LAURENT D'ENTREMONT: The old Amherst Piano

Laurent
Laurent D’Entremont
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The other day, I helped my neighbour and distant cousin, Normand d’Entremont, dispose of his old piano, which was no longer in serviceable condition.

This piano was built by Amherst Piano Ltd., sometime between 1913 and 1928. The manufacturer is no longer in operation.

Some of these pianos have survived, though, and I saw some in various states of restoration being advertised for sale. Prices for these antique pianos were on the low end, as they were only fetching from $100 to not much more than $600 from buyers. One can assume that there is little value, other than sentimental or historical, for these relics of the past. It is reported by musicians that they are difficult to restore and to keep in tune for any length of time.

For a bit of history: in the early 1900s, the biggest music retailer in the Maritimes was the McDonald Piano and Music Company. The company’s sales were so good that, about 1912 or so, McDonald decided to build pianos and named the company “Amherst Pianos Ltd.” In those days, pianos were associated with the wealthy class. At that time, John Anthony McDonald (1875-1948) was a Halifax businessman living in Amherst and located the company there. He would build pianos for the average wage earner; his catchy slogan was “A piano for every parlor. As a note of interest, in 1921, J. A. McDonald was appointed to the senate by then-Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Meehan.

 The piano company was a big success; however, one could question the slogan of “A piano for every parlor” because at the outset of the First World War, a player piano from this very company sold for $750. For that amount of money, or less, you could buy a good Model T Ford, a Chevrolet or a Dodge Touring Car. One can safely assume that the farmer’s wife and children would rather have a touring car for Sunday drives than to listen to the same “honky-tonk” tune day after day. The motorcar was indeed competing with piano sales, among other things. However, the player piano craze lasted 20 or so years in the early part of the last century.

My neighbour’s Amherst piano had spent many years in a Baptist church in my part of the country before Normand bought it as a gift for his mother. Eventually, no longer in use, the old Amherst was stored in a garage, where mice found it a comfortable place to call home. Now the music instrument was unworthy of restoration and my neighbour took it apart and we burned it one piece at a time in a fire pit. As the flames leaped and turned from yellow to red to blue, I could not help but think of all the hymns like Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross or Let the Lower Lights be Burning, plus many others, once played on that piano while church property. Later, as private property, you can be sure that the songs enjoyed at family gatherings and such were songs like Roll out the Barrel, Me and my Gal, Pack up your Trouble in Your Old Kit Bag and Five Foot Two (eyes are blue)… just to name a few.

 

The flames died and the old piano turned to ashes. Sadly, we can more or less say the same about the company. While a looming great depression may have struck the fatal blow, there were many other factors that contributed to the downfall of the Amherst Piano Ltd. In addition to the motorcar competing with piano sales, there were others to be sure, like increased freight rates and the gramophone market, plus the availability of radio. Radio was not very dependable and operated on batteries and earphones, but it was making inroads in music sales. Television was still years in the future, but movie theatres showing films with stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Nova Scotia’s own Ruby Keeler and dozens of others were very popular. This, too, played a part on the shrinking piano market.

By 1928, the Roaring Twenties were dwindling to an end and, like the dying flames in our fire pit, it also marked the end of the Amherst Piano Ltd. The profit was no more and the company closed its doors in 1928.

The Amherst piano, we could say, had played its last tune.

Organizations: Amherst Piano, McDonald Piano and Music Company, Baptist church

Geographic location: Nova Scotia

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  • Fred Bushor
    March 03, 2014 - 20:52

    Very nice article. Interesting and informative.