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A true zest for life

Starbuck couple’s lives enhanced by hobbies, positive thinking

By Faith Anderson

Harry Blok has collected dozens of name plates from the many pipe organs he’s worked on. Most of the plates contain the name of the organ’s manufacturer and sometimes the city and state. Photo by Faith Anderson

It’s been said that everyone should have a deep-seated interest or hobby to enrich one’s mind and add zest to living. Harry and Judy Blok of Starbuck are prime examples of people who have a zest for life while enjoying unique and satisfying hobbies.

Perhaps the first thing one notices about Harry Blok is his high energy and optimistic attitude. “I always try to be positive… that’s easy when you have Jesus living in here,” he said as he tapped on his chest and smiled broadly.

He’s a barber by trade, and owns and operates a small business in downtown Starbuck. His love for history and beautiful wood is obvious when you step into his shop. His single station barber chair faces a large solid oak back bar from the 1900s. In another corner hangs a coat rack made from the lining of a ‘grain leg.’ Harry recovered it from the old Starbuck elevator which once stood just north of his shop. The sharp ridges of the wood’s grain were formed by years of flowing kernels passing along the board’s length. Along with several other original barbershop pieces, Harry’s establishment is home to three converted pump organs (also known as reed organs) which he has repurposed as writing desks. “I’ve been doing this for nearly 15 years now,” said Harry, “and I’ve worked on 143 organs during that time.”

When Harry began actively pursuing his hobby, pump organs were much more appreciated than they seem to be now and sold for as much as $1,000. People bought them and had the inner workings restored so they could be used to make music. Trends changed. The interest in reed organs diminished, as did the number of individuals who could refurbish the instruments that had fallen silent.

Back in the 1880s, many families had organs in their homes. Typically, they were manually operated with foot pedals which pumped air over brass reeds, resulting in various musical pitches. At the peak of popularity, there were over 600 organ manufacturers in the United States and 100 in Canada. In the evenings, families gathered to share music as a form of entertainment. Back then, the average organ sold for $85 - $90. Then, in the early 1900s, the piano and the phonograph crowded the reed organs out of American parlors.

This vintage organ was made by the American Organ Company and could potentially be transformed into a writing desk, a bench or shelving unit - or perhaps all three. Contributed photo

There still may be old reed organs stashed away in barns, basements and other buildings, but finding them is getting to be more of a challenge. Harry shops online at Craiglist, but others come to him through the grapevine. He normally spends $50-$75, but others are given to him by owners who simply don’t want them anymore and are happy to see them hauled away. Occasionally, individuals commission him to build a piece of furniture from an old family organ.

Once Harry finds a project and hauls it to his workshop, the transformation begins. The first step in repurposing one of these beautiful old instruments is disassembly. “I keep every board, book rack, mirror and piece of trim from each organ,” said Harry. “And if I don’t need it for one project, I’ll use it for another.” His shop is a stockpile of parts which he has accumulated throughout the years.

About 40 percent of organs were made of oak and the rest were English Walnut. Although he loves the look of the oak grain, Harry says English Walnut is easier to work with because it’s a softer wood. He can normally tell the age of the organs by inspecting their internal structure. These vintage pieces are held together by glue, screws and nails which he must carefully remove. In the oldest organs, he finds square headed nails. One would think these old pieces might hold other hidden treasures (like pouches of money) but so far, that hasn’t happened. “I recently found a 1937 postcard, which was kind of fun,” said Harry. “The most money I’ve ever found was a dime.”

Harry uses several types of electric sanders in his workshop, each of which have a specific purpose in bringing the wood to a natural state before the pieces become part of the new item. When it’s time to start the assembly process, Harry uses mostly what he has on hand in order to avoid purchasing new wood. “I don’t like to mix old and new wood,” he said, “and I can usually find a way to create from the old whatever I need to complete the piece.”

Harry Blok has worked on more than 140 organs. Here is one of them -- This beautiful oak writing desk was once an old pump organ. Photo by Faith Anderson

To some of his writing desks, Harry has added lighting as a special feature. The final stage involves the finishing. Harry moves the newly created desk, bench or shelf to his attached garage for up to six coats of polyurethane, sanding between each coat for a nice, smooth surface. He has found that adding lighting can be a great feature for a writing desk.

Harry finds joy in recreating new items for people who truly appreciate these nostalgic organs. A few years ago, a lady contacted Harry and told him that her old pump organ had stopped working and she wanted one that she could play. He found one for her in Forest Lake, Minnesota, and when he stopped by her house to show her the piece, she was thrilled. He ended up swapping the bottom of her reed organ for the one he had purchased. She was able to keep the ornate top of her piece which fit perfectly on the working base that Harry had brought. Not only did the two pieces fit together, but the styles were a perfect match. “Now, that was a God thing,” Harry said. “I don’t call it luck… it was a God thing.”

Harry’s finished products are sometimes displayed in antique shops and other businesses in the area. “I’m not in this for the money,” said Harry. “I just enjoy bringing out the beauty of the wood and repurposing these old organs to be useful pieces of furniture.” But his favorite part of this hobby is making people happy - bringing smiles to their faces. “You can’t put a price on that,” he added.

The Quilter

Harry’s wife, Judy, is a quilter. She sews, designs quilt patterns and enjoys sharing her expertise with others. She has had her patterns published in five different quilting magazines, and some of her quilts have been featured on the covers of industry publications.

Harry and Judy were married in 1970 and moved to London, Ontario, located a thousand miles from Judy’s hometown of Starbuck. “I told Harry that if we were going to live that far away, I’d need a sewing machine and a piano,” Judy recalled.

Judy Blok is shown here with a quilt she designed and created. She’s holding the 2017 calendar in which that quilt was featured. Photo by Faith Anderson

During their five years in Canada, Judy became a stay-at-home mom concentrating on raising two babies and keeping up with household chores. “I was busy but did some sewing, using patterns I created from the cardboard of cereal boxes,” Judy remembered. It was when the family moved back to Starbuck that she became more involved in the world of quilting. For a time she worked with Shar Jorgenson, a veteran Minnesota quilt expert and host of a public television series. “Shar would suggest various template shapes but gave me free reign when it came to the fabrics and designs,” said Judy. Many of the projects Judy completed for Jorgenson toured internationally. “I just felt so blessed that some of my quilts traveled all over the world,” she said. Judy enjoyed her time with Jorgenson’s organization and was able to fine tune her designing skills, while balancing the busy lifestyle with four children, their activities, schoolwork and church involvement.

Even with all her knowledge and expertise, Judy has never taken a quilting class. “I guess I just learned from others along the way and sort of created my own techniques,” she said. Judy remembers one particular time when she was visiting with other quilters and the term “fussy cutting” came up. Having not heard the term before, Judy asked what it meant. Someone explained that ‘fussy cutting’ is when you deliberately cut a piece of fabric in order to showcase a certain section of the print. “I had been doing that for years,” Judy said, “but didn’t know it had a name.”

Designing a quilt pattern to be published and used by others involves extreme attention to details and requires countless hours of preparation, record keeping and patience. Judy begins the process by purchasing the material, serging (the process of overcasting the raw edges of a piece of fabric), washing, drying and ironing the cloth. “Most of my fabrics are purchased from quilt shops where I can find a variety of quality lines of fabric, created by individual designers,” said Judy. Those fabrics are intended to be used together and are perfectly matched or coordinated to become the foundation of a quilt, table runner or other pieced product. Starting with good quality fabric is important, considering all the time and effort one puts into a handmade item.

Next, Judy puts an idea on graph paper, cuts out the pieces and begins to ‘play’ with the shapes on a design board. “Sometimes, I end up with a completely different design from the one I had originally planned,” Judy said. “Of course, the greatest designer of all is the Lord,” she said. “Sometimes an idea just pops into my head when I least expect it, and I know that He has given me that design.”

After she settles on a design, she begins the process of cutting the shapes from the fabric. “I keep track of the amount of fabric I use for each solid color and print,” said Judy. That’s important when designing a piece to be published because quilters want to purchase the fabric they need without having lots of cloth left over or, in a worst case scenario, not having enough to finish a project.

As she sews, she writes down every small step so that she’s ready when the time comes to compile the instructions for the final project. After sewing the quilt top together, basting and quilting it, it’s time to get some photographs. At this point, a picture and any other required information is sent to the publisher. Many magazines will post those requirements on their websites. Initially, Judy sent all the information by mail and now is able to send everything by e-mail. “Then, I wait for a response, which could take days or months,” Judy said.

If a publication wants to publish your design, they send a contract to request permission. It’s at that point that the quilt and the instructions are sent. “I always make sure my name and address are on the back of the quilt so they can return it to me after the pattern is published,” Judy mentioned.

Occasionally, the couple’s hobbies overlap. Harry has made a sewing cabinet for Judy along with many smaller items such as this quilt hanger that she uses to showcase a wall-hanging she created. Photo by Faith Anderson

In one particular case, Judy heard back from a publication, stating that they liked her quilt design and wanted to picture it on the January page of their calendar. But, they had a special request. They wanted the quilt to be constructed in shades of blue instead of the reds that she had used. Judy went right to work and created a new quilt, using their suggestion and her pattern. Her final product was beautifully featured on the January page of the Better Homes and Gardens’ American Patchwork Quilting Calendar in 2017.

The Bloks have 16 grandchildren, 13 of whom are girls. Sharing her knowledge with them is something Judy totally enjoys. At a young age, the kids start by playing with a container of precut fabric shapes that they arrange on a flannel board. “I’m always amazed at the creative combinations they come up with as they manipulate the little cloth shapes,” Judy said.

At the age of eight, the grandchildren start learning sewing techniques by making simple items. In tenth grade they start planning their graduation quilt. They choose fabric, cut shapes, sew the pieces together and are taught how to do the basting. Grandma Judy, or Oma, as they call her, finishes the project by doing the actual quilting. “It’s so satisfying to help them create something they can be proud of,” said Judy. “They’ll always have the satisfaction of saying ‘I made this!’”

Judy thought back on all the experiences she’s had sharing quilt patterns and gifting other items she’s created. “The Lord gives us talents,” she said, “and we are to use them for Him, encouraging others. The joy of putting a smile on someone’s face can really warm your heart.”

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