Idaho History

This 141-year-old piano belonged to a cultured Boise pioneer. Here’s how to hear it in 2019

Editor’s note: This column was first published in Idaho Magazine and online at idahomagazine.com.

“I can feel her presence, Mike,” said my friend, Steinway technician Paul Schiller, as he surveyed numerous parts of a big old grand piano he was restoring that were strewn about the basement of the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy in Boise. Big, as in a 7 foot, 3 inch grand. Old, as in 1878. “Really!” I said. “What does her presence feel like?”

Paul believes he has an aptitude for clairvoyance because of a few episodes in his life that he feels guided him to this career, to this location, and that ultimately led him to this instrument.

“It’s hard to explain, but it’s a guiding sense that comes to me from an outside source.”

That source was feminine and gentle, he said as he stroked the ivory keys, which showed indentations from the fingers of the piano’s original owner, Carrie Cartee. She played it often, from 1878 when it arrived in Boise from the Weber Piano Company’s factory in New York until her death in 1936. Over the four years Paul worked on it, the piano became, to him, a medium to Carrie’s spirit.

Idaho’s dry air and the fact that Carrie’s kids and grandkids took good care of the instrument are the keys to its longevity. Its world-class quality, combined with the training and dedication of a master piano technician were also essential. For four years, Paul devoted his off-hours to the piano’s restoration in the basement while its permanent home-to-be, the Idaho State Museum on Julia Davis Drive in Boise, underwent a major remodeling and expansion before reopening in the fall of 2018.

During that time, Paul gambled that the piano’s restoration would be a success. He purchased new strings from the Steinway factory and a new action from the Renner Company of Stuttgart, which Steinway uses exclusively. The “action” is the mechanism that transfers the touch of the pianist into the sound of a hammer striking the string. Paul had to customize the action to mesh with the older design, but he felt the odds of success were pretty fair given that the keys, the frame, the case, and the soundboard had stood the test of time quite well.

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For four years, Paul Schiller devoted his off-hours to the piano’s restoration in a basement while its permanent home-to-be, the Idaho State Museum on Julia Davis Drive in Boise, underwent a major remodeling and expansion before reopening in the fall of 2018. Courtesy of Paul Schiller

On the day of the museum’s opening night gala, Sept. 28, Paul invited me to the music rehearsal. That’s when my years of training as a symphony orchestra manager kicked in.

I had come to Boise in 1982 as the new executive director of the Boise Philharmonic, which is where I met Paul, who was the orchestra’s pianist. We’ve been friends ever since. As an orchestra manager, you listen carefully to many concerts and rehearsals. That September day was our first chance to hear the piano in an open area, the beautiful and spacious Idaho Room of the renovated museum. We held our breaths as the marvelous soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez, who grew up in Rupert (see “Bravissima!”, IDAHO magazine, July 2016), drew her breath to release with her piano accompanist the first notes of music into the new room. The sound was glorious — the acoustics were perfect, the piano bright and beautiful. Given that my life’s calling has been to bring classical music and audiences together, it wasn’t surprising that I felt compelled to plan a concert featuring the restored “Cartee Grand,” as it’s now called.

Because of Paul’s Steinway factory training and the parts he used you could consider the piano a hybrid: a “Stein-Webber,” perhaps, though such a merger was inconceivable in the early days. The companies were bitter rivals. In 1859, 22 piano companies were in business in New York, as the craft of piano-making in the 17th century became big business in the 18th. In 1876 the Albert Webber Company had emerged as Steinway’s chief competition, and their battlegrounds were the great world expositions, where new inventions of the Industrial Revolution, including the piano, were displayed, judged, and awarded prizes. The London Exposition of 1862, the U.S. Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia, and the Exposition Universelle de 1900 in Paris were attended by many thousands of people. In Philadelphia, the Weber Piano Company was declared Grand Prize winner. Steinway immediately accused Weber of jury tampering and a huge controversy ensued. Steinway’s touring superstar pianist-endorser, Ignaz Jan Paderewski, defected to Weber in 1906, although he returned a few years later.

I’ve always felt that old musical instruments have a special way of bringing the past to life, especially when produced in and preserved from prior centuries. Think of Stradivarius and the great violins and cellos from the 17th Century. In my friend’s case, the instrument brought him in touch not only with the past but with a person from the past.

Who was Carrie Cartee?

I got curious. Who was this Carrie Cartee?

“She’s my inspiration,” Paul said.

His muse, you might say. How did this pioneer become a pianist? What was known of her famous father, Layfayette Cartee, who bought such an instrument for her? How did it even get here 141 years ago?

Researching at the Idaho State Archives, I discovered that in many ways Carrie Cartee led a life of privilege. The Idaho Statesman cites her name 156 times, giving a picture of a socially prominent person active in movements and events who had followed her father’s example in helping Boise to transform from a small mining supply town to a prosperous city with all the amenities. Some of the paper’s news items are repetitive. Others are quite brief, as in: “Mrs. Fremont Wood [Carrie’s married name] took part in a concert in Caldwell one day last week.” The end.

Born in 1857, Carrie was the eldest child of a prominent statesman, engineer, miner, horticulturist, and community leader. Appointed the first Surveyor General of Idaho Territory in 1866 by President Andrew Johnson, Lafayette Cartee drew the first maps of Idaho, beautifully illustrated, and available for viewing at the State Historical Archives. The city of Meridian took its name from the North-South line he chose.

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Carrie Cartee Wood died at home after a short illness and a full life of 79 years, a strong and cultured pioneer-pianist you could say. Certainly she never imagined she would be memorialized 141 years after her dad’s piano gift by concerts using it in the state museum a few blocks from her home.

Before coming to Boise Layfayette and his young family lived in Oregon, where he built the first railroad bypass on the Columbia River around the rocky cliffs of Cascade and the rapids at Cilelo Falls, which at that time was a primary salmon fishing area for indigenous peoples and also a major obstacle to river transportation. In those years, emotional hardship came into Carrie’s life of privilege. Her mom, Mary Bell Cartee, died when the girl was just 5. Her siblings Ella, Ross, and Mary were ages 3, 2, and 9 months at the time. Surely among Mary Bell’s dying pleas to her husband was to take good care of the children, and that he did.

When the railroad project was complete, about a year after his wife’s death, Lafayette decided to come to Idaho to start a new life. He left the children in Oregon in the care of his sister-in-law, Henrietta Bell, until he felt he had established a suitable home for them. His letters from Idaho to his young daughter are filled with heartache for his wife, as if Carrie had become Mary Bell in his mind. In a letter to his sister in Philadelphia, Lafayette referred to Carrie as his “idol” and having a “peculiar mind,” by which he probably meant “unusually sharp.” He had a portrait done of Carrie, which hung above her piano in the Cartee Mansion where she and her husband, Judge Fremont Wood, lived for the rest of their days.

Carrie and her dad were very close — yet the children waited four years before he sent for them. That journey, by steamboat and stage coach, is the subject of On the Oregon Trail in 1867, a lengthy account beautifully written and illustrated by her brother Ross. At the start of it, after a rainstorm in Portland, the kids see a bright rainbow. Ten-year-old Carrie says to her younger siblings, “And the rainbow ends in Boise City.”

Ross proudly writes that his father built the portage railways that the children and Auntie Bell take on the journey up the Columbia. They travel by boat to “sand-blown” Umatilla, where they board one of John Hailey’s six-horse “Concord” stages, red with gold trim (later changed to a smaller stage to get over the Blue Mountains). Hailey, for whom the city in Idaho is named, established and maintained the routes to Boise, collecting tolls for timely and safe travel for stages, freight wagons, and the U.S. Mail. The duration of the Cartees’ journey is unspecified, other than they leave in June and arrive at their new Boise home on 4th and Grove Streets on July 7. In those days, stages traveled overnight, stopping every twenty miles or so to change horses. In the account by Ross, the travelers stay overnight in Portland, The Dalles, Umatilla, and Baker City, where they pick up an escort of about 30 cavalry and about 50 “Snake Indians” (a collective term including members of Northern Paiute, Bannock, and Shoshone tribes), who are ordered by John Hailey to safeguard travelers from attacks by unfriendly tribes. Hailey’s only daughter Leona later married Ross Cartee.

Ross recounts that the Snake Indian scouts ahead of the party come upon a group of “Malheur Indians” (Northern Piautes) camped along the Powder River and a fight ensues. Many shots and war hoops are heard. Protocol takes the coach quickly off the road and deep into the willows, such that the doors of the stage cannot be opened. The horses are unhitched and tied, with the front two ridden by the driver and the guard. Bullets fly overhead, some hitting the top of the coach. Auntie Bell’s face turns white. But soon all is quiet. The scouts, riding bareback and shouting their war hoops, return with three scalps of the attackers hoisted high upon poles.

After the children arrived safely in Boise, they all went to finishing schools and were well provided for by their father. During her younger years, Carrie was schooled at St. Michael’s, where she excelled. Her father wrote that he was pleased with her musical education. She and sister Ella also took lessons from Idaho’s first-known voice teacher. At 12, Carrie became the organist at St. Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral, using their reed organ. Ross complained about having to do the pumping, falling asleep during the sermon, and being jarred awake just in time for the organ and hymns to start.

Lafayette imported rare plants, trees, and shrubs from the eastern U.S., China, and Japan, and ran the city’s first nursery on his 24 acres between the family home and the Boise River. During the plants’ journey to Boise their handlers kept them from perishing by soaking the crates in creeks. (Unfortunately, rather than plants, one such crate contained architectural schematics).

Layfayette also imported what the Statesman called a “first of its kind” piano, chosen in New York by Carrie when she was 21, on her return from three years studying German, French, and piano in Mannheim, Germany. The Statesman reported her delight when it arrived in 1878 by rail to Kelton, Utah, now a ghost town, traveling from there 250 miles in a horse-drawn freight wagon via the bumpy Boise-Kelton Road. According to a historic marker in Mayfield, the road followed the Oregon Trail but diverted in several places for a smoother ride.

Earlier, one of Lafayette’s letters advises a caretaker of the Cartees’ house to “hang on to the melodeon until a piano can be obtained.” A melodeon is a small piano or pump organ of four-and-a-half octaves. My guess is the melodeon probably belonged to Mary Bell, who is described as “a musician” in Carrie’s obituary, and this accounts for Lafayette’s interest in music for Carrie, and probably for her talent.

Carrie also selected a new pipe organ for St. Michael’s but its journey, from Buffalo, New York, was less successful than that of the grand piano. The organ arrived upside down and every pipe was broken, even though the crate was marked “This Side Up.” Carrie gave a concert to help pay for the additional $150 the new pipe organ cost in freight.

I think Carrie Cartee couldn’t have been totally happy about being sent away to Europe for three years to study at age 18, after only eight years with her reunited family. I, too, was sent away to a private school, at 16, disrupting a deep relationship with my piano teacher, a virtuoso Hungarian pianist named Kato Mendelssohn, (direct descendant of Felix) who was trained at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest and emigrated with her parents to Southern California in the late 1930s, just prior to the war. She helped support the parents by giving recitals and teaching them English. She was irreplaceable in my mind; I tried but never could study with anyone else, though my love for the instrument continues to this day.

On Carrie’s journey to Germany, which included stops in New York, Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, she was accompanied by David and Ernestine Falk, who were visiting their homeland in Bavaria. David and Lafayette had met in The Dalles when Lafayette was working on the railroad project. David had opened a mercantile store there. The two moved to Boise within a year of each other (Lafayette in 1863) and became founding fathers of the city, where the Falk Department Store thrived until 1986.

We know little about Carrie’s time in Germany. Two locations were reported in the newspaper. One was Miss Valentine’s Protestant Seminary in Frankfurt. A year later, an item said her friends would be pleased to know that she was “making very rapid progress studying music in Mannheim.” Perhaps she went to both schools. It’s easy to conjecture what musical luminaries she may have heard or even met. Brahms’ long-awaited first symphony was premiered in Karlsruhe, 42 miles south of Mannheim. His second symphony premiered in Vienna, where Mahler lived, and both premieres occurred during her time in Germany. Given the significance of the Mannheim Court orchestra in the 18th century in orchestral playing and compositional style, it’s likely that the work of Brahms, Mahler, and others active in those years would have been heard there, and they themselves probably performed in the city.

It’s also easy to think the attractive and multilingual young woman would have met someone special. After returning to Boise in April 1878, it took her seven years to marry. But on New Year’s Day 1885, she married Judge Fremont Wood, notable in Idaho history for presiding over the famous Gov. Steunenberg assassination trial of 1906. She gave Judge Wood seven children, two of whom died very young, one at age 2, the other at 6 months.

My readings assembled a vivid picture of Carrie Cartee hosting musicales in her home, singing and accompanying duets with her sister, playing a four-hand piano arrangement of a Haydn symphony, playing the organ for church, hosting teas at the Wood ranch in Ustick, attending and hosting luncheons, going to evening dances, visiting the Natatorium and the Sherman House and the Columbia Club, giving piano and guitar lessons in the music studio (a separate building on the Cartee property), hosting wedding showers, and one wedding during which the Mendelssohn “Wedding March” was played on the piano, traveling to Chicago with her husband, to Washington, D.C., to visit her daughter, working on committees for suffrage, for the Philharmonic Society, for the reception for President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, giving lectures for the Apple Blossom Club, donating to the Pioneer Society (forerunner of the Idaho Historical Society), and so on.

Carrie Cartee Wood died at home after a short illness and a full life of 79 years, a strong and cultured pioneer-pianist you could say. Certainly she never imagined she would be memorialized 141 years after her dad’s piano gift by concerts using it in the state museum a few blocks from her home.

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Carrie Cartee Wood played this piano often, from 1878 when it arrived in Boise from the Weber Piano Company’s factory in New York until her death in 1936. Over the four years Paul Schiller worked on the piano became, to him, a medium to Carrie’s spirit. Paul Schiller Special to the Idaho Statesman

I know that Paul Schiller is deeply gratified to have brought her piano back to life, so people can enjoy an instrument that also marks an era in Idaho history. During his many hours of solitary work on the instrument, I doubt that he ever felt lonely.

“There’s no reason why the piano won’t last another 141 years,” he told me.

And if I could, I would happily present the “Cartee Grand Bicentennial Celebration Concert” on the 200th anniversary of its life in Boise on Oct. 1, 2078.

The Cartee in action

The 1878 Cartee Grand piano described in this story can next be seen in a concert on Sunday, Oct. 27 at the Idaho State Museum in Boise. The concert, part of Boise’s 2019-20 Stars of Steinway season, begins at 5:30 p.m. It will feature works by Beethoven, Schoenfeld, John Williams and Prokofiev, played by seven musicians.

The concert, which is made possible by the city of Boise’s Arts and History Department’s $3,000 grant, has a three-part title: “Beethoven at 250, Boise at 150+ and Danceable Classical.”

The Beethoven part of the title honors the maestro’s birth in 1770, which guided planning of the 2019-20 season. His “Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9, Op. 47” (commonly called the “Kreutzer” Sonata) will be performed by Rossitza Goza, concertmaster of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Symphony, and Rajung Yang of Baylor University, formerly on the University of Idaho faculty. The work is generally regarded as the greatest of Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano.

The “Boise at 150+” part of the concert’s title refers to the city’s founding 155 years ago, in 1864. The Cartee piano’s arrival 14 years later represented an early sign of Boise’s transformation from a small mining supply town to a thriving city.

“Danceable Classical” is in the concert’s title because of contemporary composer Paul Schoenfeld’s “Café Music,” a jazzy piece for violin, piano, in which the above artists will be joined by Caldwell cellist Samuel Smith. Prokofiev’s “Overture on Hebrew Themes” is also quite rhythmic — even danceable — for clarinet, piano, and string quartet. For this work Boise Phil principal clarinetist Carmen Izzo will be joined by Laurel Talley, Paula Stern, Emily Jones, and Smith, all current or recent members of the Philharmonic.

General admission is by donation – suggested is $10. For information, call 208-869-5001 or visit starsofsteinway.com.

Mike Winter is a former Idaho Statesman classical music reviewer and helped found the “Stars of Steinway” series in 2012.

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