Keys to the Past: Kimball Piano

Dale Lassiter of Jasper tunes the last piano built by Kimball International at the company’s headquarters in Jasper on Jan. 14. Dale worked for Kimball building pianos, and was among the group of people who signed the inside of the last piano which now sits in the atrium of Kimball’s headquarters. The piano was last tuned six years ago.

Story by Allen Laman
Photographs by Brittney Lohmiller

Dale Lassiter greeted his old friend with a smile. It’d been six years since they last met — an eternity in their line of work. They were introduced to each other in 1996, in the moments leading up to the shipping of the last baby grand piano to come off the line at Kimball in West Baden. Staring longingly at the shell of a being who seldom speaks these days, Dale remembered fondly the time they spent together.

He worked at various Kimball piano plants for 18 years, ultimately becoming the operations manager in West Baden. It was apparent that connection had strengthened their bond.

The friend Dale reunited with on that dark January day is not human, but it has a soul. It was that final grand piano, a world-class musical instrument that symbolizes an era long forgotten.

But not for Dale. As he paced in the rear lobby of the Kimball International building on Royal Street in Jasper, a bag of tuning equipment in hand, he flipped open the fallboard of the immaculately-kept piano, unveiling 88 keys to the past. He found his signature, sketched on the internal soundboard alongside the names of its builders and company executives.

A talented trio of professional musicians were weeks away from putting on a free, informal performance for the company’s employees, organized in conjunction with Jasper Community Arts. Dale had been called to adjust the pitch of the nearly 23-year-old piano’s strings.

On Monday, as notes from the Poulenc Trio’s final song still hung in the office space, Dale released a simple sentence of approval.

“I’ve never heard that piano played that way before,” he said, eyes widened.

It was the first time the Kimball instrument had been used in a concert setting in years. And it might have been the best its keys were ever played.

The Poulenc Trio’s members consist of pianist Irina Lande, bassoonist Bryan Young and oboist James Austin Smith. They played classical music and chatted with the roughly 50 attendees for about an hour during the lunchtime performance.

The Poulenc Trio pianist Irina Lande, left, oboist James Austin Smith and bassoonist Bryan Young perform during their Cappuccino Concert at Kimball International headquarters in Jasper on Monday. For the concert, Irina played on the last piano made by Kimball.

“It’s a legacy — it’s like a historical instrument I can say I played today,” Irina said after the coffee-house-style set. “It is very special, of course. And it’s very memorable. It definitely will stay in my memories. I’ll always remember that I played this last Kimball piano.”

At one point, the West Baden facility produced about 250 upright pianos and 25 grand pianos a day — amounting to 55,000 pianos in 1979. But those numbers dwindled to around just 15 pianos daily before the plant ceased work on them in 1996 and shifted to pool tables, speaker cabinets and television stands. Today, Kimball International creates innovative furnishings sold through the Kimball, National and Kimball Hospitality family of brands that make tables, chairs, desks, cabinets and more.

Despite all upper management lacking musical knowledge, the Jasper Corporation — Kimball International’s former name — entered the piano marketplace in 1959 when it purchased the W.W. Kimball Company of Melrose Park, Illinois, a company that had already produced pianos and organs for more than a century.

The nearby piano plant propelled Kimball to become a worldwide leader in the keyboard music industry throughout the mid- to late-1960s and 1970s. But the onset of the 1980s marked the sharp decline of the home organ market due to changing lifestyles and tech innovations. By the mid-1990s, the domestic piano market had fallen to less than 25 percent of its peak volume level.

Kimball employees Kent Uebelhor, left, Greg Kincer, Brad Fella, Janet Rydberg and Eric Haas listen to chamber music performed by the Poulenc Trio as part of their Cappuccino Concert at Kimball International headquarters in Jasper on Monday.

Danny Payton, a man who held many titles at the West Baden plant during his time there, explained that Kawai and Samsung flooded the market with cheap pianos after the federal government lifted import taxes. The local factory could not compete with its overseas rival, and piano production ended at the nearby Kimball piano plant in April 1996. When the last piano left the line, CNN came to the tiny Indiana town to report on the end of the era.

Dale stayed on with Kimball for three years, but later left to work as a plant manager at OFS Brands in Huntingburg. He now lives in Jasper and works as a director for Far East International, a global seating manufacturer. He doesn’t tune pianos much anymore, but he’ll occasionally do it on the side for ones he is familiar with.

He remembers going to work at the piano factory all those years ago and becoming engulfed in piano notes and chords as he walked into the plant. When piano assembly ended, Dale, a collegiate music major who once had aspirations to be an orchestra conductor, knew whatever he’d make next would never mean as much to him.

“It had a soul, the pianos,” Dale said. “To me, you not only had the beauty of a case, but you had the instrument itself. And what you can make that piano sound like.”

The factory’s employees connected so deeply that they still stay in touch today. An active Facebook page for the former piano-makers is filled with birthday wishes, and as the years go on, obituaries. The 241-member assembly is listed as a family group.

Lassiter works to tune the last piano built by Kimball International at the company’s headquarters in Jasper on Jan. 14. “It’s stiff,” Dale said afterwards.

That final piano sat in the company’s showroom for years and was moved to the Kimball International building earlier this decade. After the Poulenc Trio’s performance Monday, Bryan said the regal instrument should not be relegated to an artifact. It should be kept alive.

“You have to keep it going,” he said, repeating himself for emphasis. “The thing about pianos is, if they sit, they deteriorate. If you play them, they kind of age and the tone gets better and the mechanism gets better. The more of this that can happen, I think the better.”

He added: “I know Kimball has expanded into new areas and things like that, but what a way to honor that legacy. Here’s an instrument. Here’s the history. Not only can you see it, but you can hear it.”