Valley Home church organist done after 72 years

jjardine@modbee.comJune 15, 2013 

— As each service draws to a close, pastor Kevin DeHope offers the floor to anyone in St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church who wants to make an announcement.

Generally, someone will talk about upcoming special events, fund-raising activities or maybe fix-up projects.

A week ago, Estelle Barnhill stood up and said, "I have an announcement. I don't feel I can do this anymore," she said.

She was done as the church's regular organist, Barnhill told the small but stunned congregation.

Yes, 72 years is enough.

She calls it a spur-of-the-moment decision — or maybe a bone-spur-of-the-moment call, considering that her 82-year-old arthritic hands now have their good and bad days. On the good ones, no problem. On the bad ones, she said, her fingers get stuck between the keys of the theater pipe organ the church bought from New York's famous Coney Island in 1946 and still uses today. It arrived five years after she debuted on an old pump organ in the only church she ever has attended.

As the arthritis progressed over the past five years, it became disconcerting. She'd periodically tell husband Wallace Barnhill, "Whenever I can't play the way I should play, I'll stop."

She didn't tell him that time had come, though, until she proclaimed it publicly last Sunday. Nor did she forewarn lifelong friend Lois Hofmann. She just blurted it out.

"I had no idea," said Hofmann, who also grew up in Valley Home and never left. "I said, 'Wallace, did you know about this?' He said, 'No, I didn't.' He got teared up. I got teared up. We all got teared up."

Indeed, change comes slowly and reluctantly to the folks in the small farming community north of Oakdale.

The town evolved as a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad line connecting Stockton and Oakdale. First called Clyde, residents changed it to Thalheim because of the influx of German families including the Volkmanns, Estelle Barnhill's great-grandparents.

Anti-German sentiment during World War I prompted yet another name change. Translated to English, Thalheim means "Valley for the Home." It's been Valley Home ever since, creating trivia along the way.

Of the town's Wieber family, daughter Clara was born in Clyde, Alma in Thalheim and Selma in Valley Home.

"And they were all born in the same house," Barnhill said.

St. John's has stood there for 109 years, its pipe organ in place the past 67. The old Ben Aker Store is no longer run by the Aker family, but it's still the only one in town.

Barnhill was born in the community, raised there, married there, raised her children there and will be buried there someday as well.

As a 5-year-old in 1936, she wandered into the parlor of her grandparents' home. "They had a player piano, which we children could not use," Barnhill said.

She began sounding out songs anyway, and because one of them was "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," she was allowed to play whenever she wanted.

In 1938, her parents moved across town — "considering the size of Valley Home, that was about a block and a half," she said — to a house two doors away from St. John's. The pastor heard her playing the piano in the church basement and offered to give her lessons.

He taught her hymns and pieces used as part of the church liturgy, and in 1941 enlisted her to play during the church services when she was only 10.

"I got 25 cents for playing every Sunday," she said.

She's been there ever since, sometimes as the only organist or splitting time with others. Barnhill played during the church's 100th anniversary in 2004.

"I've done, what, 60 weddings? One hundred?" she said. In one, she recalled, the groom fainted several times during the ceremony. "I'm not sure they're really married," she said. "I never heard him say, 'I do.' "

She's played during funerals, too many to remember.

The 2010 census listed the town's population at 228 — more than double the 100 or so listed 20 years prior. But I suspect it's counting residents of a relatively new cluster of ranchettes about a mile north of town.

St. John's now draws only 30 or 40 each Sunday, Barnhill said. "Mostly older people."

And that is why her announcement last Sunday caught everyone by surprise.

"She's always done what's best for the congregation," said DeHope, the pastor. "She's a generous, respectful and loving person — the kind you wish every church was full of."

He hopes she'll still play occasionally during the prelude, the 15 minutes or so before the service commences.

"She's been playing here for 72 years," he said. "But she's been here her whole life."

Indeed, Barnhill loves playing the old theater organ far too much to give it up completely.

"I told 'em when I retire, I didn't want a gold watch," Barnhill said, then joking. "I want the organ. But that wasn't going to happen."

It's time, her aching hands tell her. And that's not all.

"After 72 years," she said, "my (sheet) music's wearing out."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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