Wegman Piano Company

After emigrating from his native Switzerland, Henry Wegman found employment with the Steinway firm in New York City. In 1882, he founded the Wegman and Hanning Piano Company at Ithaca, and the firm relocated to Auburn five years later at the invitation of the Auburn Board of Trade. Wegman and his partner, Christian Hanning, also a Swiss immigrant, established a place of business in the rear of a building at the corner of Clark and Green Streets before moving to quarters on East Genesee Street. Six pianos per week were produced at the new location.

Looking west toward South Street - 1985

Photo taken in 1985 looking west toward South Street.

A dramatic expansion resulted from the company’s relocation in 1890 to the site of the Logan Silk Mill and Auburn Button Company on Logan Street. Grand pianos, uprights, player pianos and organs were now made in a faciluity that measured 266 by 300 feet, and some eighty employees made 1,200 instruments annually. A showroom, managed by Wegman son-in-law George F. Adams, was operated at 133 Genesee Street. In 1893, the company was incorporated by Wegman, William C. Burgess, at the time serving as mayor of Auburn, and Warren Crocker, who had purchased the interest of Hanning when the latter returned to Ithaca.

A patented tuning pin fastener was among the special features of the Auburn-made pianos. The Wegman had a reputation for staying tuned for a longer period than the average piano. Moreover, tyhe moderate price of the instrument made it popular throughout the western hemisphere. An 1895 advertisement boasted that the Wegman piano’s virtues had been recognized by judges at the World’s Exposition, who reported on its characteristics:

First, the tone quality which is very good. Second, the duration and singing qualities are excellent. Third, the scale is well-balanced. Fourth, the action is light and prompt to respond. Fifth, the cases of artistic design. Sixth, a new feature is locking of the tuning pins by reason of the eccentric holes in the iron frame exclusively, in which they are well-fitted; a point of construction highly recommendable as securing power of remaining in tune. Seventh, workmanship and materials are both excellent.

The company recommended that its pianos be tuned by specially trained tuners, due to the unique tuning pin fastener. Harry Bain, owner of a music store on Exchange Street, recalled in 1962 that “in the days of the [Wegman] company, such mechanics were easily found, but this is not true today.”

The company was reorganized in 1913, when Burgess retired and sold his interest in the firm for $10,000. Preston C. Sherman of New York City purchased a stake in the company and became its general manager. In the same year, the company acquired the Vough Piano Company of Waterloo, and possession of the Seneca County enterprise was taken on 1 January 1914. As a result of this acquisition, the Wegman Piano Company produced pianos under the Malcolm, Vough, Love, LeRoy and Alexandria names, in addition to its own.

The fate of the company was largely determined on 1 May 1914, when watchman Lewis Clifford detected a fire on the second floor. Patrolman McMaster of the Auburn Police Department reported flames at about the same time. Both pulled the alarm near the street at 12:19 a.m. The fire advanced rapidly from the finishing room on the second floor to the rooms where oils and varnishes were stored. In only a few minutes, the open attic was consumed by fifteen- and twenty-foot flames. The sky was a lurid red reflection of the great fire. A newspaper reporter described the “weird notes” emitted by the nearly-finished pianos inside, “as though these instruments were crying out to be saved.” The sound of shattering glass joined the mournful chorus. Over $100,000 in damage resulted from the fire, and a three-month supply of pianos had been ruined by water damage. A large quantity of special tools was also destroyed by the fire.

Thirty-five pianos had been produced weekly prior to the disastrous fire. The factory had been one of only two factories in the city that operated both day and night. A five thousand feet addition was being built at the rear of the plant, and the company anticipated that it would soon produce three thousand pianos annually. Because of the company’s bright prospects, a number of other upstate communities promptly sought to secure its relocation immediately after the fire. Henry Wegman announced that “I have spent my whole life in the Wegman Piano Company. I have seen it grow from a small concern to a large and successful factory. It is our purpose to reorganize just as soon as possible in this city, if possible. If we can’t find a building here that will answer out purpose, we shall be obliged to move out of the city.” Auburn’s business and civic leaders, however, promptly identified a suitable site for the manufacture of pianos, and within a few hours after the fire, the company purchased the 10,000-square feet Birdsall factory on Hulbert Street, a three and one-half acre complex at which threshers had once been manufactured. The property was conveniently traversed by both the New York Central Railroad and the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Within only a few weeks, however, on 6 January 1915, the Wegman Piano Company declared itself insolvent. “The recent fire and the stringent condition of the money market are responsible for the present situation,” declared Wegman attorney R.J. Burritt. Some suggested that the popularity of the phonograph had contributed to the decline of piano sales. During the course of the bankruptcy proceedings, which began on 26 February 1915, company bookkeeper Herbert Henley testified that he was responsible for implementing a new bookkeeping system, but did not do so because he “did not know the cost of making a piano.” It became known that Sherman had been closely associated with two other failed companies. John V. Kalva, head of the company’s collections department, acknowledged that his primary responsibility was writing letters requesting payment from customers, but that he had never actually made a collection. The company never emerged from bankruptcy.

Concerted efforts by business and civic leaders lured a fledgling piano manufacturer to Auburn, and, when it became necessary to do so, they took steps to ensure that the firm remained in the city. These efforts, and the renown enjoyed by the company, were not sufficient to guarantee the contuinued prosperity of the enterprise, however. Other factors determined that the music of thousands of Wegman pianos in parlors throughout the nation would be the principal legacy of an industry that had been, for a short time, closely and happily associated with Auburn. The Logan Street factory has had many uses in the years since the demise of the Wegman Piano Company, but to many longtime residents, it is still known as “the old piano factory.” Like the Wegman pianos in many local homes, it us a reminder of the community’s once-proud industrial past.