Our story of Rose – The 1876 Steinway Grand Piano begins in Burlington, Iowa. For those who don’t delve into Iowa history, Burlington was once the center of public life in the U.S. Territory called Iowa. Like its sister-city Dubuque to the north, Burlington was established (1833) on the western shores of the Mississippi River – land first belonging to the Meskwaki (Sauk and Fox) tribes, who called it Shoquoquon (Shok-ko-kon), meaning Flint Hills.
In 1837, when Iowa was still adjoined to Wisconsin Territory, Burlington was chosen to be the temporary territorial capital (moving here from Belmont, Wisconsin) as the territory was constructing a new capitol building in Madison City (Madison, Wisconsin). Those plans changed in 1838 when Iowa Territory was formed, separating from Wisconsin, leaving Burlington as the “temporary” capital of Iowa Territory until everything moved to Iowa City in 1841. Read more about that story here.
But, even after the territorial government left Burlington (1841), the city still played a very important role in the early development of the State of Iowa, becoming a major hub for commerce and transportation via Mississippi River steamboats at first, followed by the railroads in the latter part of the 19th century. Which now brings us to the home of one of Burlington’s proud citizens…
Frederick Schmieg, born in 1825, came to Burlington in 1840 (age 15) and proved to be an enterprising young man. In 1849, like so many other Iowans struck by ‘gold-fever,’ Frederick led a hand-picked crew of sixty men to California to find their fortune in the newly-discovered gold fields. Freddy apparently did well there, and upon his return to Burlington (1863), joined with Charles Schramm, another German immigrant, to form a very successful dry-goods business appropriately called The Schramm and Schmieg Dry-Goods Company – located on Jefferson Street, between Water and Main Streets. The partnership soon became a family affair when Frederick married Schramm’s recently-widowed sister, Matilda, with the couple becoming very active in many fraternal and civic organizations around Burlington.
In 1878, Frederick walked into C.H. Whiting’s Music Room, which opened at 419 Jefferson Street in 1876, selling sheet music, musical Instruments, pianos, and organs to the good people of Burlington. And there she was. Displayed prominently on Whiting’s show room floor – our dear old friend, Rose, the subject of this post…
Mr. Schmieg immediately purchased Rose – at the then-magnificent price of $1,000 – bringing it home for his wife, Matilda. Their home, at that time, was a center for Burlington’s social life, and a piano was a vital component of any successful party. We are assuming that Mrs. Schmieg was classically trained on piano, and as far as we know, Rose, over the next 20+ years enjoyed a fruitful life in the Schmieg home. Sadly, the couple had no children, so when Matilda died in 1900, at age 72, we’re guessing Rose didn’t get as much playing time, yet joyfully stayed with Frederick until his death in 1915, at age 89.
Frederick and Matilda Schmieg are both buried at Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington, Iowa.
Upon Frederick’s death (1915), there was no direct heir to take care of Rose, so Schmieg’s will directed the grand piano to go to two of Matilda’s nieces – Minnie and Margaret Touscher. By the 1940s, the two unmarried sisters grew tired of the large piano dominating their living room, so they offered Rose to Burlington’s Free Methodist Church, where they were life-long members, for an asking price of $25.
There Rose remained for nearly sixty years, until 2003, when Wayne Ryan, the pastor of the Free Methodist Church, finally decided to contact area music dealers, looking to trade Rose in for a more serviceable piano. West Music of Iowa City ended up making the deal, offering the church $5,000 of trade-in value, and when West’s Kirk Davis first saw old Rose rolling into the workshop, he thought to himself, “looking good, but her vitals are in poor condition.”
“The piano was gorgeous to look at,” Davis said. “The ornate woodwork was something seldom seen anymore, but after that, it was in pretty rough shape.”
(L-0090) In the 1950’s, West Music in Iowa City gave away these little Christmas Caroling songbooks.
Over the next three years, Old Rose underwent a regiment of restoration as the West Music crew, led by piano restorer, Dan Malloy, brought the old girl back to life. In 2006, West Music’s President, Steve West, was contacted by the University of Iowa Old Capitol Foundation regarding their desire to bring a concert series into Old Capitol.
“All of a sudden, the Old Capitol Senate Chamber seemed like a natural home for this old rosewood piano,” West commented. “By then, we were calling it ‘Rose’ because of the great frame it had. It was a historical instrument with deep ties to Iowa through Burlington. It was a Steinway, and besides, it would look great in the chamber.”
Rose is a Steinway Concert Grand Piano – Style III – from the 1876 Centennial Collection. Steinway & Sons began making pianos in New York in 1853 – Henry E. Steinway is pictured above (left).
West Music decided to make an in-kind donation of the piano to the foundation, and Rose, at the ripe old age of 130 years, joined the University of Iowa family. At the time of the donation, the piano was determined to be one of only five of that Steinway model still in existence, built around 1876, and valued at $73,200.
Now, it was one thing to have a 130-year grand piano donated to you, but it was quite another to overcome the challenges of getting Rose into Old Capitol’s Senate Chamber, located on the second floor of the 165-year-old building.
Keep in mind that Rose is no small lady. The 8-foot 6-inch Steinway weighs 1,500 pounds and was too heavy to bring up the building’s distinctive reverse spiral stairway, so it was necessary to use a heavy construction crane and bring her in through a window on the northeast side of the chamber.
“It was a lot of trouble, but it was certainly worth it, and the foundation and West Music knew this piano and this setting would be a great way to show off the incredible musical talent we have in Iowa,” Steve West said. “It is in a beautiful room with great acoustics, and the rich rosewood shows off to good advantage against the walnut of the Senate Chamber. The concerts have become very popular.”
The Old Capitol Concerts were so popular, in fact, that the foundation and West both grew uneasy because, while Rose looked great, the sound was not up to Steinway standards. So, once again, the piano was on the move.
“Because the piano was being played so often,” West said, “we became aware that the sound board, the strings and the actions, were not quite up to today’s concert standards. They were good but not perfect, so we pulled the Steinway out and sent it to New York to be rebuilt at the Steinway factory to present-day Steinway concert standards.”
For nine long months, Rose sat on the Steinway factory floor as trained technicians lavished loving care on her. And while she was there, West’s representative, Kirk Davis came to view the progress.
“We were out there on another project for the university, and I asked to see how the rosewood concert grand was progressing,” Davis said. “When I walked onto the floor, I was surprised to see an exactly similar piano standing next to it. I checked the serial numbers, and they were four numbers apart, so that meant in the 1870s, these two pianos stood together on the production floor, and 134 years later, they both came back at the same time for repair. Pretty incredible.”
Today, Rose – The 1876 Steinway Concert Grand Piano – now valued at over $135,000 – is back home in Old Capitol, returning to Iowa in November 2012, where she has been happily continuing her musical performances on a regular basis, except, of course, during the 16-month hiatus due to the COVID crisis. But now, (fall 2021), the Sunday concerts are back and all of us are celebrating Rose’s return to service.
Here’s a tip of the old hat to Frederick & Matilda Schmieg and their Steinway Grand Piano – Rose!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.