Missouri town wants to restore doctor’s old piano

A poster in the Bates County Museum tells the story of Butler’s 135-year-old Steinway piano. The museum plans to raise $50,000 to send the piano to the Steinway factory in New York for restoration.
A poster in the Bates County Museum tells the story of Butler’s 135-year-old Steinway piano. The museum plans to raise $50,000 to send the piano to the Steinway factory in New York for restoration. The Kansas City Star

A doctor from this Bates County town paid big money for a grand piano from New York City and had it shipped to his home just off the square.

The town wants to send it back.

Not that they don’t like it. It’s a very nice piano.

But it was more than 135 years ago that Elliott Pyle bought the Steinway Model B after seeing one like it on display when he traveled to Philadelphia for the country’s centennial celebration in 1876. It stood among the hoopla — carved rosewood, Victorian legs, one of the finest pianos in the world.

It won honors at the Centennial Exhibition. Such an instrument would have been a rarity in any home back then, even more so in a small town in post-Civil War rural Missouri.

Nobody knows why Pyle would buy such an extravagance, but over the years many a Bates County child took lessons on that piano from the doctor’s daughter, Eunice. In 1979, as both she and the piano were wearing out, she gave it to the Bates County Museum in Butler.

People now want to hear the music again. From the fingers of today’s children. So they plan to dig old Doc Pyle’s piano out of storage and ship it back to the Steinway factory in New York for a complete restoration.

To the tune of $50,000.

That would take some serious hat-passing in a small town, and probably too many bake sales and bean feeds, so they’ve decided to sell shares for $100 each. The Elks Lodge is already in, as is the Double Branch Christian Church. Somebody bought a share in memory of a deceased piano teacher.

“After all this piano has done for this town, it deserves what we can do for it now,” said museum director Peggy Buhr, who came up with the Save Our Steinway plan.

The hope is to ship the piano to New York next spring. The restoration will take about a year. Then, for the second time, the piano will travel halfway across the country to Butler, about an hour south of Kansas City.

Only this time it won’t arrive by horse-drawn wagon.

The Steinway will take its place in the museum’s Robertson Hall to be used for recitals and concerts.

“And it will sound like this,” said Blair Penney, a piano specialist and Steinway representative at Schmitt Music in Overland Park, as he jumped into a lively excerpt from Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”

Beautiful music filled the room like a flash flood. He segued into Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

He stopped, smiled and extended his arm over the Steinway Model B.

“This is it,” Penney said. “The Butler piano is this one. They will replace everything except the trim, plate and maybe the legs.

“I’ve never heard of a community passing the hat for a restoration, but their piano will be like new and sound just like this one.”

Price tag on the one he played: $96,400.

When word first got out that Buhr wanted to raise $50,000 to fix up an an old piano, people likely had doubts.

“I’m sure they thought, ‘No way can she do this,’” Buhr said one day last week.

It’s a lot of money. But consider that a Steinway has 12,116 parts and a restoration will replace all but a handful. Consider, too, that the doctor’s piano would then be worth about double the repair bill.

Buhr thinks she could probably get a handful of benefactors to ante up the whole $50,000, but that’s not what she wants. She wants community ownership — that this be the people’s Steinway.

She wants the piano to strike up a fine-arts movement in the county. She wants children’s recitals at the museum. She envisions conservatory students and perhaps even professional musicians coming to town to play what will be certified as a Steinway heirloom piano.

Buhr has rounded up piano teachers in the area and is giving pep talks to area clubs and organizations. A week ago, she had a tent on the Butler square, pitching the piano at Huckster’s Day. Fundraisers are planned, including a “Spirit Stroll” through the town cemetery on Halloween weekend.

Along the route? Of course, the grave of Dr. Pyle.

The woman knows how to sell.

Town leader

Stories sometimes require a little speculation. Especially one out of a rural Missouri town 135 years ago.

It’s known that Pyle was born in 1827 in Iowa and served as an Army surgeon in a Union outfit during the Civil War. Nobody knows how he came to to settle in Butler after the war, but Buhr said the area offered lots of opportunity because 70 percent of the people never returned after Order No. 11 destroyed many homes.

Pyle quickly became a town leader and businessman. In addition to a medical practice, he ran a dram shop on the square, was involved in banking and eventually helped bring the railroad to town. He and his wife had three children.

And in 1876, Pyle went to Philadelphia for America’s 100th birthday gala.

Chris Wimsatt at the Bates County Museum researched Pyle and discovered that he’d married in 1854. So 1879 would have been the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary.

“Maybe the Steinway was a present to his wife?” Wimsatt suggested.

Steinway & Sons was started in 1853 by Henry Engelhard Steinway, a German immigrant, in a Manhattan loft in New York City. Henry and his sons built one piano at a time, and the Steinway quickly became known as the finest in the country.

The piano purchased by Pyle was started in 1877 and completed April 3, 1879. It arrived in Kansas City, probably by rail, a month later. Wimsatt and Buhr figure the piano came the rest of the way to Butler by wagon.

It was a time when lots of homes had pianos for entertainment. But not a lot had a piano like this one.

Nobody knows how much Pyle paid for it. Penney at Schmitt Music thinks it could have pushed $1,000. According to an inflation adjustment calculator, what cost $1,000 in 1879 would cost almost $25,000 today.

Wimsatt said the doctor died in 1898 after slipping on ice and falling while carrying a stack of books. Eunice, from her father’s second marriage, gave piano lessons in the family home for decades.

She died in 1983, four years after giving the piano to the museum.

‘Gives me chills’

“Oh, she’ll get it done,” C.A. Moore, editor and publisher of the News-Xpress in Butler, said of Buhr and the piano restoration.

He thinks people are behind the project, and he’s been covering the county for more than half a century. They’ve seen Buhr pull off other feats. The museum, which is housed in a brick building that used to be the county poor farm, is known for its exhibits on Osage Indians, early settlers, the Border War, railroads, coal mining and Minuteman missiles from the Cold War.

At present, Buhr’s got a huge tree stump out back that she doesn’t know how to get rid of. They can’t afford a bulldozer so they tried to blow it up. Didn’t work. So she’s invited chainsaw artists to have a go at it. She sees the stump being the centerpiece of a “salvage sculpture garden,” along with some rusty, old farm equipment.

“She’s a county treasure and we’re lucky to have her here,” Moore said in his office. “Just thinking about that first concert almost gives me chills.”

But first is the trip to New York for the piano with 15 laminated layers of hard maple.

“This one will be especially heavy because of the old, old wood,” said Penney, who is helping with the project.

Steinway craftsmen first will remove the pedals as they disassemble the piano. They’ll take off the music rack, key slip and fall board and pull out the action. “If it doesn’t have 12,116 genuine Steinway parts, it isn’t a Steinway,” the company’s website says of a restoration.

Old out, new in. A year’s work will finish with replacing the original serial number in vintage script.

“What a great venue they are going to have down there for piano teachers and students when this is all done,” Penney said.

Sally Hatten, who has taught music in several schools in the area, agrees.

“Particularly with schools cutting back on music programs, we need enrichment now more than ever,” Hatten said. “Piano teachers around here are going to love this.

“I didn’t play a Steinway until I went to Columbia for a music contest when I was in high school.”

She and the others say the town has to step up now or lose not only a piece of history but also the opportunity for kids in town to play on a Steinway Model B, just like the one that caught Elliott Pyle’s eye in 1876 in Philadelphia.

Nobody else is likely to send one to Butler, on a wagon or otherwise.

As committee member Dottie Esher said, “If we don’t do it, it’s gone forever.”

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

For more information about the Save Our Steinway project, contact the Bates County Museum at 660-679-0134. The museum is at 802 Elks Drive in Butler, Mo.