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The Old Piano

Oct 1, 2012, 9:33 p.m.

“Just think of the stories it could tell, if only it could talk.” I was speaking of the massive oak piano that has been in my mothers life and mine since 1890. It has always been with us. It moved when we moved.

The old piano replaced a pump organ my grandparents had on the ranch just outside of Goldendale, Washington. In 1888 (or 1889) my grandfather finally made enough money on his wheat to afford some of the luxuries in life. Verona, his youngest and only daughter, was just two years old: it would take a year to deliver a piano, by then she might start learning to play.

In those days drummers or sales men traveled the country with their brochures and promises. A piano drummer caught my grandfather after the fall sale of his wheat, Grandpa was in a generous mood & ordered a Lester, cabinet grand from Philadelphia.

A telegram was received from Portland, Oregon: the piano to be delivered to one, John Atkinson, Goldendale, Klickitat County, the Oregon Territory --- this new State of Washington was not completely organized by 1889. Mailing address would soon change.

And so the long journey began. Bright and new, weighing one thousand pounds, the ornately carved oak upright piano was hoisted in its wooden crate, off the Philadelphia dock to a ship that would take it out through the Delaware Bay, South to various ports for freight and passengers, on through the uncertain waters of the Caribbean to the stifling port of Colon on the Isthmus of Panama. There the passengers disembarked for the disease-infested, two week horseback journey across the isthmus to the Pacific Ocean, there, to be picked up by another ship.

The freighter with its cargo continued on by sea for months: on around South America, through the dangerous Straights of Magellan and Cape Horn, North to San Francisco. Most of the freight and passengers left the ship there, after all, there wasn't much on up North from there. There was a piano. It continued North to the mouth of the mighty Columbia River and the city of Astoria. Crossing the uncertain shoals and up the Willamette River to Portland, the crate was transferred to a barge that navigated the two rivers up to The Dalles.

Months had passed since Grandfather had ordered his piano. Sometime in 1890, Grandfather was notified: he could take delivery of the instrument at The Dalles.

A team of four horses pulled the wagon that crossed the Columbia on a flat bed ferry and eventually made the return trip, with its heavy burden.

Verona, my mother, was introduced to the piano, she was three-and-one-half years old. By 1896 she was riding her pony eight miles into Goldendale for private piano lessons. Always smelling of horse after such a ride, her teacher would humiliate her by insisting on a good wash before touching the teacher's piano.

The lessons paid off. Verona played well, family and company dinners ended with everyone around the piano, singing hymns and the popular songs of the day, such as “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” and “The Old Oaken Bucket.” Dancing was frowned upon, but the younger generation found ways, and managed to put together a band, a fiddle, and a mouth-harp, with mother keeping time on the piano. Dancing was fun, there wasn't a lot of fun to be had on the ranch.

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