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100-year-old Packard is a long way from home

There’s no telling how it got there, but it was a sad site indeed.

It was about three years ago, in Mountainair, N.M., a town of about 1,000 people, just a hop, skip and a jump by western standards from Albuquerque, when it turned up at an auction of old equipment at a school district with only about 300 students.

Sitting in the parking lot, its legs unseen and its top broken into three different pieces, was a baby grand piano. Sometime in the past, someone had antiqued the shattered instrument, painting it black and green.

The owner of a local coffee shop snapped up the piano for $50. Not long after that a local piano tuner bought it for $100.

And that’s where a woman named Jan Eshelman came into the picture. She’d work with the piano tuner to help return the piano to its original state.

As she slathered paint remover on the ornate woodwork, she saw something stunning: A decal that read “The Packard Piano Company, Fort Wayne, Ind.”

Eshelman has lived all around the country, but her family now lives in Fort Wayne.

“The minute I realized it was a Packard, I thought, this thing needs to go home. It shouldn’t be here in the middle of New Mexico.”

Over the next year, in what became something of a limited community effort, the old piano began to look more like a piano than a collapsed box on the ground.

The piano moved to the workshop of a local resident who spent part of the year in California. Eshelman did most of the refinishing and restaining of the wood. Meanwhile, the piano tuner used steel wool to clean the rosewood hammers, replaced the felt pads and completely restrung the baby grand.

A local woodworker took the piano’s top and returned it to a single piece.

The piano has been played by a couple of professional pianists who live around Mountainair, and both were impressed by its sound, Eshelman said.

The piano was built by the Packard Piano Co. in Fort Wayne sometime between 1900 and 1905. It isn’t flawless, but it’s in pretty good condition compared with its pathetic state three years ago.

But what do you do with a century-old, restored baby grand in a town of 1,000 people in New Mexico?

It’s got to go back to Fort Wayne, Eshelman says.

Eshelman said she has contacted a couple of people in the city about the piano, but they weren’t interested.

“There’s probably someone interested in having it back in Fort Wayne,” Eshelman said, though she admits there is a bit of pie in the sky to her thinking.

There are some stumbling blocks in the way of Eshelman’s dreams.

The piano is 1,400 to 1,500 miles away from Fort Wayne, and it’s heavy.

So is the price. Eshelman says it is now worth $8,000 to $10,000.

At this point, the piano tuner who helped restore the piano is anxious just to get back the money for the parts needed to restore it.

Eshelman says that she’d be willing to load the piano on a truck and deliver it to Fort Wayne herself for a flat $10,000.

But then, the old Packard instruments weren’t necessarily meant to stay home. As early as the 1870s, Packard was selling its instruments as far west as Kansas and Nebraska, so New Mexico might have been its intended home all along.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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