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Rhapsody in Burlington

This article is based on “A brief stay for key-makers” by Ed Fogelberg, published in the Daily Times Chronicle Nov. 27, 1979. Edited and expanded by BurlingtonRetro.com

America’s original piano-forte maker (that’s the original name for a piano) made his debut in a Milton shop in 1792. The skilled apprentices from that shop then ignited a piano-making boom in Boston. By 1871, about 40 piano-forte factories and parts suppliers dotted the South End alone.

Burlington never built pianos — but it did have a shop that made piano keys and cases. It ran on a water wheel powered by the Vine Brook, and stood approximately where Dunkin’ Donuts is today, on Middlesex Turnpike at the corner of Wheeler Road. A dam held back the Vine Brook, making a sizable pond on the easterly side of the street, an area that today supports a gas station and several other buildings.

James Allen of Lexington had a mill there until about 1840, when it became the property of the Cumston family. The Cumstons improved the dam, built a bigger mill, and created a fine home for themselves with a coach house and stables and quarters for the hired help. During the Civil War years, Cumston owned six houses, two barns, four mill buildings and 57 acres of land. For many years, the area was even known as Cumstonville.

Cumston piano ad

The Burlington military roster of 1865 shows that five enlisted men were piano-key makers. The piano keys and cases produced by Cumston fed many Boston piano factories. The Cumston factory became the print factory of Thomas Barr and Co. in 1870. The old water wheel now turned the drums which printed a design on cloth and carpeting. Barr went out of business before the turn of the century.

The piano-forte became the must-have musical instrument in the New England home. Burlington people soon had them.

Late 1800s — When the Winns finally moved out of their fine old home which once stood on the corner of Winn Street and Newbridge Avenue, they left behind one of the first upright pianos made. It was a tremendously heavy and solid instrument because of its huge cast-iron frame. Moved by young William Winn to his little house then standing on Cambridge Street opposite the present High School playing field, it was so heavy that the floor began to give way, so he had to have the piano removed.

1925 — When Mrs. Maude Young moved into the old Carr farmhouse on Locust Street in 1925, she brought with her a very fine but huge square piano. Standing on heavy carved legs in its black lacquered dignity, it occupied so much space in the small front room that she eventually gave it away.

1945 — A shop teacher named Leonard Pimentel (right rear corner below) donated a grand piano to the school system.

Pimentel school, no caption

1960s/70s — Many homes built during the 60’s and 70’s had a piano alcove for just such a square piano built into the parlor.

1970s — Burlington had a keyboard-peddler in the Burlington Mall.

Wurlitzer Piano-Organ Burlington Mall, Burlington, MA

Let’s fast-forward to 2022. Burlington is still in the piano business.

2 thoughts on “Rhapsody in Burlington Leave a comment

  1. I remember the Wurlitzer store well. I worked at Music Unlimited for years which was located at the back of the Wurlitzer store. Dom Molinaro, who used to own the Gulf station at the corner of 3A and Bedford St that also had a small music store attached to it, was co-owner. My dad was Dom’s accountant and my parents bought my first guitar from Dom when I was in 1st grade.. Dom ended up opening the Music Unlimited store with a partner named Eli Rabkin.. we used to have great jam sessions at MU and got to know the folks who worked at the Wurlitzer store very well.. Great times..

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