ranging in size from 32 feet to one-quarter inch in length, work in unison to make the whole room vibrate.



Most days of the year, it is not this beautiful organ that Salmen is enjoying. Besides farming 3,000 acres in eastern South Dakota, he has been tuning, restoring and rebuilding pipe organs from Pittsburgh to Seattle for more than 25 years.



“I think my interest in organs stems both from growing up on a farm working on mechanical things and from my mother who was a music teacher and played the organ at our church,” he says.



Scheduled by the Weather

Salmen’s organ-focused career began early. During summers while in high school, he spent time working with an organ builder in Watertown, S.D. After earning a bachelor of music degree in organ performance from the University of Montevallo in Alabama, Salmen began an apprenticeship with the Reuter Organ Company in Lawrence, Kan. At Reuter, he received training with an emphasis in voicing, installing and maintaining pipe organs.



“I wanted to return to the Wessington Springs area after school, but I knew that I couldn’t make a living just playing organ in church on Sunday,” says Salmen. “After my apprenticeship, I was able to move back to South Dakota as a Reuter representative in the Midwest.”



In 1996, Salmen took over the management and operation of the family farm and since then has been caring for not only the fine-tuning of pipe organs but also Salmen Farms’ corn, wheat and sunflower crops. Spring and fall are his busiest seasons for both enterprises. He is usually on the farm for planting and harvest, but also makes time to visit each of the 120 organs he maintains in the spring and fall.



“Organs need to be tuned as the weather changes, so I visit most of my clients with the change of season,” says Salmen. “So both my businesses are affected by the weather.”
Salmen travels about 200 days a year maintaining organs in churches and universities across a 15-state area. Tuning these enormous instruments can be a two-hour project or an all-day affair, depending on the size of the organ.



“Some of the organs I work on have interesting histories,” says Salmen. “In the early 1900s, an organ I work on in North Dakota was stranded on a train in a snow storm en route to the church it was to be installed in. The parishioners rescued the organ with a horse and sleigh.”


Bringing Music to the Country

Besides routine maintenance of organs, Salmen also takes on about five restoration or organ-building projects each year. It takes Salmen and his team about four weeks to assemble a new organ and another three weeks to voice and tune the instrument.



“When we assemble a new organ, I usually try to work it in between the wheat and corn harvest, or in the dead of winter,” says Salmen.



When he is home, Salmen holds recitals, silent movies and Evensong events for guests and neighbors. It is not unusual for the Salmen family to have 100 people in their home, along with a 20-voice choir and an expert organist.



“We bring in guest performers such as the top organist from Julliard,” says Salmen. “Our recitals are open to the public but often there is a waiting list for seats.”



Since 2005, Salmen also has served on the board of directors for Wheat Growers Cooperative in Aberdeen, S.D. “I’ve been on many boards, but have never had the opportunity to work with a board and a cooperative with such vision and the means to make it a reality,” says Salmen. “It’s so exciting.”