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Ward County Historical Society moves the late Ervin Erickson’s pianos to Minot

Submitted Photo Ervin Erickson of Bismarck, who passed away in June 2020, collected about 70 old pianos and dreamed of one day establishing a piano museum. The Ward County Historical Society agreed to take about 60 of the pianos, which are now in storage, and board members hope to one day raise money to construct a building at its pioneer village in Burlington to house just the pianos.

A Bismarck piano man’s legacy and dream of establishing a piano museum has been rescued by the Ward County Historical Society after his death last June.

Ervin Erickson could never bear to see a piano – especially a player piano – sent to the dump and collected as many as 70 of them, said his sister, Enid Bachman.

“He fell in love with pianos,” said Bachman.

Erickson’s lifelong affinity began when he was in grade school and took piano lessons, said Bachman, and he had a dream of one day starting a piano museum.

When he passed away, his family tried to find a museum or historical society that would accept the pianos or an individual or business who might want to buy them.

Submitted Photo The Ward County Historical Society moved about 60 pianos that had once belonged to Ervin Erickson of Bismarck, who died in June 2020.

“We weren’t really having any luck selling them,” said Bachman. “It’s not a good market right now.”

It would also have cost the family to have the pianos taken to the dump, said Dan Caswell, a Ward County Historical Society board member, and Bachman said her family would have hated to see her brother’s lifelong work go to the local dump. The family put out some feelers in search of a historical society that might be willing to take possession of the pianos and the Ward County Historical Society answered the call.

The pianos they rescued are currently in storage in semi-trailers owned by Gary Price, said Caswell.

Caswell said one day the museum hopes to raise money to construct a separate building at its pioneer village in Burlington that would house only the pianos. There are only three museums devoted solely to pianos in the United States in Michigan, Maine, and New York. The Ward County Historical Society’s museum would make a fourth and would also complete Erickson’s dream.

Caswell said the historical society also hopes to construct another building that would house a collection of old TVs and radios and another building for its antique cars. The historical society has applied for grants and done some fundraising since the museum was relocated to Burlington from its former site at the North Dakota State Fairgrounds in Minot. Donations are particularly appreciated.

The story of how the pianos got to Minot is a saga in and of itself. Caswell said he had initially heard that the family wanted to give away one player piano. He and Sheldon Albertson rented a cube van truck from Home Depot to go to Bismarck in December to get the piano. When they got there, they learned that there were actually close to 70 pianos.

“We did not know they had more than one piano, so we basically came home with an empty truck – one player piano,” said Caswell in an email. “It literally made both Sheldon and myself sick to leave behind the others. There were such beautiful ornate pianos there … We had no place to store them in Minot so we could not bring more home.”

After the word got out about the pianos, people started coming forward and offering places to store them. Gary Price, Ken Rotter, Charles Gutha and George Masters all offered places to store the piano and Caswell also could store some in his garage. Kevin Huwe offered the use of piano moving dollies. Gary Price and Dave Lebrun offered to use their trucks to haul the pianos and Dave Lebrun offered the use of fork extensions for Caswell’s skid steer loader to move them. Gene Kraft had loaned an aluminum ramp to put on the fork extensions.

“The second trip to Bismarck was with Dave Lebrun’s cube van truck and Gary Price’s car hauler enclosed trailer,” said Caswell. “Gordon Lokken, Bob Bruhaug, Dave Lebrun, Gary Price, Sheldon Albertson and myself went down to load and got help once again from my son Mike and his roommate that live in Mandan. We unloaded Dave’s truck into his Souris River Designs building, and Gary Price’s Cal Dak building. Gary’s trailer is still full.”

They took a third trip on Jan. 2 with Mark Zaderaka of Zaderaka Trucking pulling Price’s 48-foot long semi-trailer and Lebrun of Souris River Designs with a 24-foot van truck. Lebrun also provided a diesel pickup to pull Caswell’s trailer with the Bobcat loader on it during both trips. Mark Chilson, Mark Zaderaka, Chris Simmons, Sheldon Albertson, Dave Lebrun, Gary Price and Caswell were all along on the Jan. 2 trip to do the loading.

“It took us only four hours to load both the 48 (foot) and 24 (foot) trucks!” said Caswell.

The pianos are currently being stored in Price’s two semi-trailers and others may be moved to other locations that were offered by other people, said Caswell.

“There were so many very neat, ornate, and downright beautiful pianos,” said Caswell in an email. “Many player pianos and we found one player organ. There is also one baby grand piano and a player organ. One player piano we found out was built in 1913 and besides being a player piano it also has a wind-up record player in it! This one, in restored condition (which, of course, ours is not) is valued at around $35,000. But ours does look like it’s complete. There was also what they call a push-up, I think it was, where you set this device on the keys of a regular piano and it turns into a player piano. It was also said that there was one coin-operated piano, but no one is sure if we saw it or not. But pianos were moving so fast from the house to the trucks that no one really got to look at them very much. We are so fortunate to have so many people donate their equipment, vehicles, fuel, fime, etc., to make the museum a viable entity. It is really coming along nice.”

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