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Tickling the ivories, using your feet: Nottingham player piano joins artifacts at Eagle museum

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The recently restored Nottingham player piano at the Eagle County Historical Society Museum.

Pam Boyd, Vail Daily 

Back before seemingly unlimited entertainment choices could be beamed right into your living room, folks had to rely on their own talents if they wanted to relax with some tunes after a hard day's work.

Trouble was, not everyone had the skill or instruction to coax music from an instrument. But before there was radio or even recordings, there were player pianos. Eagle County's Nottingham family were the proud owners of one, which has now on display at the Eagle County Historical Society Museum at Chambers Park in Eagle.

Last year Susan Nottingham donated the instrument to the historical society. Even before it was placed on display, the piano had a local lineage. Avon rancher Harry Nottingham purchased the solid oak "Automotive" piano, which still has its original ivory keys, in 1911. The handsome instrument dates to the Arts and Crafts Movement era and was likely shipped to Colorado from New York. Interestingly, Nottingham paid Eagle County personal property taxes on the piano back in 1911.

Eagle County Historical Society President Kathy Heicher noted that player pianos were actually common in homes from 1905 to 1929. In the days preceding radios and phonographs, these mechanized pianos were the primary method of introducing new music to on a large scale. Otherwise, people could learn new songs only by hearing them performed or by reading music.

The Nottingham piano stayed in that family for more than 40 years, then was sold to family friends. Several decades later, the Nottinghams recovered the original piano. Before Susan Nottingham donated the piano to the society, the instrument had been stored in a barn for several years.

"We opened it up and found the remains of an old mouse nest," Heicher said. "The bellows inside the instrument were also brittle. If the artifact was to be wholly appreciated, it needed work. We had to find a player piano repair person. They are elusive."

Ultimately the society located Jere DeBacker, a Denver-based repairman.

"Jere came up to take a look at it and said it was a nice piece and he could fix it," Heicher said. However, he said the piano would have to come to his workshop and the repair would cost $5,000. Then serendipity played its part to bring the Nottingham piano back to life.

At the same time the society was trying to figure out how to pay for the piano repair, a local representative form the El Pomar Foundation contacted the group to see if there were any ready-to-roll projects that needed funding.

"A $2,500 grant from El Pomar definitely kicked of the repair work and we also used money from the John Bronn (the late museum curator) memorial fund to complete the repair," Heicher said.

The society hired a piano moving company, sent the instrument off to Denver and waited for word that the work was complete. This summer, the working Nottingham piano returned to Eagle County.

Read more here.