Bailey Piano Restoration
The 1949 Baldwin D Concert Grand Piano represents a love story. Dr. Clarence Bailey, aka Dutch, World War II veteran and Alaska physician, wanted to bring his fiancée, Jewell Dean Griffith, “Julie” to Palmer, Alaska. Alaska wasn’t a very inviting place at that time and Palmer, a city only 15 years old, posed its own challenges. Jewell, a nurse in her early 20s, was an accomplished pianist.
She met the handsome doctor in Bremerton WA. A WWII veteran, Clarence established a practice in Kodiak AK. Then Dutch apparently decided to lure Julie to Alaska by purchasing a 9 foot Baldwin SD Concert Grand Piano. So soon after the war, Baldwin pianos were among the best in the world since the war in Europe destroyed so many piano factories. This was certainly the largest piano in Palmer at the time, and perhaps the only instrument of its kind in the Territory of Alaska.
His enticement worked. The piano made the long trip from the Baldwin factory in Cincinnati OH, probably by train, to San Francisco or Seattle, then by boat to Seward, Alaska and again by train to Palmer. Dutch and Julie were married in Palmer in November 1949, reportedly saluted by neighbors who pounded rifle butts in approval.
Continue reading below, or view this Sept. 2021 news story to learn more:
Settled in their small home on South Alaska Street, one can only imagine Julie’s joy as she played the piano. She was busy, helping her husband develop his practice. Soon, six children arrived and she cared for them and her husband. At some point, the family and their piano outgrew their South Alaska Street home and moved to larger home with a windowed piano room on Finger Lake.
In the mid sixties, the Bailey family decided to leave Alaska for warmer climates. At that time, they gave the piano to The Palmer Independent School District. It was housed at Central School in Palmer, where it resided until around 1976. At the school, it was well used for performances and perhaps a little abused as it was placed on the stage in what is now the Borough Gym.
Sally Hitchcock, a frequent substitute teacher and longtime local piano teacher, reflected, “It was in an open, common area of the school and teachers couldn’t patrol it constantly. There were lots of times I caught students banging out Chopsticks or some other song way, way, way too vigorously… or just horsing around on the piano. I know that piano suffered some serious hard knocks at Central.” It may be during that stay the piano bench and music stand were destroyed.
Sally also remembers the joy of playing the instrument. “I had been subbing at the school. One day the traveling piano tuner came to tune the Bailey piano. He tuned that piano within an inch of its life, just perfectly. I spent the entire afternoon, just me, playing all my favorite songs. It was a beautiful day of music. I remember it clearly.”
According to research by Bridgette Preston, stories from the local Frontiersman newspaper archives report use during the “Alaska Music Trails” series of performances that featured musicians who performed in communities around Alaska. “Miss Alaska” pageants were held in the Borough gym. Community bands and choirs used the stage for performances. The Bailey piano was owned and loved by Palmer.
When the new Palmer High School was built in 1976, Central School, now Central Junior High School, moved into the older high school. At that time, the piano moved to its next home, the Alaska State Fair. The former Lutheran Church was relocated to the fairgrounds from its city home and the piano was housed there. At that time, the structure was rustic and unheated. The new Valley Performing Arts group used the piano for theatrical performances. The venue and its wonderful piano also hosted piano recitals and Alaska State Fair concerts, including such performers as Johnny Rivers, Three Dog Night, and Ronnie Milsap.
Joe Lawton, who worked at the State Fair for many years, noted that it was difficult to maintain the piano at the fair. The instrument was regularly tuned. However, storage was unheated and the piano was subjected to extremes of weather and moisture. Its uses dictated frequent moving and it was also loaned to area churches during the fair years.
Moving a one-ton piano requires special equipment. Irv Griffin from Eagle River built a piano board for that use. Joe Lawton describes that Alaskan piano board. The bottom was lined with moose hide to protect the piano and moose hide straps came up from the bottom to secure the piano.
Anxious to protect and restore this part of Palmer’s history, The Palmer Arts Council (PAC) purchased the piano in 2007 and has stored it since that time. Since then, the piano has been stored safely, but not serviced or used; currently, it resides in the basement of Non-Essentials in downtown Palmer. The piano is playable, but due to the years spent in non-climate-controlled spaces, it needs significant restoration work.
Currently, the PAC is raising money to bring the piano, which has suffered the ravages of time, back to its former glory. Estimates for restoration range from $40,000-$50,000.
Hopefully this Palmer love story can continue for many years.