Michael Stinnett has tickled the ivories for a long time.
“When I was 3, I came home from Bible school and sat down and played ‘Jesus Loves Me’ on the piano,” he said, noting he had perfect pitch and studied music all the way through college.
Now a certain set of ivories is tickling him.
Stinnett, owner of Antique Piano Shop in Friendville, Tenn., makes no secret of his fondness for a piano owned by Janine Shaw of Ashland.
“I wish I owned it,” he said. “It needs to be in a museum. It deserves that kind of environment.”
Antique Piano Shop specializes in high-end piano restoration. Museum-quality instruments come to the shop from all over the world to be refurbished to their original glory.
The Shaws’ piano, which also has its original stool, is a Chickering square grand piano built in 1861 specifically to be used on the Mississippi River Steamboat known as the Steamer Mary E. Keene. Stinnett said a metal plaque afixed to the piano bears the name of the steamboat. It also has the serial number to identify it as such.
Although it is clearly identifiable, exactly what happened to the piano is unknown. Shortly after the piano was built and placed on the steamboat, it was called into service for the North, to deliver supplies. The steamboat was in the South at the time and was destroyed, which leads to much speculation as to how the piano survived.
The Shaws’ piano wasn’t in extremely bad shape, Stinnett said, but it needed work on the outside for appearance sake and on the inside for sound. The instrument required Brazilian rosewood and genuine ivory, which aren’t available, except that Stinnett said he had some pianos beyond repair that he uses for parts.
The shop, which is near Dollywood, attracts clients from all over the world. Their pianos must be shipped to his store, which is home to a variety of large and specialty machinery and people with specific talents for piano repair.
“It is a labor of love,” he said of piano repair. “It takes a range of special and talented people here to make this happen.”
Stinnett said he also does business online. The Shaws’ piano is for sale and is featured on this website.
“The piano is probably one of the most important pieces of American history of any piano we’ve had,” he said, noting he’s seen references to the piano and the steamboat in his research.
“It apparently was custom made for the boat and was used for a short period of time,” he said. “Then, the Civil War broke out and was commissioned to take supplies ‘to the enemy,’” he said with a chuckle. “Southerners burned the boat and somehow, the piano and a chandeliere were removed and saved and then lost and recovered.
“It’s incredible to think that piano survived. It’s carved so beautifully... you can just imagine the wealth and the finery.”
Stinnett said the piano is very narrow and long; its unusual dimensions were necessary for it to fit into the boat but its sound was not affected.
“It’s very petite and feminine in appearance, but it is a full-size grand piano,” he said. “It was built that way to take up as little space as possible on the ship.”
He said his website gets 4,000 hits daily and he receives 50 or 60 emails asking about his services but “in 20 years of business, I’ve never had (a piano) like this”
Chickering was the first piano company established in the United States, in 1823, which was before the famous and sought-after Steinway came to the country.
The piano is listed for sale at $75,000. For more information and more views of the piano, visit antiquepianoshop.com
LEE WARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2661.