Woman in Search of Piano

(published in The California Music Teacher, Summer, 2015)

Not just any piano, but the first piano that ever sounded its tinkling notes in the Golden State! It all started with the Donner party. On a hiking weekend in Truckee, I discovered that there was one English member of the ill-fated 1846 journey and he was John Denton from Sheffield. Since my maiden name is Denton and I attended Sheffield University in my home country of England, it seemed appropriate to find out more about my namesake.

The following weekend found me rummaging through the boxes in the California Room of the State Archives in Sacramento – polite rummaging, that is, in plastic gloves. I came across a bill of sale for a piano signed by James Frazier Reed in 1849. After surviving the Donner Lake ordeal in 1846, Reed had settled in San Jose and purchased a piano for his daughter, Patty. She eventually married Frank Lewis and ran a hotel in Santa Cruz - hmm, my current hometown – and subsequently two grand hotels in nearby Capitola. Patty claimed that the piano she had in Capitola was one of the first pianos to come to California and that got me thinking . . . is that true? Which WAS the first piano to arrive in the Golden State? I decided to divide my research into two sections – trace, if I could, Patty Reed’s piano, and find out more about the earliest pianos that came to the state. John Denton would have to wait.

In the following months I was to find out that Reed’s piano made the journey through the Santa Cruz mountains not once but three times. "A pioneer piano: In the parlor of the Sea Side Home stands a piano which is supposed to be the first one that came to this state. It was made in Albany, New York, by F. P. Burns, and brought around Cape Horn in the fall of 1849 by Capt. Wilson, and was put together on the schooner where its delightful strains helped to vary the monotony of the long voyage. It was regarded as a great curiosity when it arrived in San Francisco and crowds flocked to see the instrument and listen to its melody. Captain Wilson was seized by gold fever and sold the piano to Mr J. F Reed (the father of Mrs Lewis) for $1000. This gentleman brought it to San Jose on Nov 4, 1849, where it remained a number of years. When Mrs Lewis removed to this city in 1856, he [Mr. Reed] had it conveyed here in a vehicle drawn by oxen by way of San Juan and Watsonville. It has not lost its pristine sweetness of tone through age as was evidenced yesterday when a SURF representative listened to some of the old time airs that Mrs Lewis so kindly reproduced." From The Santa Cruz Surf, 02-27-1884.

That piano is now in the state park repository, an enormous warehouse in Sacramento, where I was told that I could not view it because it was not in a place safe enough for my visit! It took two years of emails before the authorities decided I was not going to give up my request. Eventually I was invited to come to see the piano. I could view it, photograph it, but not touch it. Even so, it was wonderful to realize that the owner of Patty Reed’s famous doll had played this very piano. When the Grand Hotel in Capitola, where Mrs. Lewis was manager, burned to the ground in 1929, "the glare was visible across the bay in Monterey. Firefighters from Santa Cruz to Aptos tor to the scene but all they saved were one piano and six chairs." Ah, that piano again!

So part one of my mission had been accomplished. Now, I was eager to discover which piano arrived first in this fair state. Over the next six years, I searched state parks, historic newspaper articles, traveled the length and breadth of the state, and arrived at the following conclusion. The earliest documented piano was one that adorned the living quarters of Princess Elena Pavlovna Gagarina, wife of the Alexander Rotchev, the Russian manager at Fort Ross, on the coast of Northern California. She brought with her some fine belongings, her piano, and her extensive library. The Rotchevs were known by visitors for their great hospitality, their cuisine, and last, but by no means least, for the Princess’s skill at the piano. Eugene Duflot de Mofras, a visitor from France, visited the Rotchevs at Fort Ross in 1841. He wrote of "a choice library, French wines, a piano, and a score of Mozart." What became of this piano is a mystery though I like to think that John Sutter, who purchased all the goods from Fort Ross when the Russians left in 1841 took the piano with him to his home just outside Sacramento, Hock Farm, before he established Sutter’s Fort. Sutter engaged a fellow Swiss, Adolphe Engler to teach his son to play the piano, so he must have had a piano. Engler soon won the heart of Sutter’s daughter, Eliza. Much to the chagrin of Sutter, the two married but a couple of years later they were divorced. Unfortunately, Hock Farm and all its contents were destroyed in a fire in 1865.

Three pianos were brought round the Cape Horn in 1843 by a certain Captain Stephen Smith, a Baltimore merchant who purchased a land claim in Bodega. Don Abrego, a prominent businessman in Monterey, a hatter in fact, from Mexico, asked Smith to bring him a piano. Smith brought three instruments on his next journey, along with a disassembled sawmill, which he set up in Bodega, the first in California, a gristmill, and a young woman of sixteen whom he subsequently married. Abrego’s adobe house and gardens, built in the 1830’s are still extant in Monterey, and are owned by a women’s club. Though the piano is no longer there, I was invited to view the parlor where the piano provided entertainment. Baynard Taylor attended a party here in 1849 and gave this account in his book El Dorado: "I attended an evening party at his house, which was as lively and agreeable as any occasion of the kind well could be. There was a tolerable piano in his little parlor, on which a lady from Sydney, Australia, played 'Non piu mesta' with a good deal of taste." The Abrego piano was a six-octave instrument, made by Breitkopt & Hartel, of Leipzig, Germany. The piano had brass pedals and two brass candleholders. It currently resides in the store room of the California Historical society - disassembled, I’m afraid, awaiting the generosity of some interested benefactor who can assist in its return to its former glory.

The second of Smith’s pianos was sold to Eulogio de Celis a native son of Spain who came into possession of nearly the entire San Fernando Valley in 1846 (at the bargain price of 11cents an acre). His adobe home, sitting at the confluence of Sepulveda and Brand Boulevard in Mission Hills, is the second oldest home in Los Angeles City – and is now known as the Andres Pico Adobe, the original part of which was built by the ex-San Fernando Mission Indians in 1834. Of Don Eulogio’s piano, I have found no trace.

As for the third of Smith’s pianos, it was purchased by General Mariano Vallejo in 1845. He was the richest man in California owning 7 million acres north of San Francisco and the piano took pride of place at his home in Sonoma but no one in the family could play it and it became a mere ornament. Vallejo sent back East and to Europe for sheet music by Bach, Mozart, Handel, which he carefully stored in his cellar along with another of his most valuable possessions, his wine. An agreement was drawn up on March 24, 1846, signed by both Andrew Hoeppner (a German who had spent some time in Sitka, Alaska) and Vallejo, by which Hoeppner obligated himself to teach "General Vallejo and his actual family to play pianoforte with all the science of the art, giving lessons of music at least during five years, or more if it should be necessary, for the complete instruction of the children, both male and female." In return, Vallejo would give Hoeppner a tract of his land, 4000 acres, as soon as Hoeppner had carried out his agreement. Shortly before the five-year time limit was up, the deal was completed and Hoeppner got his land. Subsequently he sold off various parcels of the land, part of which became the town of Glen Ellen in the Valley of the Moon close to where Jack London made his home. Vallejo’s piano, the one brought around Cape Horn by Captain Stephen Smith in 1843, is the earliest one that is still intact and can be visited at Lachryma Montis, Vallejo’s home that he built in the early 1850’s in Sonoma.

© Heather Morris 2015