Arthur Middleton first walked through the front door of 200 North Illinois Street almost seventeen years ago. He was carrying measured drawings of the 16th century Ab Yberg positiv that day, and wanted to see the shop and chat about pipe organs. Now, Lake City is hardly the only small town in Iowa, but we’re quite willing to bet that no other town of any size in our state has a business that attracts individuals who own drawings of ancient Swiss pipe organs. But perhaps traveling half a day across the state to a town of 1,800 souls says as much about Art as it does about Lake City.
Art was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1952, and is a descendant of Arthur Middleton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. (Like his namesake, he has no middle name.) His father was an electrical engineer who, during his employment at Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, built communications equipment for the Apollo space program. Perhaps not coincidentally, Art enjoyed building model airplanes in his youth.
Art attended Iowa State University, then worked for a time with luthier William Daum of Cambridge, Wisconsin. Following this, he built lutes professionally for a year and a half. Subsequent studies at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids prepared him for a career as a machinist. He practiced this trade for eleven years at Cherry-Burrell, Inc., also of Cedar Rapids, operating small milling machines and CNC lathes. During this time, he built a Hubbard harpsichord and a Zuckerman clavichord.
Musical instruments intrigued him, and after his employment in Cedar Rapids ended, he found his way to Lake City on that February day. Although the shop wasn’t looking to hire new employees at the time of his visit, his talents and experience, so different from the largely wood-centered skills already present here, persuaded Lynn to take him on. His move from Swisher, Iowa to Lake City resembled a hillbilly caravan: at the time, he owned a 1949 Chevrolet one-ton truck and a 1965 Chevelle whose hood ornament had been replaced by a rack of deer antlers. Art’s pack-rat nature had led him to collect an incredible variety of machinery, lumber, and other odds and ends, which made the move more like the sale of an old-time hardware store than the relocation of residential belongings. Although his collection of woodworking and metalworking miscellany has only increased during his time in Lake City, he has since acquired somewhat more conventional transportation.
Art’s easy familiarity with the precision tolerances and reproducibility required by manufacturing lent itself to the crafting of mechanical key action parts, which the shop had begun to make in quantity in 1984. Art built new jigs and fixtures for the construction of wooden squares, coupler levers and other parts, many of which he fabricated on a milling machine. Subsequently, the milling machine has been called into service for many other operations around the shop, such as machining the mouths and caps of wood pipes, routing channels within windchest toeboards, and even burning the countersinks of windchest toeholes. Since the late 1980s, Art has constructed the console coupler mechanism and most of the mechanical key action for every Dobson organ. Further, he makes specialty parts for stop actions, wood pipes, and adjustable benches.
Never one to do something because it was conventional, Art’s interests defy easy categorization. Certainly, putting up a personal shop building filled with machinery that he has constructed or modified is not a great surprise, but how does one explain the fascination with carnivorous plants? Sharing space with the shop equipment is a large indoor greenhouse, whose tropical environment contains over sixty varieties of Nepenthes and a half-dozen Pinguicula (butterworts) and requires twenty gallons of distilled water each week. Equally unconventional is his wide-ranging taste in music, which runs from Hildegard van Bingen to Toad the Wet Sprocket. Tying all of this together is Art himself, whose appearance strikes the casual viewer as either a benevolent Hell’s Angel or a graying Santa in bib overalls.
In all honesty, Art can occasionally be hard to work with, and he periodically causes his co-workers grief by his eccentric habits and a tendency to spread his work space over great tracts of the shop. His ability to devise a clever nickname is not always appreciated by the recipient. But even if his territorial personal behavior is occasionally received with dismay, no one questions his dedication to exquisite craftsmanship or the frankly beautiful work that comes from his hands. If you see any loveliness in the visual design of a Dobson organ, you should also know that the inside is as finely wrought in its own way as the outside. Art Middleton is a large part of why that is so.
drawn from The Organbuilder, Fall 2003
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