Fremont County, Iowa

Our Player Piano
by Evelyn Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
November 10, 2014

When I was a little girl, I visited my maternal grandparents, and a variety of relatives in the small town of Murdock, Illinois. Much to my fascination, cousin Carl Clay had a player piano. It stood tall and regal in his living room and always, always, when I visited, cousin Carl would get out his violin, put a roll on the player piano’s interior workings, start to pump it up with his feet and when the music started on the piano he would play his violin as an accompaniment. To my childish mind it was magic.

Now, if you visit the Fremont County historical museum in Sidney, right inside the front door is a similar player piano.

This one was given to the museum by the Johnson funeral home of Hamburg, along with a large number of rolls. many of them religious tunes played during funeral services.

Eithel Baker Brindle, who worked in the funeral home, was a long time friend and member of the historical society and was responsible for the gift of the piano. She also wrote the comments about the history of the Johnson funeral home that are in the "Fremont County Historical Societies Cemetery Record" book. Eithel wrote: “The Johnson Funeral Home was established in 1923 by O.C.(Bud) Johnson who managed it until his death in 1968. Marie Baker, who was associated with the home for 34 years, managed it from 1968 until her death in 1979. ...The house in which the funeral home was created is an historic one erected jn 1874 and purchased by O.C. Johnson in 1923 and remodeled to become the funeral home which served the Hamburg area for many years.“

And that included the remarkable piano player with its helpful music for the grieving.

Recently freshly tuned and brought back into prime condition, the piano is located right inside the front door of the new county museum located in Sidney. It is played on request and often brought to life for groups of young people ad children who are especially fascinated with this fingerless playing of the instrument.

The first player piano was developed in 1895 by Edwin Votey in Detroit, MI. It took the form of a large wooden cabinet that stood in front of any ordinary piano, and from the rear protruded a row of felt-covered wooden fingers that were aligned with the keyboard. These fingers activated the piano's keys in the same manner as a human pianist. (Google information)

The player mechanism was powered entirely by suction, generated by the operation of two foot treadles, while tiny perforations on small paper rolls represented the notes to be played. The tracker bar, a pneumatic reading device over which the roll was transported, had a row of equally spaced holes; one for each note. A music roll perforation passing over the tracker bar caused a valve to open, which in turn triggered a pneumatic motor. The latter operated a felt covered wooden finger, pressing the corresponding note on the piano keyboard.

No longer in production it is great to have this special player piano to greet visitors to the Fremont County Historical Center and Rodeo Museum.

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