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“The years but make it holier”

Steve Charles—The love story of General Lew Wallace and his future bride begins at a piano. A piano that, until yesterday, was right here on the Wabash campus.

The exact ages and dates are sketchy as laid out in Lew Wallace: An Autobiography, but the story goes something like this:

When young Wallace (who would become Crawfordsville’s most famous resident) was about nine and attending the preparatory school at Wabash, he invited himself to the home of Issac Elston, who had the finest house in the region. He’d heard that the Elstons had a piano among their exotic furnishings. Never having seen such a “big musical machine,” he stopped by for a look.

“A party was in progress,” Wallace would write in Autobiography. “I worked my way, Indian-like, to a window through which the whole interior was in view. In a little while, sure enough, a young lady went to the machine, opened it, and began a song with an accompaniment.”

That young lady was Susan Elston, age six. It was the first time Wallace laid eyes on the girl he would come to love and marry.

The piano remained in the Elston Homestead, which was eventually donated to the College by Isacc Elston III and has since been the residence of Wabash presidents. The piano was moved to the Wabash campus during the administration of Andy Ford, stored in Baxter Hall.

Wabash music professor Larry Bennett knew about the piano, and as he was completing his term as department chair this year, wanted “to tie up some loose ends,” including giving the public access to the historic musical instrument. He contacted local woodworker Don Livingston, who did a beautiful job restoring the cabinet of the piano. He contacted Crawfordsville Public Library Director Larry Hathaway, who helped arrange for the piano to be received by the Library’s new Carnegie Museum.

The piano itself is remarkable. Built in Boston by Timothy Gilbert in the 1830s, it is number 680 of about 4,000 “square” pianos made by this innovative craftsman, who later patented improvements to upright pianos as well as a square piano with “an Aeolian attachment”—a combination piano/reed organ.

Purchased for Susan Elston, probably in Cincinnati, the piano was transported to Crawfordsville from Boston via the Atlantic Ocean, Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash Rivers, and finally up Sugar Creek, which was navigable in those days.

But photographing this 170-year-old piano in Salter Hall yesterday morning and touching the fragile keys before it was moved to its new home, I couldn’t help but think of young Susan Elston, her delicate fingers playing while her future husband, still a boy, saw her for the first time through that window at the Elston Homestead.

The next time he saw her she was 18 years old, and all grown up. Wallace writes of that moment in Autobiography:

“Fifty years and more [ago], and I can blow the time aside lightly as smoke from a cigar, and have a return of that evening with Miss Elston, and her blue eyes, wavy hair, fair face, girlish manner, delicate person, and witty flashes to vivify it.

“There are young people who think a man past 70 may not be moved by the love of his youth… [Yet] far from so much as dimming the recollection, the years but make it holier.”

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