Local News    Burlington Free Press Monday, July 02, 2001
Vermont's pianos keep restorers busy

By Anne Wallace Allen
The Associated Press

FLETCHER -- Peering inside the old piano before her, Clair Dunn took stock of the job ahead.

The piano, a dusty Waltham upright, was in fairly good condition, considering it had been around for 100 years and had traveled to Vermont from Milwaukee at some point.

"Craftsmen did this," Dunn said, admiring the delicately stenciled cast-iron plate and meticulous interior molding destined to be seen only by piano tuners. "This is beautiful."

Dunn was pleased: Her work with the Waltham would have a happy outcome. With just about $200 work, the family would have a good quality instrument ready to play.

The future isn't always so bright for many aging uprights, which are reaching the century mark of their heyday and are showing their age. There are dozens of piano restorers like Dunn in Vermont, and there are plenty of old uprights around the state to keep them busy.

They tell stories of being called to look at pianos left in leaky barns; pianos populated by bugs or rodents; pianos that were used as stands for leaky potted plants; or pianos with problems ignored for so long that they couldn't, or shouldn't, be fixed.

Williston piano restorer Allan Day recalls finding a pre-Civil War square grand piano, with mother-of-pearl keys, in an Illinois hayloft under bat excrement and hay.

"It was salted away by this woman's grandfather, who traded it for a pig," recalled Day, who rebuilt the piano. "It probably took us two and a half years to do it, because all the parts had to be handmade."

There are happy stories, too. Dunn, who makes her living assessing, restoring, and tuning the old pianos in Vermont's farmhouse parlors, town hall auditoriums and church basements, walked into an old Enosburg farmhouse last year to find a century-old Williams upright in perfect condition.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "It had been tuned every year of its life, and it was in showroom condition."

Another one came off a porch in Colchester. The wooden case around the piano looked shabby, but the piano came from one of Dunn's three favorite piano makers, Wing & Son. It sounded great.

"This piano on the porch would reverberate Carnegie Hall," she said. "I couldn't sell it for what it was worth because of the case. I ended up selling it for $850."

Last week, Dunn's job took her to Fairfax, where a family had asked her to look over a piano they'd acquired when they bought their house.

The Waltham in Fairfax needed a lot of work. Its carved feet, which restorers refer to as "toes," were banged up, the result of many moves.

It had peeling veneer; several keys were badly chipped, leaving sharp edges that could cut the player's fingers; and the soft felt of the base dampers had turned hard with age.

Dunn saw a bright future in the piano's careful craftsmanship and overall condition.

"Given its age, it hasn't been played all that much," she said, pausing in her work to sit down on the bench and play a few bars of "Sentimental Journey." She dismantled part of the piano and carried the keys and several other parts back to her Fletcher studio to repair.

In part, Vermont has so many of the old pianos because it stood at a crossroads of the piano manufacturing world a century ago, when factories in Boston and New York turned out the pianos by the thousands in the decades before the Depression.

Between 1890 and 1925, the piano was popular as a form of home entertainment and as a status symbol. The piano industry was among the first to offer customers the option of paying over time -- "a dubious honor," Dunn said.

As for why so many are still around, Dunn theorizes that Yankee thrift might be at work, especially in poor, rural areas like hers: If the pianos sound OK, families just hang on to them. A new piano can cost thousands of dollars; if you're lucky, you can get an upright that's good enough for a child's lessons for just hundreds.

Consequently, the uprights turn up everywhere.

"We have three or four of them," said Cindy Watson, assistant treasurer at the First Baptist Church in Bennington and a member of the congregation for half a century. "I'll bet some of these pianos were in that church when I was a kid."

Eric Brinkerhoff, a piano restorer in Danville, has about 45 of them in various storage properties. He called some of the uprights "treasures they've built with 19th-century craftsmanship, before we got to be so fast at everything." He wishes he had time to restore them all.

Not all old pianos are worth the effort.

"Some of them we have to burn," he said. "It's a better way to go than sitting in a barn and rotting."

Dunn is a lifelong musician who almost earned a Ph.D. in English at one point and more recently worked as a Web site designer. She lives on a former farm that has been in her family for more than a century. She started tuning pianos just a few years ago after she watched a tuner work on hers. She runs her business from a small building attached to her house.

Dunn's business is already jammed with pianos, so she won't take free ones. The exception: pianos made by Wing & Son, Ivers & Pond, or Hallet Davis.

"In the last three months, I've refused probably four or five pianos," she said.

She said every once in a while, a free piano is a good deal. She said an in-tune piano in fair condition might be all a family needs for a child starting lessons.

"It doesn't have to be the greatest piano in the world," she said. "If the kid takes to it, you can move up."

She sells most of her pianos to adults who took lessons as children and have decided to take it up again.

Day is skeptical about old pianos. He thinks many of them are worthless, and if children learn to play on them, they'll be learning on a piano that is out of tune.

"A lot of these pianos should have been condemned 30 years ago, but they still are shlepped between people, innocent people who think, 'A free piano!'" Day said. "But it's the kiss of death, because the pianos have a life expectancy, and things wear out."

When Day hears about a piano that's too far gone for him, he refers the owner to Dunn. She sees them as a piece of musical history, and wants to save them.

"Some of them are deservedly in bad shape; they're not worth keeping up," she said. "But there are some that will never be made again. A good old upright that has been cared for -- and these are rare -- will run rings around a modern upright."

.Also known to have appeared in The Rutland Herald, Montpelier Times Argus, The Manchester Union-Leader, and The St. Albans Messenger.