Sisters Lorena Draney and Thelma McInroy - 97-year old Lorena still plays the piano by ear

Keys from the past: century-old piano makes its way home

The over 100-year old instrument has been making its rounds through the Valley for the past century

“I would know that piano anywhere,” said 97-year old Lorena (Engebretson) Draney about her long lost piano. The over 100-year old instrument has been making its rounds through the Bella Coola Valley for the past century. Here I will venture to tell you how a young girl’s beloved piano became my husband’s family heirloom and how, with some Christmas magic, the mystery of her missing piano was solved.

It is a Mason and Risch, Henry Herbert piano built between 1895 and 1900 in Quebec. My husband Barry found a serial number inside the piano and Googled it. He found the serial number while replacing outer pieces of the piano that had been removed for the piano’s most recent move.

Barry’s mom and dad, Frank and Louise Brekke, had an old piano tucked into a corner in the basement of their Hagensborg home. Louise had been given the piano by her parents, Louis and Pauline Svisdahl. When our kids showed an interest in lessons we asked if the piano was playable. Since the instrument had endured several floods we weren’t sure what condition it might be in. Not only did it turn out to be playable but it wasn’t terribly out of tune and had a deep melodic tone.

Barry got a crew together and moved the piano, which weighs about 400 – 500 lbs. It was a dastardly job to get it up into the living room of our house because the stairwell was narrow with a right angle turn. We had to make a few repairs to stairs and walls, but the piano stayed and was well used by our daughter and my mom, Marit Hansen. It required only an occasional tuning as it holds a tune for several years at a time.

There were two family stories associated with the piano. One explained why the edges of many of the ivories had multiple tiny chips in them. These were inflicted by Barry, who at the approximate age of two, would bite on the overhanging edges of the keys. How is that for a teething instrument!

The second story maintained that the piano had come up river in a native canoe. We can’t confirm this tale but it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely since in the early 1900s the route up valley was just a trail through the bush and many household items did come up courtesy of Nuxalk people.

Eventually we made a move to a different home and there was no question about taking the piano with us. It takes four to six men with strong backs (and big hearts) to move it so everyone was happy that this time there were no stairs involved.

A few years later we moved back to our original home and this time Barry said, “It’s going in the basement. We can’t take that thing up those stairs again.” By then our daughter was at university but when she visited she would occasionally venture into the cobweb draped piano tomb to play. Oh yes – shades of Phantom of the Opera.

Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I begged and pleaded to have the piano brought up into the house. I played the ‘do it for your daughter’ card. This time the piano was winched up wooden slides to the second story balcony and brought into the “parlour”. Much easier! said I, the spectator. “That’s it,” Barry said, “I am never moving that thing again.”

In 2016 we decided to sell and move to his parent’s place at Charlotte Lake in the Chilcotin, half an hour off the highway; the turnoff being at Towdystan.

“It’s impossible, it will never survive the trip over that gravel road,” said both my husband and our daughter. We would have to leave the piano for the new owners. I badly wanted to take it with us and wooed my husband with imaginings of the notes of Fur Elise wafting out over the lake and down to our neighbours. In the end it wasn’t my wooing that worked. Barry just could not leave this family relic behind and he devised a moving plan…again.

This time, with the assistance of a machine (and a few more good hearted, strong men) the piano was winched down from the balcony, pushed up into the back of our truck, padded, wrapped and tarped, and STRAPPED in. The drive up valley, up the Hill, and through the west Chilcotin was slow but uneventful. Yet the condition of the piano was still not guaranteed.

At the house at Charlotte Lake we had to uninstall a set of glass patio doors in order to fit the piano through. We put two huge straps under the piano and using the backhoe Barry lifted it onto the deck while we both held our breath. From there we laid down pieces of plywood and then pushed it on its rusty, creaky casters to its intended place. The hinged pieces were reattached and it was dusted off. The only visible damage was a bit of dampness that had left some marks on one end.

When my mom next came up she ran her fingers over the keys and was astonished to hear that it was still in tune. We opened up doors and windows and that old piano echoed it notes out over the water.

But WAIT that is only the beginning of this piano’s saga!

Several weeks before this past Christmas we get an excited email from our friend Lynda Flaten Sangster. She had been visiting the Engebretson sisters (that is, Thelma McInroy and Lorena Draney) when the story about moving our piano to Charlotte Lake had come up. Lorena is an avid pianist and both sisters are very musical. “Well, we are pretty sure that piano was our mother’s” they said. “Would they have gotten the piano from people named Pauline and Louis Svisdahl?”

Amazing!! I immediately sent photos of the piano for Lynda to show Lorena and Thelma and subsequently met with them. “Oh yes,” said Lorena, “I remember being three years old, sitting on my dad’s lap wanting to play that piano.” “I first learned a few chords and always wanted to play along with my dad when he played the fiddle and he always thought that was so funny.”

Thelma and Lorena relate that the piano belonged to their mother Annie (Lunos) Engebretson. They don’t know if she and her dad brought it with them from Minnesota or from Vancouver or if they purchased it after coming to Bella Coola but they recall it always being in the house at the Nusatsum homestead.

Annie was born in Crookston, Minnesota. After “her mother and siblings all passed away [from tuberculosis] Jacob Lunos and daughter Annie joined Reverend Saugstad’s Sandhill Lutheran Church congregation in emigrating to Bella Coola.”(From a story told by Annie Engebretson with Elsey Wright) Annie played piano by notes and gave lessons. She wanted to teach Lorena to play by notes as well, “You know – that one, two, three, one two, three stuff,” says Lorena who had other ideas.

When her mother put up a piece of music to be learned, Lorena would ask her mom to play it first. Later, Lorena would play the piece by ear while pretending to use the sheet music. Lorena has always played by ear.

In 1934, when Lorena was thirteen, her family moved to the Chilcotin, to Towdystan. Because her mother didn’t think the piano would survive the trip, Annie sold the piano to Louis and Pauline Svisdahl for one hundred dollars.

Lorena didn’t play the piano for many years after that but eventually bought a piano accordian “for fifty bucks”. She certainly plays the piano these days. She regularly entertains residents and guest of the Seniors Apartments using the piano in the common room. The day of our interview was no exception. It wasn’t long before she had myself and Lynda Sangster tappin’ and clappin’! It is enthralling to watch her 97-year old fingers skip fantastically over the keys. “It’s gotta come through your fingers [from your heart]” laughs Lorena.

Her sense of humour and accompanying laughter indeed lightens the heart. When asked if I could write a story for the newspaper, Lorena responded, “Oh sure but make it juicy!”

A final note (if there is to be one in this saga): the piano now resides in a home on a piece of property at Charlotte lake (not far from Towdystan) that Barry’s mom and dad bought from Thelma and Earl McInroy.

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