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Piano keys, built in Burlington

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, November 27, 1979

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 023)

Brief stay for ‘key’ makers

The Boston area had a lot of piano manufacturers in the 1800s, making them readily available to a rapidly expanding market around here. The first piano-forte maker in America may have been the fellow who made his first piano in his Milton shop in 1792. The apprentices from that shop moved on to spark a piano-making boom which resulted in Boston’s South End supporting some 40 piano-forte factories and related specialty factories by 1871.

The early piano-fortes were built in the harpsichord shape, roughly the one still used for the grand piano. In England about 1760, the first “Square” piano was built. It wasn’t really square but oblong with the keyboard placed along one long side. The only other basic piano shape is that of the upright.

Prior to the 1830’s, all pianos were built on a wooden frame which often splintered, broke or warped, thus destroying the instruments or at least spoiling the music. Then a single cast metal frame was made in Philadelphia in 1833, improved greatly by Jonas Chickering of Boston in 1840. Today metal frames are the standard. They can withstand a pull (of the bass strings) of as much as 30 tons.

Burlington never possessed a piano manufacturing plant, but it did have a shop that made piano keys and cases. This shop operated on water power provided by Vine Brook, and stood approximately where Woodward’s Package Store stands on Middlesex Turnpike*. Here a dam held back the waters of 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.

Prior to 1840, James Allen of Lexington had a mill there. Then it became the property of the Cumston family, who 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, all situated at the then junction of the Turnpike and Lexington Street, before Route 128 and the Burlington Mall forced a straightening of Lexington Street near the Turnpike. For many years, the area was known as Cumstonville.

Cumston piano ad

The list of persons in Burlington subject to military service in 1865 shows that five of them were piano key makers. The piano keys and cases produced by Cumston fed many Boston piano factories.

The growing availability of pianos (Chickering churned them out from his factory in Tremont Street like a Detroit production line), coupled with an already developed interest in piano music in the Boston area, increased the importance of the piano-forte as the musical instrument in the New England home. Burlington people soon had them. 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 them 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. 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. Many homes built during the 60’s and 70’s had a piano alcove for just such a square piano built into the parlor.

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

Leonard Pimentel, right rear

*It’s now the Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner of Wheeler Road.