Tickling the ivorys, using your feet: Nottingham player piano joins artifacts at Eagle museum
Honky-Tonk Night at the Museum
What: Eagle County Historical Society celebration of the Nottingham player piano and West Vail whiskey still artifacts.
When: 5:30 to 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 7.
Where:Eagle County Historical Museum,100 Fairgrounds Road, Eagle.
Host: Eagle County Historical Society.
Cost: $10 at the door ($5 for ECHS members).
More information: www.eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com
Back before seemingly unlimited entertainment choices could be beamed right into your living room, folks had to rely on their own talents if they wanted to relax with some tunes after a hard day’s work.
Trouble was, not everyone had the skill or instruction to coax music from an instrument. But before there was radio or even recordings, there were player pianos. Eagle County’s Nottingham family were the proud owners of one, which has now on display at the Eagle County Historical Society Museum at Chambers Park in Eagle.
Last year Susan Nottingham donated the instrument to the historical society. Even before it was placed on display, the piano had a local lineage. Avon rancher Harry Nottingham purchased the solid oak “Automotive” piano, which still has its original ivory keys, in 1911. The handsome instrument dates to the Arts and Crafts Movement era and was likely shipped to Colorado from New York. Interestingly, Nottingham paid Eagle County personal property taxes on the piano back in 1911.
Eagle County Historical Society President Kathy Heicher noted that player pianos were actually common in homes from 1905 to 1929. In the days preceding radios and phonographs, these mechanized pianos were the primary method of introducing new music to on a large scale. Otherwise, people could learn new songs only by hearing them performed or by reading music.
The Nottingham piano stayed in that family for more than 40 years, then was sold to family friends. Several decades later, the Nottinghams recovered the original piano. Before Susan Nottingham donated the piano to the society, the instrument had been stored in a barn for several years.
“We opened it up and found the remains of an old mouse nest,” Heicher said. “The bellows inside the instrument were also brittle. If the artifact was to be wholly appreciated, it needed work. We had to find a player piano repair person. They are elusive.”
Ultimately the society located Jere DeBacker, a Denver-based repairman.
“Jere came up to take a look at it and said it was a nice piece and he could fix it,” Heicher said. However, he said the piano would have to come to his workshop and the repair would cost $5,000. Then serendipity played its part to bring the Nottingham piano back to life.
At the same time the society was trying to figure out how to pay for the piano repair, a local representative form the El Pomar Foundation contacted the group to see if there were any ready-to-roll projects that needed funding.
“A $2,5000 grant from El Pomar definitely kicked of the repair work and we also used money from the John Bronn (the late museum curator) memorial fund to complete the repair,” Heicher said.
The society hired a piano moving company, sent the instrument off to Denver and waited for word that the work was complete. This summer, the working Nottingham piano returned to Eagle County.
Repairman DeBacker is a part-time player piano repairman and a real estate agent.
“I have been working on player pianos since I was in high school,” he said. “I can play the piano a little bit but I can’t play as well as a player piano can.”
When he first examined the Nottingham piano, he knew it was worth saving. “It was a higher end piano when it was new,” DeBacker said.
Player pianos have two parts: an actual acoustic piano and a complex, mechanized pneumatic player system powered by foot treadles and suction. At some point, probably between 1950 and 1970, the original player piano action was removed from the instrument and a custom built system was installed.
“The original one would have been a lot easier to rebuild,” DeBacker noted. “But I happened to have another piano that was the same brand that had a relatively good player action in it.”
That piano had significant structural damage, however. Because mechanical player piano actions are no longer manufactured, DeBacker decided to remove the player action from the other piano for the Nottingham instrument. After months of work, the piano was ready for the journey back to Eagle County. It is now stationed right behind the docent desk at the museum entrance.
“I am really, really glad to have a working player piano in a museum where people can hear it and see in and perhaps even play it,” DeBacker said.
Along with the piano itself, the Nottingham instrument has an eclectic collection of music. Ironically, while player piano mechanisms are no longer manufactured, the player music rolls are.
“You can get Disney tunes and other current popular music on player piano rolls,” DeBacker said.
Along with the piano, Susan Nottingham donated music rolls that featured classical compositions and music that was popular around the turn of the century. When she learned about the piano’s presence, Eagle resident Tenie Chacoine donated her trove of player piano rolls.
“She had ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ and ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ and ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,’” Heicher said. The later is one of the more popular selections among museum visitors.
Heicher said a number of museum docents have been trained to operate the player piano. “It is more exercise than you think. Its is very aerobic to play,” she said.
“It takes a while to get the rhythm right,” Heicher said. “But the piano sounds beautiful. Amazingly, the acoustics in the museum are pretty good.”
Celebrating new artifacts
The Eagle County Historical Society will celebrate the Nottingham piano donation, along with the acquisition of a antique whiskey still from a homestead in West Vail, during a special Honky-Tonk Night at the Eagle museum on Friday, Sept. 7.
DeBacker will be on hand to discuss the history and workings of player pianos. Visitors will have an opportunity to play the piano like an expert, by using their feet. Local pianist Linda Carr will also entertain with piano music and a sing-a-long of some old-fashioned tunes.
As for the whiskey still, Minturn resident Ella Burnett donated the simple, lead-and-tin device to the historical society. Her late husband, Pete, recovered the antique still from a mountainside in West Vail.
“Bootlegging was common during Prohibition,” Heicher said. “We know through our archival research that people were brewing whiskey all the way from Gore Creek to McCoy to Gypsum.”
Heicher said during Prohibition, the Eagle County Sheriff kept an eye out for illegal liquor operations. But she also noted Gore Creek rancher Hank Elliott was well placed to avoid law enforcement interactions because he ran a dairy route, often delivering refreshments other than milk from his dairy wagon.