One True Piano Man: Steve Misener

On The Road

So many of us in Keloland have seen these grand pianos in grandma and grandpa’s living room. Well, we’re in Stockholm, South Dakota, population 100, where one man is doing everything to bring them as well as tell their grand story as well.

“So much of this, I call rescue. Because these instruments are ready to go to the burn pile, or somebody you know, they don’t want them anymore. I have stood at the door, when there’s been pianos that either went to my trailer or they went to the dumpster. And you know, I call it crazy, but you know, I got 130 pianos sitting around here,” said Steve Misener.

Steve Misener grew up on a farm 7 miles from Stockholm, South Dakota. His piano repair business has been in town for 38 years. “At about age 10, three things came together for me. I became interested in music, and became interested in history, and became interested in how things work mechanically. So that’s where that, all you know, that’s kind of where I started with this. I was working on pianos when I was in high school, and it just went from there. And so, still fixing pianos,” said Steve Misener.

Steve has an incredible talent for fixing and restoring old pianos and keyboard instruments. Robbyn Givens has benefited first hand at home, church and at the shop. “To have that technical ability to, to fix, to recreate something that is old and make it work again and new. There are not those technicians and craftsmen around anymore,” Said Robbyn Givens.

Her favorite example of his art is a nickelodeon originally built 100 years ago in 1919. “He was able to go through and find out which piece of the music, went with each instrument and all those kind of things in this. I can’t even imagine the hours that went into this,” said Robbyn Givens. “We managed to fix the cast iron plate. But then, we also had to fix the engineering problem that caused the cast iron plate to break to begin with. So, I’ve had it up and running now for two years.  It’s staying in tune and it’s doing its thing,” said Steve Misener.

Steve has hundreds of old but beautiful keyboard instruments. “That piano was built in 1855, rosewood cabinet, the inside, the interior that is all hand painted. The birds and the flowers and stuff, that’s all, somebody spent the time to paint all of that work, or you know. So, it’s more than just an instrument, it’s a piece of artwork,” said Steve Misener.

The historic stories within each piano are incredibly important to Steve according to fellow historian Christy Lickei. “There’s more history here than just this piano is old. There’s some serious famous people, and just a lot of history in the stories of the piano’s themselves,” said Christy Lickei.

He goes to great efforts, and yes, distances to uncover that history. “I know he’s in Omaha and he’s, he’s in Illinois and then he can’t maybe talk to you for a month because he’s going to Vietnam on a trip. And then, we were looking through some photos once of pianos, and then there’s Steve on a camel. So, I think this may be home base, but I don’t know that you, you know, he gets around,” said Christy Lickei.

“I love what he does and I love the history that he pulls out of these instruments, that others would think were dead and gone,” said Robbyn Givens. “I know which concert halls it sat in. I know who the people were that played the instrument. And so, I would get the date out of the ledger of the concert hall. I go to the London newspapers, and find the advertisement for that concert. So, I know, who played, and then sometimes, I actually two days later, got the critics report of how the concert went,” said Steve Misener.

Steve goes “on the road” himself inspiring others. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve done about 1 exhibition a year, some place in a, in an art museum or I was even in the fellowship hall of a church, you know. Where ever I can get in, I take about 25, 30 pianos, set them up for a month, and do a temporary museum exhibition with them,” said Steve Misener.

Steve gave me some perspective on the piano’s future. “People say all the electronic keyboards are taking over.  Well, there is a bit of that. But I think that when people have the knowledge of playing a keyboard instrument, they’ll sit on, on to an acoustic piano eventually, certainly, because they have that. But I think the biggest cultural shift is that fewer and fewer people are making music,” said Steve Misener. 

Want to play one of Steve’s pianos? Just stop by. “They’re hundreds and hundreds of years old,” said Christy Lickei. “Yeah,” said Mike Huether. “I mean, but he wants you to be part of them. To actually, well, if you want to know what piano playing was like in the 1800’s and then you play a piano, you see how that piano is different from the piano you’re learning on today. Or even your, you know, mostly plastic keyboard if that’s what you’re using,” said Christy Lickei.

Steve is not sure of the future of his profession, and yes, his own collection. For now, he takes it one piano at a time. “I turn down one piano, at least one piano a week. People are wanting to give stuff to me. And you know, I’m full. You know, I can’t save it all and shouldn’t. But yeah, and oh I… there’s, there’s an enormous amount of instruments that are not being used or they’re going to the wayside. I have jokingly told people I have burned more pianos than I have saved,” said Steve Misener. “I don’t like being judge, jury and executioner,” said Steve Misener.

As we leave this town of about 100 residents, Taylor and I will relay one more interesting tidbit for our KELOLAND On the Road fans. “I never volunteer to help him move pianos (laugh),” joked Christy Lickei. “Piano moving, save it for the professionals or Steve Misener,” said Mike Huether. “That’s how you know who your real friends are,who shows up when the piano needs to be moved,” laughed Christy Lickei.

The oldest piano in Steve’s collection, that is still playable, was built in 1784. He’s repaired one from as far back as 1760. He jokingly told me that he can get “28 pianos in a 26 foot U-haul”. Not bad, Steve. Not bad.

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