Amsterdam’s Piano Man

When John Fea died on April 20, 1931, his obituary declared he was “one of Amsterdam’s best known residents.” Today he is all but forgotten.

Fea was born in Cherry Valley on April 10, 1852. He attended school in Fort Plain and Canajoharie. He was an industrious boy who earned money by selling molasses candy to passengers at the Canajoharie Palatine Bridge Railroad station. One day in 1866 a tall, thin, grizzled man and a short, stocky, burly man with a close-cropped red beard got off the train to take the stage coach to Sharon Springs. When the tall man saw Fea with his candy, he asked the short man if wanted some. He said he did. The short man had to remove his cigar to eat his candy, and eventually ended up with some of the sticky candy in his beard. You may have already guessed that the tall man was General William T. Sherman and the short man General Ulysses S. Grant.

But what Fea became well known for in his lifetime was not meeting generals and future presidents but pianos, organs and melodeons. He made them, repaired them, sold them, tuned them and played them.

John Fea

John’s father, Alexander Fea, emigrated form Scotland to America in 1849. Alexander began manufacturing pianos, organs and melodeons and brought his sons, John and Alexander Jr. into the business when they were old enough. In the 1860s, his piano factory was on Canal Street in Fort Plain. His regular advertisements said he warranteed his instruments for five years, and he called attention to “the great power, depth of tone and style of finish of his instruments and believes they have never failed to give entire satisfaction.”

Alexander moved his factory to Cherry Valley. Then in 1878 he moved it to Bridge Street in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, the factory burned in 1884. Alexander Sr., who was in his late 50s, and Alexander Jr. abandoned the piano and organ business. In the 1884-85 City Directory, they are listed as coffin makers. By 1894, Alexander was listed as a cabinet maker, while Junior was listed as a carpenter. All this time, John was listed as a piano tuner.

Eventually, Alexander Junior would take a job as a traveling representative who installed machinery for the Klauder-Weldon Dyeing Machine Company. When the company relocated to Philadelphia, he went with them.

John remained in Amsterdam, and not only continued as a piano tuner, he repaired pianos and organs for churches and other organizations as well as individuals. He would spend more than 50 years as Amsterdam’s “piano man.” Sometimes, younger men would apprentice with him. He also tinkered with improvements for pianos and organs. One newspaper article reported that he had “perfected an ingenious machine for moving pianos.” Another news brief stated “John Fea is reported to have sold his patent organ attachment, known as an indicator, to Massachusetts parties for a large sum of money.”

Fea joined Cluett & Sons and sold pianos and other musical instruments for them. Cluett & Sons was based in Troy and sold more than 2,000 pianos annually during the 19th Century. Their four story retail outlet in Troy was called the Cluett & Sons Temple of Music. Cluett & Sons had retail locations in Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, including one on East Main Street in Amsterdam that advertised pianos, organs, mandolins, banjos, guitars, sheet music and music books.

Fea’s obituary in the Fort Plain Standard stated he was a pioneer in the organ and piano business. Fea became the chairman of the National Piano Tuners Association. At their 1893 meeting in Chicago, while Fea was chairman, the organization adopted International pitch, an international standard for tuning pianos.

When not fiddling with musical instruments, Fea studied local history and became an authority on it. He spent his life studying the three routes of General James Clinton’s forces during the Revolutionary War’s Clinton-Sullivan Campaign, which started in Canajoharie and was intended to punish the Iroquois for their devastating raids on the Mohawk Valley. He not only studied the routes using primary sources, including maps, but attempted to pinpoint their exact locations by hiking them. Fea wrote the chapter on Clinton’s march for Nelson Greene’s History of the Mohawk Valley, and the four volume set cites Fea numerous times. He is cited in several other Mohawk Valley books and wrote a booklet on Mohawk Valley forts.

Fea is buried in Fairview Cemetery while his father and brother are buried in Green Hill.

Note: This story will appear in a future book. To purchase my current book of local history stories, click here.

One thought on “Amsterdam’s Piano Man

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  1. Thank you for your interest in my great grandpa. I hope you check out his contributions of Native American artifacts to the Albany museum. One of his most significant accomplishments.

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