Joseph Ridges is a legendary figure among Australian Church members, and the visit to Australia of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has revived interest in him.
The best-known of the 19th century Australian converts, Ridges has a fascinating history. He did not, as is commonly believed, build the Sydney Town Hall organ, or the first pipe organ in Australia, or the Tabernacle organ while in Australia.But with little experience, he did build a grand organ for the Tabernacle in a frontier setting that symbolized the ability of the pioneers to prevail over their surroundings.
Joseph Ridges was born April 27, 1827, in Ealing, near Southampton, England, and reared close to a large organ factory. Much of his boyhood time was spent watching the men at work until he understood not only every process in organ building, but also the physics and mathematics that governed organ building.
At age 22, he married Adelaide Whitely, 18, and their first son, Alfred Joseph, was born the following year. In 1852, the family immigrated to New South Wales, Australia, aboard the ship Java. All were ill on the five-month voyage. The Ridges made friends with Luke and Christiana Syphus, who lost a baby during the trip. Converts to the restored gospel, the Syphus' hoped to earn money in Australia to immigrate to Utah to be with the saints.
When the ship landed in April 25, 1853, the two families lived together at Pennant Hills, about 15 miles northwest of Sydney. During this period, Joseph became convinced of the truth of the gospel. He and his wife were later baptized.
In his spare time he began to build a small, seven-stop pipe organ. Fascinated with the instrument, mission Pres. Augustus Farnham asked Ridges to donate it to the Church in Salt Lake City. Ridges agreed, and when Pres. Farnham sailed for Utah, he was accompanied by the Ridges - and the organ - who were among a company of 120 aboard the Jenny Ford. When the ship landed in California, they accompanied the members to San Bernardino. Here their baby, Joseph died, and they buried him with another child of theirs, Anthony, who had died earlier and been brought across the ocean in a lead coffin.
With their remaining child, Alfred, they moved to Los Angeles. The following spring Brigham Young sent teams and wagons to haul the organ to Salt Lake City, where it arrived in June 1857.
The small organ was installed in the small adobe tabernacle that was built on Temple Square where the Assembly Hall now stands. But with Johnston's Army approaching Utah, the organ was dismantled and packed, and was evacuated to the south along with the population of Salt Lake City. When the fear of war was over, the organ was returned to the old tabernacle, and when the Assembly Hall was built, many of its pipes and better parts were incorporated in the Assembly Hall organ.
In the 1860s, construction on the present Tabernacle began. Brigham Young asked Ridges, who was then farming in Provo, if he could build a grand organ for the new building. Although Ridges' only previous organ-building experience was on the small organ, he had no doubt that he could build a large organ. Brigham Young personally approved the plans.
Ridges traveled to Boston for metal pipes and other parts. The organ was to have two manuals, 27 pedals, and 35 stops, with about 2,000 pipes and would measure 20 feet by 30 feet by 40 feet high. It took more than 10 years to build.
Brigham Young once came into the workshop, looked things over, and said to himself, "Can we really do this thing? Yes, we can. We can do anything we put our minds to."
As time passed, the reputation of the organ grew.
When special services were held for the coming of the new century in 1901, the Tabernacle Choir and organ were featured on the program. When Joseph Ridges, 74, was introduced as the organ's builder, the choir and congregation gave him a standing ovation.
Today, after many expansions and remodelings, only the casework and great 32-foot wooden pipes survive from the original organ. But while they remain, and while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings, Joseph Ridges will not be forgotten.