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Early Piano Makers in the Townships of Nassau and Schodack

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EARLY PIANO MAKERS IN THE TOWNSHIPS OF NASSAU AND SCHODACK RENSSELAER COUNTY STATE OF NEW YORK

BY MARY KOSEGARTEN

In the Beginning

It was in the Spring of 1837 that Frederick and Caroline Frickinger sailed up the Hudson River for a pleasure trip to Albany.

Frickinger had emigrated from Germany and had prospered in New York City as a skilled mechanic in the construction of piano actions. He had learned his trade in Paris and had come to America with the dream of building his own piano factory and making his fortune. The years in New York had served him well. The superiority of his workmanship was acknowledged by the city’s piano makers. He had met Caroline who was described by one of her contemporaries as a "woman of rugged character and well defined ideas and manners". Devout Lutherans, they were married in the German Evangelische congregation in New York.

After a day of sightseeing in Albany, the Frickinger’s ferried the river and hired a livery horse and wagon for a drive in the countryside. By chance, they chose the Old Columbia Turnpike for their excursion. At Bunker Hill, they noted the unusual flower gardens in the yard of the house now occupied by Mr. & Mrs. Reeves. They fastened their horse at the hitching post and were soon talking with the landowner who invited them to pick a bouquet. His wife joined them and asked them in for some refreshments.

It was a treat to have guests from New York and their host invited the Frickingers to spend the night with this family. Frickinger stabled his horse, noting the sturdily constructed outbuildings and the spacious clearing which adjoined the property. That evening he learned that the house and land were on the market.

After they were settled in the spare bedroom the Frickingers talked long into the night. Everything about the place pleased them-the house, the yard, the setting. At breakfast the next morning, Frederick Frickinger surprised the owner with an offer to buy the property and six adjoining acres. Before he returned to New York, the transaction was sealed.

From the beginning, Frickinger visualized more than a country house in his holdings. It would be his home, but it would also be the workshop for the pianos he planned to manufacture. He would need skilled workmen. He sent word of his venture to two piano craftsmen he had known in Germany. They agreed to work for him. The barn and chicken house in the backyard were scrupulously cleaned. There, with a turning lathe, a buzz saw, and a few tools – Frickinger began his piano business. A large multiplying wheel turned by a boy, furnished the power. In this crude setting, Frickinger produced the actions and cases of square pianos. From the beginning, his instruments were noted for their tone quality. At the turn of the century, dozens of Frickinger pianos were in homes in the Nassau and Schodack townships.

In 1861, Frickinger decided to apply for a patent for the piano action he had invented and manufactured for more than two decades. A recent inquiry to the National Archives and Records Service secured this reply from William C. Waneta, Archivist: "A Patent was issued to F. Frickinger of Schodack, New York, on July 23, 1861, No. 32,863, for a piano-forte action. The patent earned Mr. Frickinger a steady income for many years.

In l867, accompanied by his wife, Frickinger sailed for Europe. His prime objective was Paris and the Paris Exposition. The Exposition that year featured a display of pianos and piano supplies from many countries. Alfred Dolge in his book PIANOS AND THEIR MAKERS states that "American pianos, shown at the Paris Exposition, made a lasting impression." Until that time, European makers continued their handmade methods of manufacturing action parts. The Americans were successfully experimenting with machines and European piano makers were favorably impressed with the results. Before their return, Mr. & Mrs. Frickinger visited their families in Germany.

For several years, Fredrick Frickinger continued to manufacture custom built pianos, managing all details of the business himself. Two of his competitors were the Albany firms of Marshall and Wendell and Boardman and Gray. Both companies recognized the superiority of the Frickinger piano action, and it was at their suggestion that Mr. Frickinger decided to build a factory exclusively for actions to be sold to the piano trade.

He bought 20 acres of land across the road and to the east of the original holdings on Bunker Hill. There, in 1875, he built a three-story factory and a large dwelling, often described by his neighbors as a "mansion". His home during the twenties and the thirties became the Gillett Tavern, a roadhouse frequented by area sophisticates. The building stands today on the north side of Route 20 on Bunker Hill.

To man his new factory, Frickinger engaged skilled piano workers who had learned their trade in Europe. He sought local youths as apprentices. Peter Strauch, William Gorgen, Jacob Grubb and later, the Kosegarten brothers – Albrecht, Otto and Charles – learned their trade as a result of the interest and guidance. The bulk of the factory’s output was sold to the Albany piano makers with whom he was no longer in competition.

In the beginning the plant was operated by hand power. The homemade machinery was connected by belts to a shaft an inch in diameter and 20 feet long. At one end of the shaft, there was a 16 foot wheel with hand cranks attached to each side. Two boys turned and the wheel. Small circular saws and light boring lathes were turned by foot treadles under the benches.

In 1880, a 10-horsepower boiler, an engine, and other up-to-date equipment were installed. Soon, Frickinger’s customers were demanding a supply of French type piano actions, labeled "bridle-strap" in the piano trade. Frickinger was eighty years old at the time and had always made piano action of his own design. Not willing to change his technique, he gave the factory outright with his good will to William Gorgen and Jacob Grubb who married his wife’s nieces.

The firm was known as Gorgen and Grubb from l889 to 1899 when William Gorgen sold his interest to the Kosegarten brothers. Two years before, Gorgen had begun operating a piano action company in Castleton. The business prospered and it demanded so much of his time and attention he could no longer look after his affairs at Bunker Hill. The Cheney Piano Action Company, owned by A. C. Cheney, was an outgrowth of the Gorgen venture. It was William Gorgen who established the Castleton plant in the old Castleton Screw Works building.

Both Mr. & Mrs. Frickinger loved children and took an interest in the schooling of the boys and girls of Bunker Hill. In 1n 1888 Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of New York State, we read: Mr. Frickinger (sic), a wealthy gentlemen living in District N.5, Schodack is about to build and donate to said district, and is at the present time waiting for plans and specifications that are to be furnished by the Department of Public Instruction, from which to select his plan. As soon as this is obtained, the building will be erected with all possible speed." The schoolhouse was completed after Mr. Frickinger’s death in the fall of 1889. (My grandmother, Emma Kelly Bedell, had taught in the old District 5 school before her marriage. She described the new school as the finest in the township. Mrs. Frickinger supervised the construction and spared no expense. Today the schoolhouse has been converted into a dwelling.)

According to a newspaper clipping found in Castleton in an old album kept by Ellen Seaman Wendell, Mr. Frickinger left his wife a "fortune, approximately $100,000". In the decade following her husband’s death, Mrs. Frickinger lived quietly in the big house on the hill. She devoted much of her time and energy to the old Dutch Reformed Church in Nassau. Since there was no Lutheran Church nearby, the Frickingers had joined the Dutch Reformed Church on confession of faith. They regularly attended the morning and evening services on the Sabbath and the midweek prayer meeting. It is noted in the records of the church that, in l894, Mrs. Frickinger suggested to the consistory that the old parsonage (the present Lowe property on Chatham Street) be exchanged for the Reuben H. Mead property on Church Street. She offered $2,000 to bring about the transaction. Mr. Mead accepted the offer and the pastors of the Nassau Reformed Church have continued to live in the Church Street parsonage.

Sometime during the pastorate of the Rev. J. Perry Beaver (l889-l899), Mrs. Frickinger gave $2,000 to erect a chapel adjoining the church to be used for Sunday School classes and for prayer meetings. She contributed many of the furnishings of the chapel, including a Frickinger piano.

The newspaper clipping in Mrs. Wendell’s old album tells of Mrs. Frickinger’s funeral service in January, 1899. "A large concourse of people attended, including the officials of the church in a body to manifest their respect and gratitude. A floral wreath, contributed by the Sunday School decorated the casket."

A PERSONAL NOTE

Even as a small child, the name "Mr. Frickinger" had meaning for me. Both my mother and father always spoke of him with reverence and admiration. On Decoration Day, we would pause at the Frickinger lot in the Nassau cemetery to pay our respects.

My father, Albrecht O. Kosegarten, was sixteen years old when he went to work for Mr. Frickinger in his piano factory at Bunker Hill. The bond between the old piano maker and the eager youth was immediate and enduring. To father, Frederick Frickinger was indeed a hero.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  1. I wish to thank Shirley Dunn of the Historical Society of Esquatak for her encouragement and inspiration; and my brother, Herman A. Kosegarten, for his
  2. A series of articles, interest and help The Romance of Rensselaer Towns, by Ray A. Mowers, published in the ALBANY EVENING NEWS during 1936, verified and supplemented my notes.
  3. Pianos and Their Makers, by Alfred Dolge, published in 1911 by the Covina Publishing Company, Covina, California, is a collector’s item. The author reports in detail the development of the piano industry and includes diagram of instruments made in Mr. Frickinger’s period. Dolge cites Frederick Frickinger as one of the early American piano makers, and includes references to Grubb and Kosegarten Brothers.
  4. A newspaper clipping from an old album kept by Ella Seaman Wendell of Castleton contained information about Caroline and Frederick Frickinger.
  5. The Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, published in 1888 by the State of New York, contains information about School No. 5 in the Town of Schodack which the Frickingers built for the boys and girls in the community.
  6. The 150th Anniversary, a booklet published by the Nassau Reformed Church of Nassau, New York in 1953, tells of Mrs. Frickinger’s contributions to the church.
  7. William C. Waneta, Archivist at the Center for Polar and Scientific Archives for the National Archives, Washington, D.C., supplied information about the Frickinger piano action patent in his letter dated April 25, 1978.
  8. Helen M. Knubel, Consultant at Archives of Cooperative Lutheranism, Luthern Council in the U.S.A.; and Wilfre W. Bohley and George M. Bricker, Archivists at Eden Archives and Library, The Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society, Webster Missouri, supplied information about the Luthern and German Evangelische congregations in New York City during the early 19th century.

 

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