December 23, 2016
Mountain Music
Historic Pianos of the Sawtooth Valley

The sun rose magnificently over central Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains on the morning of July 4, 1863, four months to the day after the establishment of the Idaho Territory. Through a scattered veil of cloud cover, pink, peach and vibrant yellow hues shot across the mist-laden valley below, illuminating the buttressed Sawtooth Mountain range to the west. Concurrently, Civil War veteran Captain John Stanley led a group of 75 gold-seeking miners through the meadows and forests of that range on his way toward Idaho City and its significant, untapped gold deposits.

Simultaneously, somewhere on the African continent 9,000 miles away, leaves of an ebony tree waved in the hot breeze as they had for decades. Within the bark of that tree, and others like it, resided the black hardwood that would be processed by the hands of artisans, eventually being formed into the polished piano keys necessary to complete the musical masterpieces of their profession.

But just as the gold-fevered dreams of Stanley’s motley bunch had yet to be realized, so too, were the ebony keys of elegant piano keyboards yet to be carved. Within a few short years however, Idaho’s Stanley Basin, named after the warrior-turned-miner, and these yet to be constructed pianos would become joined until our modern day.

Brett Woolley, fourth-generation Sawtooth Valley resident and owner of the Bridge Street Grill in Lower Stanley, remembered hearing the plinking of high C notes and low Gs bouncing off the walls of his childhood home as his siblings fiddled around on the old dusty piano pushed into a corner of their cluttered living room.

“It was a beautiful instrument,” Woolley said of the family piano. “The woodwork was intricate, but it mostly just collected dust. My mom said it had been shipped up to the Sawtooths in the back of some old Conestoga wagon before the turn of the 20th century, maybe in the 1880s.”

Further research confirmed Woolley’s suppositions. In fact, this particular instrument was built by James Whiting Vose, who established his Boston-based piano manufacturing business in 1851, 12 years prior to Stanley’s romp through the Sawtooths. According to its serial number, the instrument was built sometime after Vose brought his sons into the business in 1889. In fact, the serial number’s historic reference would suggest this was one of the very first built under the expanded family venture, probably in 1889 or 1890, the latter of which was the year Idaho was granted statehood.

Today, the piano resides on the stage of John Graham’s Kasino Club, a popular watering hole for tourists and Stanley locals alike. The stage is often filled with musicians of various stripes sharing country ballads or rock and roll jams. Occasionally someone will sit down on the piano bench and play the ivory and ebony keys with reverence. The multi-colored lighting of the stage gives the instrument a modern and hip feel, an effect unimagined by its 19th century builders.

The late 1880s and 1890s were a very busy time in and around the Stanley Basin. The region was experiencing its greatest mining boom, as gold was found to be present in nearly every creek, stream and river bottom and entrained in much of the surrounding geology. Silver and lead, known as the conglomerate galena, was ever-present in these metallurgical veins, and shouts of “Eureka” echoed throughout Custer County as hard-working miners broke their backs to extricate the valuable ore.

Naturally, hard work was often followed by hard play. A multitude of saloons sprung up to service the thirsty men (and a few women). In addition to the coveted whiskey, which was sold by the barrelful, music was often a central feature of the ambiance these drinking establishments offered. Most commonly, music was provided by fiddle, piano and the odd crooner, but the piano was always the heart of the bar.

Small communities of individual miners and mining teams would make claim to parcels where they discovered “color,” a term used to reference the small gold nuggets and flakes that peppered a waterway, be it a spring side trickle or the mighty Upper Salmon River itself. As word spread about a given area’s potential, other hopefuls would move in, set up shop, and communities were born.

Boomtowns like Bonanza, Custer City, Bayhorse, Seafoam, Yellow Jacket and Cape Horn became thriving townships, if only until the lode ran dry. Some of these communities housed thousands of residents and the businesses to support such populations, including restaurants, laundries, real estate offices, miners’ union halls, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, blacksmith shops and the ubiquitous saloons that were home to the revelry that surrounded such a time of discovery, pioneering and the occasional gunfight.

Idaho truly was enjoying its first heyday, drawing miners from tapped out regions like California and adventurers from the American East Coast, in addition to thousands of immigrants from Europe, particularly Germany, France and England. Interestingly, the etymology of the name Idaho is a mystery. Many explanations exist as to the background of the word but none can be substantiated to this day. A common story is that the word Idaho is a derivative of the Native American Shoshone phrase, “Ee-da-how” which roughly translates to “the sun comes down from the mountains.” However, records from the U.S. Congress, which originally voted to approve the name Colorado for the territory and was later refuted when the Senate opted for the name Idaho, indicate the name was suggested by George M. Willing who explained its meaning as a native phrase for “gem of the mountains.” Surprisingly, Willing admitted later that he had invented the moniker, making Idaho perhaps the only state in the nation whose etymology is truly without documented meaning.

Shortly after the turn of the second millennium, on a dark, cold winter day, Joe Lamb secured thick, steel chains around another black upright piano and raised the instrument from the ground as gently as he could with his weathered yellow backhoe. Driving slowly and carefully, Lamb steered his creaking machine down the shoulder of Highway 21 toward the residence of Jane McCoy in Upper Stanley. Once the piano was lowered to the wood-planked sidewalk in front of McCoy’s home, she and her husband wrestled the instrument inside where it remains today.

The piano was left to McCoy by Stanley resident Nancy Williams upon Williams’ passing. It had been gifted to Williams decades earlier by Ted and Phyllis Williams (no known family relationship), early inhabitants of the Sawtooth Valley. It is unknown when the piano arrived in the Valley but it bears the evidence of many years of use.

“It is an old instrument that’s for sure,” reported McCoy who plays the instrument occasionally. “I used to play my grandmothers piano, which was the same size and shape. “It has all ebony and ivory keys,” a sure indicator of age due to restrictions on importation of these materials. “It looks like it’s been played so much that some of the keys are worn and chipped. It has been played so much they are worn smooth. It is a genuinely beautiful instrument.”

The piano was built by Jacob Doll who was one of the more successful piano manufactures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Doll established his firm in 1871, and was well-known for constructing high quality square, upright and grand pianos. Doll died in 1911, and his business was left to his sons who rebranded it Jacob Doll & Sons Piano Company. However, this model bears only the logo of the senior Doll indicating a likely manufacturing date prior to 1900.

Jacob Doll’s sons furthered their father’s business interests in a classic story of American opportunism and exceptionalism, eventually taking over companies such as Stodart, Baus, Wellsmore, Briggs, Merrill, Norris & Hyde, Edward Mason and Wentworth. The Brothers Doll also developed a popular series of coin-operated player pianos over the following two decades using the “Electrova” brand name. Jacob Doll & Sons went out of business in 1931 as a result of the Great Depression.

Fast forward to the modern day and the home of Selma Lamb. Lamb, known as Cookie to her close friends, is a long-time central Idaho resident and a woman of strong mind and a healthy sense of humor. In her home resides a third piano of historic note.

“Sometime in the late sixties or seventies,” Lamb recalled, “a gentleman in Ketchum came into our gas station in need of car repairs. He didn’t have any money to pay up, and he offered the piano in trade. We took it in and it sat in the compressor room for a while. Eventually we moved it into our home.”

The paino, a black upright, was built by Decker Brothers Piano Manufacturers out of New York City and was hauled to Idaho in the back of a wagon destined for the Ace of Diamonds Club in Stanley. The Decker Building in New York remains on the national register of historic places to this day. Sadly, the Ace of Diamonds Club burned down many years ago.

Decker Brothers was founded in 1865, the same year the territorial seal and documentation papers of the Idaho Territory were pilfered in the dark of night from the territorial jail in Lewiston. Clinton DeWitt Smith and his U.S. Army regiment overwhelmed the Lewistonians charged to guard the papers that secured Lewiston as the territorial capitol. Smith and cohorts swept the documents away to their permanent home in Boise, thus effectively transferring the state capitol by force.

Due to a death of one of the Decker brothers, the piano manufacturers closed their doors to business in approximately 1900, thus assuring a production date sometime in the last couple decades of the 19th century. According to Lamb, Annie Dooring gained some fame as the Ace of Diamonds pianista and would smoke cigarettes and drink cocktails while entertaining the miners, ranchers, and outdoor enthusiasts who happened through the dark and musty bar.

“The cigarette burns are still on my piano from when Annie was playing in the 40s and 50s,” Lamb recounted. “Drink stains are imprinted on the piano from where she would set her drinks. The old timers say the floor would bounce and the piano would bounce, and she would keep on playing.”

Today, as the sun rises each day on Stanley’s double-digit population at the confluence of Valley Creek and the Upper Salmon River, onlookers continue to be amazed at the natural beauty bestowed on this mountain hamlet. Little has changed since the days of John Stanley’s first passing through the valley. The alpine waters still run cold and clear, the elk still bugle in the thick Douglas fir forests and a few hardy souls continue to celebrate life with the vigor to which only Rocky Mountain residents can relate. And through the passage of time, this magical region has been home to many who have worked and died hard lives, which, on occasion, were brightened with the tickling of ivory and ebony—the mountain music that floated like smoke through the prairies and peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains.


This article appears in the Winter 2016-2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.