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Frank Gray

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Tale of city-made piano tickles many memories

Last month we wrote about a derelict Packard baby grand piano that sold for $50 at an auction of surplus equipment at a New Mexico school district.

Eventually, the old piano ended up in the hands of a Mountainair, N.M., piano restorer and a woman who was thrilled to learn the piano was made in Fort Wayne a little more than a century ago.

After about a year of labor and a pile of money, the woman, a local woodworker and the piano expert had refinished and rebuilt the piano, returning it to its early glory, or close to it, anyway.

The woman, who has family in Fort Wayne, eventually decided it would be wonderful if the piano could find a home in its birthplace, Fort Wayne. For $10,000 or so, she said, she would personally deliver the piano if someone here wanted it. In the end, though, if the piano expert could recover the cost of the parts he needed to do the restoration, he’d be happy.

I took her name and number and promised that if anyone expressed an interest, I’d put them in touch with her.

Some people have called about the piano, but they weren’t buyers. They wanted to talk about how they remembered when they tore down the Packard factory in the 1930s, or to talk about how their grandfather had worked there, or mention that their grandmother had owned a Packard.

Then someone pointed out a news article that had appeared in the New York Times last year. Pianos were a must-have in the early 1900s. The instruments provided entertainment in the home before radio and TV. Hundreds of companies made pianos – and a lot of them are ending up in the garbage dump because no one wants them.

Indeed, unloading an old piano can be hard to do.

Craigslist is one way to get rid of a piano. Around Fort Wayne, it’s easy to find pianos for $100 to $300, and there are some owners willing to let people have them for nothing, if they’re willing to haul them away.

It’s not that pianos are out of fashion. I spoke to a man named Clint Hughes. He lives in Idaho and will pick up pianos in the lower 48 states, but only certain pianos.

Hughes is interested in better-made American pianos from what he calls the golden age, from the late 1880s until the Depression. He’s not interested in upright pianos with plain woodworking. He looks for pianos with ornate carving.

Hughes, whose operation is called Grand American Piano Restorations, adopts out pianos, providing them to people for free – plus the cost of rebuilding, which can be thousands of dollars, and he never starts a rebuild until he’s got a buyer committed to pay the bill.

You don’t have to go to Idaho, though. On Coldwater Road, across from Walmart, is a place called Chupp’s, which specializes in rebuilding Steinway pianos and sells them across the country and internationally. The company’s home office is near Goshen.

The company gets calls from people who bought houses and the previous owners left behind big, old pianos.

“We’ve had people hire us to take pianos to the dump,” said Carol Chupp, the wife of owner Dennis Chupp.

A lot of the old pianos they get calls about are families’ beloved turn-of-the-century uprights, which really don’t have a lot of value, Dennis Chupp said. In this economy, Carol Chupp said, there isn’t a lot of room for sentimentality.

When you’re talking top-end pianos, though, the Chupps are interested. Do you have a Steinway grand piano? Not a baby grand or upright, but a grand piano? That’s their specialty, even if it’s worn out.

It takes up to 700 hours to rebuild a grand piano, Dennis Chupp said, but when a rebuild is finished it can be worth $25,000 to $80,000, compared with $55,000 to $140,000 for a new one.

“We can’t keep up with demand,” he said.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.