Mysterious note holds the key to piano's uncertain history

Friday, January 8, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
The old piano waits at the J.W. "Blind" Boone Home on Fourth Street for its connection to Boone to be verified. John William Boone lost his sight as an infant when his eyes were removed to reduce brain swelling. His parents worked hard to encourage his gift for music, which surfaced as early as age 3. It paid off, and Boone became one the most popular ragtime pianists in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

COLUMBIA — A film of fallen plaster covers the piano, but music still plays from its worn keys.

For at least the past two years, the upright piano has resided inside the home of J.W. "Blind" Boone, a building that some believe may have been its original residence.


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Columbia businessman John Ott discovered the piano while remodeling what is now the North Village Studios on East Walnut Street in October 2007. He believes it could be related to Boone, a famous ragtime pianist at the turn of the 20th century. Ott passed the piano on to the city of Columbia, which is financing an ongoing renovation of Boone's home on Fourth Street.

Boone toured the country with his custom-made Chickering piano, which has been restored, polished, tuned to perfection and put on display at the Boone County Historical Society.

Ott found the second piano, a Weaver model, hidden in an area between two storage companies downtown.

Over the past few weeks, Missouri historian Mike Shaw has been investigating the piano’s history in an attempt to verify its relationship to Boone.

“He owned several pianos,” Shaw said. “So there is a possibility that he owned this one. As far as how we’ll ever tell for sure, I have no idea how we’ll figure that out.”

Shaw has consulted two experts who dated the piano to 1911. He then traced the piano to its manufacture at the E.P. Johnson Piano Co. in Ottawa, Ill. Shaw hopes the historical society there might have records linking the piano to its original owner.

At this time, the only evidence supporting the connection to Boone is a handwritten, anonymous note discovered inside the piano and a piece of furniture that resembles the piano in the background of a historical photograph of Boone and his Chickering.

“If we knew it was Boone’s piano, it might be worth restoring,” Shaw said. “But if it’s just an old upright Weaver, it’s not worth the $8,000 or $10,000 it would cost to restore it.”

The note claims the piano belonged to a family who associated with Boone. It's difficult to decipher the family's name, which has complicated efforts to identify any link to Boone.

“It’s not a surname that I can find,” Shaw said. “It starts with either a Z or a J. Even with that, I’ve looked at census records, and I can’t find any resemblance of the name at all.”

After failed attempts to locate the family on historic records, Shaw, who had been working from a copy of the note, hoped to date the piece of paper found in the piano. But the original seems to have vanished.  

Ott said he made a copy of the note for himself before giving the original to the city in 2007. Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig Hopkins said she was unaware of the note’s location.

At this point, the city is focusing on restoring the Boone home. Plans have yet to be made for the piano. The restoration will transform the house into a museum honoring Boone. The Blind Boone Heritage Foundation needs to raise about $1 million to cover the exhibits, the interior renovation and an endowment for the operation of the museum.

“We’re trying to get this home completed,” Hopkins said. “So we’re not sure yet what’s going to happen with the piano.”

The city will continue to work with Shaw to see if any connection can be made to Boone beyond the handwritten note. Even if the Weaver isn't the piece of furniture in the historic photograph, the city is still interested in its history. If the piano belonged to a family that knew Boone, he may have at least had an opportunity to play it.

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Steven Fair January 8, 2010 | 8:35 p.m.

The $10,000 price tage of restoration is assuming that everything will be put into pristene condition. I would suggest that the old upright can be put into playable condition, including new keytops, for less than $1,000. This would not include anything major, just fixing up what is there without extraordinary measures taken. Getting a second opinion can be a good idea.

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Mike Shaw January 12, 2010 | 3:39 p.m.

You are certainly correct in saying the 1911 Weaver piano could be made playable for much less than $10,000.00. If it could be proven that John Boone owned it, or even played it on occasion, it would merit a full restoration. However, if no connection to Boone can be proven then it could be retained as a period instrument. In this case it would only have to look good, which it does already. Mr. Frank Hennessy is now in possesion of the piano and he will assess it's condition.

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