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Wisdom and Grace: Hi-Line Hero: A piano? Really? Really!

The H. Earl Clack Memorial Museum and our Hi-Line community recently received an unknown gift that they had taken possession of many years ago. Does this make sense? Please allow me to explain because it is truly an amazing gift. And the story behind it is even more so.

The Clack Family legacy continues today with many, many donations (both financial and historic items) to our local museum. But an unexpected "gift within a gift" was found a month ago by local musician, volunteer and Hi-Line native Michael Stevenson. Michael discovered a very unique and rare player piano within a Baby Grand Piano that was donated by the Clack family in memory of Margaret Turner Clack.

Margaret Turner Clack was born April 29, 1884, in Baltimore, Maryland with Revolutionary ancestry and Quaker faith. Her father, a doctor, suffered poor health and turned to the railroad profession and fresh air for restoration. As a result, the family moved frequently and Margaret spent her high school years in Fort Worth, Texas, where she met and fell in love with H. Earl Clack.

After graduation she came to Montana to visit Earl's sister Maud Sands, and of course Earl. He anticipated her visit and had written her in the Quaker fashion that was always special to them, "Your train arrives in Havre at 10 a.m. Take care not to be napping or thee will miss the most wonderful adventure of thy life." They were married July 29, 1903.

The Clacks had eight children, two of whom died in infancy. H. Earl Clack had some connection to the Chickering Piano in Fort Worth, Texas. Each daughter was gifted with a Chickering piano. Margaret Turner Clack's mother was a concert pianist and the love of music was undoubtedly passed on from generation to generation.

Today the piano that was gifted to daughter Margaret Turner Askew Hood resides in the "Clack Room" of the museum. This room also features Mrs. Clack's clothes and well as other memorabilia that belonged to her. Family was told and believed that the player part of the piano was inoperable probably because of the condition of electrical cord and the amount of time that had passed without being used.

Sometime after the museum purchased the present building at #2 Fifth Avenue in Havre, the Clack family brought the piano to Havre and gifted it to the museum. An open house was held in 2018 for family and board members at which time the Clack's daughter Catherine Chatalas gave a concert on the piano.

The family and board members believed that there was no need to pursue trying to get the player portion of the piano working. But then enter Mr. Michael Stevenson ... and everything changed.

Michael Stevenson was raised on the Hi-Line and graduated from Havre High School in 1969. After receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in music education, he taught for 43 years in Hingham, Rudyard, and Scobey, Montana, and Beach and Dickinson, North Dakota. Recently he returned to the Hi-Line when his father was ill.

Michael has done a great deal of research on Chickering pianos, specifically the one at the museum: how to maintain it with a special vacuum pump, how to clean the tracker bar and how the pneumatic tubes will get clogged and stop it from playing.

In addition to the piano, the Museum received a cabinet containing over 40 rolls to be used for the player piano. Another donation of 100 rolls has been added to the collection. Jean Gingery and Lela Patera have cataloged these.

Truly this was an unknown treasurer and the magnitude of the gift is still being realized. Michael Stevenson says "It is a wonderful piece of Havre history and a truly wonderful piece of musical history. It is seen as a player grand piano but a player grand piano only plays notes. This one interprets with dynamics and phrasing. It makes it more 'alive' than just playing notes. On some rolls there are words written so the audience can sing along with the piano."

Elaine Morse, chair of the H. Earl and Margaret Turner Clack Memorial Museum Foundation, agreed.

"It's an addition to the legacy that the Clack family has left in Havre," she said. "We are thrilled."

Morse added that the use of it will be restricted to those who are trained by Michael Stevenson and Carolyn Tuss, museum manager.

During a recent telephone visit Elaine Morse spoke with the Clack's granddaughter Catherine Chatalas, who brought the piano to Havre again and gave it to the museum. In recalling the piano, Catherine was absolutely thrilled that the player piano had been brought back to life. She remembered that during World War II, her mother, her sister and she moved back to Havre while her father served in the Armed Forces. They lived with her grandmother at 532 Second Avenue, the Clack House. Catherine remembers that even though she was only 2½ years old, and she couldn't sit on the piano bench, she loved to stand by the piano and plunk on the keys.

For many years, the piano was owned by Margaret Turner Askew Hood. But when she moved to a smaller home, her niece Catherine asked for the piano. For many years, Catherine thoroughly enjoyed and loved playing it ... but never the player parts. Eventually Catherine decided to "reclaim" her living room and made the decision to return the piano to Havre.

Catherine loaded the piano into a moving van along with her VW Bug. At the destination, they unloaded both and Catherine drove the VW Bug home.

The news that Michael Stevenson had revived the player portion of the piano was like "music to her ears." "Next summer," Catherine concluded, " I'm coming to Havre to see (and hear) it!"

So, who's the hero? Margaret Turner Clack? Catherine Chatalas? Michael Stevenson? Yes, but the list only starts with them. Many more have contributed and many will enjoy the beautiful music in the future. The Chickering Piano company recommends that it be used at least weekly. Enjoy dear Hi-Line friends. Enjoy!

"My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music." Psalm 57:7


Ila McClenahan is a retired chaplain and activity director living in the Amos area north of Havre. She keeps busy writing, directing Christian Camps for children, volunteering and speaking at various events. She and her husband Rod have four daughters and oodles of grandchildren.


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