By Steve Guntli
You won’t find a television anywhere in Don Stagg’s modest ranch house on H Street Road. You won’t find any computers; Stagg’s never had one and he says he never wants one. What you will find is a library’s worth of vintage books, antiques from around the world and more than 40 beautiful examples of his one true passion: pipe organs.
Stagg has been playing music and collecting instruments his entire life. At 85 years old, he is still brimming with energy and enthusiasm, and clearly takes a great deal of pride in the artifacts he’s acquired over the years. Stagg has a musical instrument in nearly every room of his house except for the bathroom, though he said it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“I just couldn’t get that damn bathtub out of the way,” he joked.
He owns multiple grand pianos, harpsichords, clavichords and even vintage music boxes, but the collection is easily dominated by pipe organs. Stagg estimates he has approximately 40 organs scattered throughout his house and workshop. Most were given to him after they broke down, or after a church decided to switch to an electronic alternative.
The centerpiece of Stagg’s collection is a massive Johnson pipe organ from 1850, which looms large over the other half-dozen instruments in Stagg’s living room. The hulking organ is set in a wooden frame, with gold-painted pipes adorned with small cupid figurines along the top. As Stagg fires up the mechanized bellows to play, the pipes ring in clear, lovely tones throughout the house.
“I remember feeling an instant connection,” he said. “I started playing and you’d think I’d been playing for ages.”
Stagg spent nearly 40 years trying to convince the church to let him have the old organ, but when they finally gave it to him in the late ’70s, he had to put it in storage.
“I was living in an apartment at the time,” he said. “There was no way I was going to fit it.”
Stagg dreamed of owning a space large enough to accommodate his collection. After deciding to retire in Blaine, he looked for a place that was isolated so he could play his organs as loudly as he wanted. Needing to make some modifications, he added a high-ceiling extension onto his living room in order to fit in the Johnson organ and several pianos. The room is situated above his workshop where the large bellows needed to power the organs are set up.
Stagg is also the proud owner of several instruments that he says can’t be found anywhere else. He has a square grand piano that once belonged to a territorial governor of Montana and a dual harpsichord he says is one of a kind. It was custom built for Stagg and his concert partner, Joyce Rawlings. He also has a gorgeous concert grand piano and a custom-made clavichord, a keyboard instrument that sounds like the hammering technique on a guitar. Stagg has carefully restored and meticulously tuned each one.
Stagg started taking piano lessons in 1935, and he hasn’t stopped playing since.
He credits music for taking him “around the world three times over.” He earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s in music and lived in Europe as well as Australia, where he befriended the pipe organist for the Sydney Opera House.
He’s played Carnegie Hall in New York, conducted for the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and taught music and math at schools in Montana, Alaska and British Columbia. He worked in a pipe organ factory, learning the complex inner workings of the instrument and was a church organist in one place or another for more than 60 years. And he’s still not done: he plays music for various retirement homes and restaurants throughout the area whenever he can.
Stagg said his passion for music sometimes interfered with the rest of his life. He never married, and once called off an engagement because he couldn’t find the time in his schedule. His former fiancé, Clarice, eventually married, but she and Stagg remain close friends to this day. He never had kids, and prefers to think of his instruments as his children. Still, Stagg has no regrets.
“There’s just never enough time in the day,” he said. “But I love it. And I figure, why don’t we just do what we like? We spend so much time trying to conform, and then the things we’re supposed to be conforming to completely change, so why bother?”
Even now, Stagg is still acquiring organs for his collection.
“I just got a call yesterday, and they’re going to drop off another one for me tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll have to try to make room.”
Friends have often asked him over the years what will happen to his collection after he’s gone; whether they’ll go to schools or museums or friends. His answer?
“It’s very simple,” he said. “I’m just not going to die.”