2003   APRIL 26   #116

Leland W. Sprinkle - The Great Stalacpipe Organ

Leland W. Sprinkle : American Medley
The Great Stalacpipe Organ of Luray Caverns, VA

The year was 1956. Deep in the bowels of Virginia"s Luray Caverns, the intrepid Leland W. Sprinkle roamed three and a half acres of stalactite formations, tapping thousands to discover a lucky thirty-seven that were chosen to make up the scales of his elegant, mad invention. He affixed rubber-tipped plungers to the rocks and strung electrical cables back to his organ console. From this central keyboard, his fingers tickled the keys, which triggered the appropriate stalactite to sound, thus demonstrating 'the largest natural musical instrument in the world.'

Jump with me now into the futuristic year of 1990. I had read something about this organ as a wee lad of 23, and now, three years later decided to go on a road-trip with a good buddy to several roadside spots of distinctly American eccentricity.

Now, there"s just nothing like a good cave in the US of A to coax out the Yankee penchant for anthropomorphic hijinx and hokum. As we were herded past the Witch"s Nose, the Indian Blanket (complete with 'visible weave'), the Mirrored City and the ever-present Boiled Eggs (!?) our brains were gently and effectively numbed and left unprepared for the zenith of the Luray Lure. For around the corner the playerless organ console swung into view. Slightly elevated in a grotto of dripping rock, it looked queerly like it had been there for millions of years, pre-made and waiting for Leland's loving touch.

Alas, I knew better. Leland was nowhere in sight; however, the organ had long since been retrofitted with a player-piano attachment, so, disembodied as it was, I could hear a simulacrum of Sprinkle's dancing hands. And let me say it dropped my jaw. I left the droning tourguide's narration behind as a bird leaves its perch.

Although the recording you hear approximates the tonality of the Great Stalacpipe Organ, it is physically impossible to apprehend the ethereal and frankly disorienting sound of the instrument.

Firstly, one would imagine that a plunger striking a rock would let out an audible 'plink.' Imagine again. It simply caused the rock in question to sound, its note rising, ringing, then slowly falling away, like puffs of smoke. Secondly, since the notes are spread over tremendous distances, one would think you would hear some notes louder than others. But apparently cave acoustics are a beast of their own, because the notes were beautifully and maddeningly unlocatable, the overtones ringing and caroming around the cave in all directions. It was chaotic and muddy and claustrophobic and spacious and completely gorgeous. I remember musing there in the cave that day how incredible it would be for a modern composer to write something for this most singular of instruments. To my knowledge it has never happened (if you know any different please write me!). Leland's maverick spirit had birthed an amazing instrument deep under the earth.

Until you can haul your tucas over to Luray Caverns and hear it for yourself, let this medley of chestnuts, this Sprinkle of magic fill your head. Then tour the gift shop and pick up a cassette of it for yourself. And send me a postcard, willya?

- Keith Lo Bue, http://www.lobue-art.com

TT-5:48 / 5.3MB / 128kbps 44.1khz
Released independently through Luray Caverns

Chip Almarode writes:
Sprinkle had the idea, but he did not actual build the organ. Two men other than Mr. Sprinkle made the organ. One of the men was my dad, Loyd Almarode. The other man was Richard Beaver. My dad did the outside cabinet, Richard Beaver did the interior portion. They worked for Klan Organ in Waynesboro, Virginia. I'm not much of a story writer, but I thought you would like the rest of the untold facts about the Organ in the Luray Caverns. As probably as most stories go, the chiefs get the glory, and the support team doesn't share in the glory, only the failures. Did Edison make all of the light bulbs or just the last one or did he? Did the Wright brothers make and assemble ever part in their plane? So that is why I thought I would give you the true facts on the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The man with the idea never put a piece of sand paper to wood that is displayed in the Luray Caverns. He may have tuned it, but he didn't form the wood into a piece of beautiful furniture. As I previously mention, the two young men, Loyd Almarode and Richard Beaver, were the craftsmen. My dad was 28 years old when he worked for Klan Organ. Since then my dad was featured in the local newspaper as well as on a Richmond, Va. PBS TV program called Virginia Current. My dad died in 1996 at the age of 70. He was a master carpenter. My nephew, Jeremy Almarode, at the age of 28, wrote the following poem in honor of his Papaw.

The Master Carpenter:

An idea in his head, a small sketch on a pad,
Was all he needed, it was all he had:

He"d head towards his shop with a gleam in his eye,
Not knowing if he could build it, but willing to try;

He"d scratch down some figures, and then scratch his head,
And through it all, not a word he said;

He then began working, what a sight to behold,
He treated each piece as if it were gold;

His hands never really held the wood,
but like a potter working with clay,
He"d shape and mold his intricate pieces
as though he were at play;

He assembled it all with the greatest of care,
each piece put carefully in place,
And out the sawdust filled workshop he emerged,
with a smile upon his face;

A job well done, a masterpiece made;
My grandfather, the carpenter, a master of his trade.