(Part of our “From the Piano Bench” series, reprints from the San Jose Historical Museum newsletter archives)
By Anne-Louise Heigho
An article in the San Jose Mercury of December 22, 1941, traces the history of the first piano in San Jose: it was a rosewood square grand, made by an Albany builder named Burns in 1849. Purchased by a Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, it then made the voyage by ship around the Horn to San Francisco. Mrs. Wilson insisted that the instrument be accessible for playing, not consigned to the hold for ballast [what effect do you suppose that had on its tune and condition?], and that was her last chance to enjoy it. Upon arrival at Yerba Buena (as the fledgling city was still called], her husband pawned it to the newly rich James Frazer Reed for $1000. If the Wilsons were successful in the diggings they could redeem the instrument; otherwise, another $500 would give Reed absolute ownership. [This, in a time when you could build a large house for about $100…] The piano was moved to San Jose by wagon — why not by water, when there were no responsible roads? Again, we question the effect on the hapless instrument.
James Frazer Reed, survivor of the infamous Donner-Reed overland party, had himself struck a Golconda in the goldfields and returned to San Jose to buy up much of the downtown property between the SJSU campus and route 280. Local streets are named for his family: Margaret, Martha, Virginia, Reed, etc. He wanted the piano for his daughter, Virginia, to use, and contracted with a local Frenchman named Love for a series of piano lessons for $175. Another kind of love interfered with that project, for Virginia soon quit and got married. The rest of the lessons were snapped up by younger sister Martha [nicknamed Patty], who was apparently more receptive to music, for she persisted in the art. Patty’s succeeding teacher, Jessie B. Winlack, was luckless enough to be returning to her Scottish family by way of the steamer Jenny Lind when it blew up at Alviso in 1858, killing her and most of the other passengers.
Patty had later connections with the Pacific Conservatory, whose faculty member J. M. Moody wrote a series of “Nine Songs,” and dedicated one to Patty, now designated as Martha Reed Lewis. She had married and moved to Capitola, where she was one of the founders of St. Johns’ Episcopal Church. According to the newspaper article, the “first piano” had come with her and was still in the family home in 1941.
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