article 52: The Oldest Illinois Fortepiano?

I grew up in a small town in central Illinois. The county was one of the poorest in the state. It went 80% for Donald Trump – twice. My family were part of the upper crust, such as it was. Grandfather was the most respected attorney in town, but his father had married into what was practically regional royalty: the Mudge family of St. Louis, owners of Oakdale over in Madison County to our west – a splendid early-Victorian country house on 160 acres of rich farmland, all turrets, dormers and broad verandahs, which used to have its own racecourse with a judging tower and stands. The door to an underground storage space for winter ice, set into a slope and used for cooling mint juleps and making ice cream on sweltering summer days, was still visible.

Oakdale had been built by my great-great-grandfather, Solomon Hinckley Mudge, a New Englander – son, in fact, of the Rev. Enoch Mudge, the young republic’s first native-born Methodist minister, who built the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and was the model for Father Mapple in Melville’s “Moby-Dick”. Solomon had gone into the hotel business, and ran the fanciest establishment in America, the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, until it burned down. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s memoir mentions a stay there hosted by “the excellent Col. Mudge”. It had one of the two most prestigious – if that is a word which can be used in this hideous context – slave auction blocks in the city.

Colonel (a strictly honorary title) Mudge went into banking in St. Louis, and built Oakdale 30 miles across the Mississippi. Rev. Enoch Mudge had bought the property for his son because he didn’t want his grandchildren to grow up in a slave state. That didn’t stop one of them from joining the Confederate cavalry under the legendary Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Oakdale was unoccupied when I was little. It belonged to cousins who had plans to restore it, which have since come partially to fruition. But in my youth it had all the properties required for a first-rate haunted house. My grandfather had a key, and we would sometimes drive over in his Buick on a Sunday to roam the cobwebbed rooms while Grandpa conferred with the farmer who rented the fields. Our family still had a tiny share in them, and in an oil well, too. There was a brief Illinois oil boom in the mid-20th century, and the slowly-bobbing “grasshopper” oil pump just off the country road was a favorite sight on those Sunday drives. I didn’t know that the mineral rights paid for my piano lessons until decades later.

It must have been during the summer when I was 19, just before I moved to Amsterdam, when I was told that there was an old piano in the basement at Oakdale. Family lore said it was the first one to appear in the state of Illinois. I was driving myself by then, and went over to Oakdale to investigate. The door to the cellar was flat, heavy and difficult to raise. When opened it revealed a dank, dark dungeon, into which I descended reluctantly. There were several spaces, and in the corner of one there was lying a square piano.

My flashlight showed the nameboard: Clementi & Co., London. That was a thrill; I didn’t know any of the famous 18th-century Italian composer-virtuoso’s music at that point, but I had read about him and his later business enterprises. Most of the strings were broken, but a few keys still produced jangling sounds. The soundbox on the right was cracked and had pulled upward away from the bottom, but was still wonderfully resonant. It took down the serial number and was later able to date it to the 1820s. I don’t remember how I got it out of its tomb and into a U-Haul trailer to take it to a harpsichord builder in Michigan. There would not have been much point to restoring it, except as a family heirloom. Such instruments are common enough, and the job would have been expensive out of all proportion. I soon forgot about it, and have no idea what eventually became of the instrument.

Was it the first piano in Illinois? Certainly not impossible. I imagine it had come up from New Orleans when S. H. Mudge moved north, around 1840. The village of Vandalia, in the county to the east of mine, had until recently been the state capital. Chicago barely existed. There wouldn’t have been much call for pianos in what had been Indian country within living memory of most residents. A big family with numerous daughters moving in from cosmopolitan New Orleans may have been the first to indulge in such an extravagance. The first piano actually built in the state was by C. A. Smith of Chicago (1884).

A Philadelphia-built instrument is touted in Springfield as having been heard often by Lincoln, but there is no reliable information as to when it arrived in the new state capital. To my eye it looks later than the putative date, “ca. 1835-40”. I would gladly cede precedence to my American hero; the sister-in-law of that piano’s owner recalled that “[Mr. Lincoln] liked music, although I never in my life heard him attempt to sing...but he liked to hear the piano, and he liked to hear us sing.”

The Mudge family fortepiano, made in London in the 1820s, may have been the earliest-built fortepiano in the state, if not the first to arrive there. But either claim will remain impossible to prove.

May 13, 2022

- back -