Bring Her Home

Chesbro reconnects with the past through century-old piano

Published online: Dec 15, 2016 Articles Nikki Siegel
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The Discovery

The piano, with its beautiful woodwork, rusted pedals and dusty frame, sat in Sandy Davis’s dry storage shed for years. It was high time for it to find a new home, but what to do with it?

“My husband wanted to clear it out and use that space, so I did some research… to see if it would be something worthwhile restoring and giving to a local school,” Davis said.

The weathered but prominent mark of the “H&H Chesbro” decal on the piano’s fallboard led Davis’ search to Chesbro Music Co.’s website. She decided an inquiry into the value of the piano would be a good place to start in deciding whether or not the timeworn piece was worth restoration.

It was September, 2013, when Tana Stahn of Chesbro received the letter containing several pictures and the handwritten note. Tana said she immediately grew excited at the news the letter contained: a piano, likely created in the first years of their century-old family company, had been discovered.

“When my sister [Vanetta] got ahold of the letter, we shared that,” Tana said.  “She said, ‘We’ve got to bring that piano home.’”

After learning the importance of the piano to the Chesbro family, Davis agreed to donate the piano to the company. There was only one big obstacle in the way: Canada. Davis and the piano lived in North Pole, Alaska.

The Loss

Despite the challenges they knew lay ahead, the Chesbro employee family rallied around the idea of bringing the piano back to where it belonged.

“We just knew we wanted it home and in our building here as a memento of our history,” Tana said.

Two months after the decision to find a way to bring the history home, tragedy struck. Tana’s younger sister and the president of Chesbro, Vanetta Chesbro Wilson, passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack.

“[Vanetta] was very much instrumental for me in my life,” Tana said.  “She was my idol… because her business sense was so keen and because of her forward thinking.”

She said Wilson moved the company forward into new markets and was always looking for ways to reach out to the community, whether through participation in the Rotary Club, Sister Cities program or simply spreading her love of music.

“It kind of took on a whole new meaning to bring it home for her,” Tana said.

The Journey

Now CEO of Chesbro, the task of bringing the piano home fell on Tana’s shoulders. She said their plan at that time was to get a trucking company to bring the piano into Idaho Falls to have Greg Mickelson, a local expert who had worked with many of Chesbro’s Zeck pianos in the past, restore it, but heartbreak struck again: Mickelson and the prospective truck driver both suffered heart attacks. Mickelson passed away, and the driver could no longer make the journey.

Tana and her daughter, JennieLee Stahn, set to work trying to find a restoration expert in the Seattle area and a trucking company equipped to make the journey.

The summer months crawled by, and along with them came the announcement of new ivory laws being passed in January. Moving the ivory-keyed antique became a race against time; it was now or probably never.

Then the news came: winter is early to come to North Pole Alaska, so Davis and her husband had already packed their shed for the winter. The earliest the piano could get out now would be next spring – after the ivory laws were passed.

“I went into mom’s office and said ‘Is this meant to be? Will we ever get the piano home?’” JennieLee said. “We kind of both sunk in our chairs and thought ‘Is this ever going to happen?’”

Tana said that out of desperation, she emailed Davis’s address to an old friend who lived approximately 35 miles from where the piano currently resided.

“I was on pins and needles waiting,” Tana said, describing the days she waited without hearing any news, good or otherwise.

Meanwhile, Tana’s friend Ann Ward met with Davis, and, unbeknownst to Tana, picked up the piano only a couple of days later.

“The day I got the text, which just says ‘We have the piano,’ I was super excited,” Tana said. “I could visualize the piano sitting in [their] shop in Salcha, Alaska…. We felt like it had traveled a lot more miles [than it actually had].”

Following the shipping specifications and YouTube video guidance, Ward’s husband custom-built a crate for the piano. The shipper JennieLee hired picked up the carefully packed fortress and delivered it straight to its destination in Olympia, Washington.

The Restoration

Tana and JennieLee found Ed Howard, president of Olympic Piano Rebuilders, through the high recommendations of several sources, and said they decided to trust him completely with the restoration. Howard has been restoring pianos for over 40 years now, and specializes in, as he puts it, “pianos that other people don’t want to touch.”

Tana wanted the piano to resemble its original self as closely as possible, so requested Howard not rebuild the piano, but instead repair any damage the best he could.

To honor Tana’s request, Howard said they only worked on major repairs and touch-ups. They replaced the now-useless strings in the piano with new, custom-made replicas. They also replaced many of the ivory key tops with ones from other old pianos that had been donated.

“It’s a great-sounding piano,” Howard said. “I’m happy it sounds as good as it does. When people put a lot of money into these pianos, you’re hoping that they’re going to be pleased because they’re spending their money on nostalgia and a family heirloom.”

The Homecoming

The piano, now with polished wood and gleaming keys, sits patiently in Howard’s shop, waiting for Tana and JennieLee to make the last leg of a long and emotional journey.

Chesbro is ready to welcome it home at last.

Editor’s note:  The piano safely arrived in Idaho Falls mid-April, 2015. 

This story was originally published in the May/June 2015 edition of the Idaho Falls magazine.


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