Written by Jason Gilmer | Photos by Evan Anderson
For the piano aficionados of Canton’s Ward Piano Co., repair and restoration are an art form.
Alden Ward readily admits that he isn’t an extremely savvy user of modern technology. He does, however, know enough about electronics to turn a tired, old piano into an instrument that can perform concertos and operas at the touch of an app.
This isn’t something his grandfather or father, for that matter, could have envisioned as part of the services offered by Ward Piano Co., Inc., in Canton, North Carolina, just outside Asheville. The third-generation small business has evolved since its 1944 inception even as it has kept its history firmly in the spotlight. From sales to repairs to moving to tuning, the tiny workforce has served Western North Carolina and the surrounding areas for decades while still residing in the same sprawling structures it has occupied since the business’ boom in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Alden and his sister, Kelly, took over the company in 1986 from their father, Guy, and have continued the small company’s dedication to customer service and taking on the toughest moving jobs.
“I always thought that I would be a nurse,” says Kelly, who has a degree in business administration from Haywood Community College. “I shouldn’t say ‘always’. It was one of the things I wanted to do. We just worked here, and it was 1986, and Dad was retiring, and he asked if we wanted it.”
“We didn’t have the better sense to tell him ‘no,’” says Alden, whose 55-year-old body is muscular from years of moving 300 to 1,200-pound pianos.
Times have changed for the piano company. While the small showroom still houses pianos, the company is no longer an authorized dealer for any of the major makers. Now, the showroom’s main attraction is the company’s refurbished pianos; baby grands and upright pianos, from makers such as Yamaha, Baldwin, Kawai, and Wurlitzer, sit near other pianos that still must be remade into beauties.
Alden and a couple of employees spend their workweeks taking apart pianos, restringing them, painting the inner mechanisms, and rebuilding the frames. They take something that could be destined for the scrap heap or burn pile and turn it into something that can easily add earworms to listeners’ brains.
“Right now, moving is probably the biggest part of our business,” Alden says. “Some of the other piano movers in the area have gotten to where they don’t want to do the hard jobs, so we get all those calls.”
Sales are down these days, they admit, with the majority of purchases coming from piano players who want to upgrade their instrument. They don’t sell to as many families, as parents don’t push their children to take lessons anymore. If someone wants a starter, Craigslist is full of families who want to rid their home of those dust-catching piano units that sit in corners draped with framed elementary school photos.
Gone are the days when Ward Piano Co. employed dozens of workers who worked two shifts to transform truckloads of pianos into showpieces that were shipped across the Southeast to dealers.
That, though, hasn’t stopped the Ward children from carrying on a family legacy.
Like many blue-collar workers in Canton, L.J. Ward worked in the town’s paper mill in the 1940s. As a side job, he would assist a piano dealer with sales in the area.
“Our granddad was a big singer and always loved to sing, and he loved choir,” Kelly says. “Music was always his thing. There was a man selling pianos, and for every piano that granddaddy would sell for him, he got like five dollars; and this was in 1941 or ’42. So, granddad got to thinking, ‘Why should I be selling it for him? I can just sell them for myself!’ So he quit the mill in 1944 to sell pianos.”
“My understanding was he would get a piano, and they would fix it up and sell it,” Alden adds. “And it started out as one piano at a time.”
Work on the piano would be done in an uncle’s garage. Once work was complete, the piano would go in the back of a pickup truck and then be driven around until a buyer was found.
That kept L.J. afloat for a while, but the business really picked up when L.J. drove to visit his son, Guy, who was in the military and stationed near Philadelphia. There, the father and son bought their first truckload of pianos.
“Dad helped him pick out the first load of pianos,” Alden says. “They put them on a truck and shipped them back.”
Before a return to door-to-door sales, however, those pianos got refurbished.
“Dad said that the first sale was always the hardest,” Kelly says. “Usually, the people who bought a piano would know someone who needed one or who had kids who needed one.”
“And then they got a bigger truck and would put several on there, and they would go and go until they got them all sold,” Alden says.
Eventually that business model changed. Ward Piano Co. went from relying on door-to-door salesmen, to furnishing pianos for dealers. They would purchase pianos that were broken, weathered, or undesirable to the owners, repair and refurbish them, and then take them by the truckload to dealers who would sell them.
They had a showroom in downtown Canton for a time. Then in the 1950s, Ward began to build the buildings on nearby Asheville Highway, where they are still located.
How did a family, one without any musical education, learn this trade?
“I’ll be honest,” muses Alden, “it was probably just on-the-job training. You’ve got to consider, back then, these old uprights that are now 100 years old were only [at the time] 30 or 40 years old, so they weren’t in that bad of shape. There wasn’t a whole lot that had to be done on the inside, other than being tuned. Maybe they would clean it up and maybe do some touch-up paint, which was usually the biggest problem of a lot of those pianos back then.”
Becoming More Involved
Alden and Kelly each started working in the family business when they were young. Kelly says she was 14 when she began answering the phones: “Ward Piano Co., hold on, please.” She’d earn five or ten dollars for those phone-answering sessions and then began working after school at age 16, when she would place key tops on keys and learned to clean hardware. Over time, she has learned to do sanding and stripping of the piano’s exterior.
Alden was close to that age, too, when he first worked at the store. When he got his driver’s license, he would drive the company’s two blind tuners to their appointments after school and on Saturdays.
(They also have older siblings—a brother named Kerwin and a sister named Robin—who once worked at the store, but no longer do.)
Kelly and Alden say that they were there so much, while growing up, that not too many memories really stand out from those days—although they both remember the RC Cola machine that sat in the back room. It was the kind with a glass door that you’d open and pull out the soda bottle; they remember begging their father for coins to buy a drink.
The business grew as music became more and more popular, and the music business itself expanded nationally. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the company had around 35 employees who worked two shifts. This was around the time that big upright pianos fitted with a mirror were popular, so they would cut pianos and add the mirror.
“They called it ‘restyling,’” explains Kelly.
“They were cutting the pianos down, refinishing them, and going through them to make sure everything worked right,” adds Alden, “and they were doing between 30 and 50 a week and sending them wholesale to dealers.”
“Dad told us that sometimes they would take a load on the truck,” Kelly says, “and before they would get back, the dealer would be calling to ask for another load.”
They did a lot of selling in Florida. In fact, the family spent a lot of vacations in Florida as their dad worked that territory.
There was even a dealer in Calgary, Canada, who would buy from Ward Piano Co.
“The dealer would bring a tractor trailer load of 32 pianos and drop them off, and pick up 32 that we rebuilt and take them back to Canada,” Alden says. (Kelly: “I remember that because I had to type the customs papers.” Alden: “And I had to help load and unload them!”)
By the time Alden and Kelly became more involved in the company, however—Kelly graduated from college in 1979 and Alden did the same in 1982—the wholesale aspect of the business had dried up. Like any good business, though, they evolved.
Making Moves All Over
The Ward stories of moving pianos are numerous. Just a few weeks prior to this interview, in fact, three employees moved a grand piano down 43 steps. That same day they moved a console up 14 steps. Recently, they raised a piano into a loft during the construction phase of a build because completing the task that early was the only way. Picture the bulk and imagine the weight of a grand piano and you might have a sense of what’s involved in these types of jobs.
They once needed a crane to lift a six-foot grand piano onto an outdoor patio five floors up, because the elevator in the building only went to the fourth floor and the stairway to the apartment turned too many times. Crane jobs actually aren’t too unusual, the siblings say, and they recently accomplished a job with one in Tennessee. They’ve done other jobs over the years where they set up scaffolding to hoist pianos into lofts. (The editor of this magazine still has a childhood memory of a job involving a crane having to hoist such a load into his parents’ house, which, due to no reasonable stairway options, also involved having to temporarily remove a large set of second-story windows.)
The roughest day, Alden says, is when they moved six, including a grand piano that had to go down a flight of steps and a console that had to go up two flights of steps. Smaller pianos can weigh 350 to 450 pounds; the concert grands can top 1,000 pounds.
“We get some doozies,” he deadpans. “And I’m not getting any younger.”
Such moves, though, are their main source of revenue these days. They average 10 to 15 moves a week, and the majority of those are local. They also still have several piano tuners who stay busy with appointments.
Alden has upgraded several pianos and made them player pianos with QRS Music Technology, which allows owners of these pianos to choose from thousands of songs—some with other accompaniment and vocalists—to be played in their home. The cost, though, is a bit steep, at more than $6,000, but he still has completed four of these upgrades in recent months.
The other part of the business remains refurbishing and selling pianos. The door from the showroom leads into a room that can aptly be described as a piano garage and shop—It’s a little dark and a little dirty, and there are parts and tools everywhere. A small table and a couple of chairs occupy the center of the space. This is where old pianos become prized possessions.
More than 60 pianos are in storage, waiting for their turn at restoration.
What Does the Future Hold?
Whether all of those pianos will ever have the needed work completed is a legitimate question.
“We take it a day at a time,” admits Kelly. “As Alden says, we aren’t getting any younger!”
Alden has three kids and talked them all into doing something other than the piano business. “I know where the business is headed,” he says. “It’s going to become a very specialized field, and there’s a lot of stress and headaches with this business.” Instead of raising three piano movers or tuners, he has a teacher, an architect, and a soldier.
This family business is in a tough spot. They want to continue the legacy that was built by L.J. and Guy, but they aren’t sure if that will happen.
“We know we wouldn’t sell our name,” Kelly says. “I just don’t think so, because of the reputation that our grandfather and dad and us built over the years. You never know what somebody would do with the name. As a business, I guess we would think about selling it.”
“I don’t know that it would sell as a business,” Alden adds. “When the economy took a nosedive recently, a lot of piano dealers went out of business. Even though the number of dealers went out as the economy recovered, piano sales really didn’t pick up to the point [to] where they were before. I guess there was such a long period of time when people couldn’t afford pianos, and that’s when it died out a little bit and kids stopped taking lessons. But honestly, it will probably just phase out as a business.”
And that would be a shame. But until the time nears for a decision to be made, Alden and Kelly continue each day, working with the fervor and blue-collar mentality that turned Ward Piano Co. into a name known throughout the area, and beyond, for excellence.
Interestingly, after each encounter with a customer, a thank-you note is sent from the Canton shop. It’s just one of the little ways that the Wards have chosen to be a step above the competition, the kind of small gesture that could turn into more business for them.
Another move, another refurbishing—another job keeping alive the family tradition that was begun in the ‘40s and continues to this day with the third generation of piano workers.
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…