b sharp or b flat, but b good: Polk College of Piano Tuning students plinked away in LP

A 1928 ad in the now-defunct Presto Times music trade magazine requests young men to come to the LaPorte college. (Archived on the International Arcade Museum website)

An article in the 1925 Presto Times describes the then-new school. (Archived on International Arcade Museum website)

By Fern Eddy Schultz, La Porte County Historian

Caleb C. Polk, a master of the art of piano tuning, conceived the idea of a piano tuning school while traveling in the West as an expert tuner. It is believed the school was established in Valparaiso as early as 1896. Polk died in 1923. Due to poor health, Polk had sold the business in 1921 to C.M. Towne of Springfield, Illinois, and Willard R. Powell of Oklahoma.  Powell became president of the company and began to relocate the school to LaPorte on January 5, 1925. By 1926, Powell and family were residing at 710 E Street. The school began to function fully in La Porte on April 1.

On December 4, 1924, it was announced locally that the “excavation work on a $40,000 building to house the school on the site on the north side of Lincoln Way near Boston Street” (609 East Lincoln Way) was nearing completion. It was noted that plans for the building showed a “beautiful brown brick structure” two stories tall being placed in the center of the 80’ x 235’ lot adjoining the former orphans’ home (which was originally the mansion of Benjamin Walker). The first floor of the building was to be used for a general office. When the building was dedicated (June 26, 1925), the “distinction of having the only building of its kind in the world especially erected for the purpose for which it was to be used” became a reality. The building itself was said to be “acoustically correct.” There were 24 private studios.

Beyond the general offices were models of every piano, player piano and reproducing piano that were known and models of every part of the action that went into the makeup of the instruments down to the “minutest” detail. A room referred to as a “laboratory” was to the rear of this room. It was noted that when the piano left this room, it was as “grand or upright” as when it first came from the original maker. Even the old-fashioned and almost extinct “square” model was included.

La Porte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz

The technical phase was taught by illustrated lectures in class. Aside from that, the courses were entirely private, consisting of 80 private lessons and 60 additional examinations for which the student was graded. By this method, only 10 to 12 weeks were required to thoroughly enable the average student to master the course of instruction and graduate as a master piano tuner and technician.

As of November 1925, there were four instructors and 37 enrollments, the capacity being 45, and expected to reach that by January 1.  During the first five weeks, the forenoons were spent in gaining the rudiments of tuning and the afternoons to instruction of the action of various pianos, both manual and player. No grade below 98 was considered acceptable.  

Students were taken on inspection tours of the Hobart M. Cable Company piano factory and permitted to study their methods and instruments, but were not affiliated with that company. Statistics showed that at the time, there were only about 3,000 competent tuners in the United States who could tune only one-third of the pianos in the country once a year if they worked 10 hours a day. It was recommended that pianos be tuned twice a year and in 1924, it was suggested that 85% of all pianos in the country were out of tune. It would appear that becoming the owner of a piano held some kind of need for recognition, as regularly in the local news media it would be announced in the “personal” columns that an individual had become a piano owner.

By 1930, Willard Powell and family were residing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His house on E Street was now owned by Raymond F. Larson, secretary-treasurer of Larson-Danielson Construction Co. Powell had established a privately owned piano tuning business in Cedar Rapids. The building at 609 East Lincoln Way was vacant. The building housed various businesses including Measured Time, a Frederick Mennen firm, apartments, and for a short time, Bates & Rogers, builders of Kingsbury Ordnance Plant, until the administrative offices were completed at KOP in late December 1940.

In 1962, it was announced that the area housing the school and the former orphans’ home was under consideration for the construction of a shopping center. Both of these buildings were demolished in favor of the new construction. Residents of the shopping center who have, among others, had the address of 609 East Lincoln Way include the National Tea Food Store Grocery and Aldi’s Grocery (before Aldi’s relocated to the west side).

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