Hidden Gem: A Pipe Dream Come True

Get to know John J. Miller, a man with a pipe dream.

“ANYTHING MECHANICAL CLICKS with me,” says John J. Miller, founder of Mechanical Organ & Clock Works.

But instead of tinkering with cars or bikes, the 26-year-old restores and builds pipe organs. These antique works of art usually are found in church sanctuaries and aboard carousels. Miller also moves organs, a skilled process that takes several months. Recently he moved one within Milwaukee, to Divine Peace Lutheran Church, with nearly 700 pipes and “tens of thousands of components,” says Miller.

Miller grew up in Milwaukee, the son of a Lutheran minister. “Before I could even walk, I used to crawl over to the organ and watch the organist play,” he says. When he was a teen, Miller looked on as an organ – the same one now at Divine Peace – was relocated from a Ripon church to his father’s church. That experience inspired him to become an apprentice at Johannes Klais Orgelbau in Bonn, Germany, for three and a half years. “I did a lot of work relocating organs from England – from churches that had been closed – to Germany,” he says.

Miller returned to Milwaukee this year. “There’s a tradition of organ building in Milwaukee that dates back to the year the city was founded,” he says. “Milwaukee had it before Chicago.”

Miller also performs with a street organ at South Shore Farmers Market in Bay View. While most small organs cost between $6,000 and $10,000, he’s proud to own a German- made instrument dating back to 1895. “Us organ builders don’t really make enough money to buy our own,” he quips.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue

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A seasoned writer, and a former editor at Milwaukee Home & Fine Living, Kristine Hansen launched her wine-writing career in 2003, covering wine tourism, wine and food pairings, wine trends and quirky winemakers. Her wine-related articles have published in Wine Enthusiast, Sommelier Journal, Uncorked (an iPad-only magazine), FoodRepublic.com, CNN.com and Whole Living (a Martha Stewart publication). She's trekked through vineyards and chatted up winemakers in many regions, including Chile, Portugal, California (Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast), Canada, Oregon and France (Bordeaux and Burgundy). While picking out her favorite wine is kind of like asking which child you like best, she will admit to being a fan of Oregon Pinot Noir and even on a sub-zero winter day won't turn down a glass of zippy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.