From 1888 through the turn of the Century, Charles C. Colby brought high quality piano production to Erie.
In the 1880s, Charles C. Colby brought piano manufacturing to Erie. Colby was born in Vermont and spent parts of his youth in East Springfield, Erie County. He lived for a large part of his adult life in Missouri, and worked as a teacher “but his natural bent and desire was music and he embarked in business in St. Louis as a piano manufacturer with indifferent success” (Erie Times News April 9, 1895). He then went to Europe to hone his skills and became a true artisan of piano making. When he returned from Europe, he started out in New York City and began the “Colby and Duncan Piano Company” in 1888 and was very successful. “In finish of case, perfection of action, and purity of tone the instrument had been brought up to Mr. Colby’s ideal of what a piano ought to be.”
It was then, in 1888, that Charles decided to move his family (wife Ellen, and children Charles, Maggie and Pearl) to Erie and begin a manufacturing plant here to supplement business in New York. He purchased the old Derrick and Felgemaker Pipe Organ factory at 25th and Ash, which is still standing and in beautiful condition, and began production of his prized pianos. “The building, which is 35×150 feet and four stories high, with a large addition to the south, will be commodious enough to supply all the immediate demands of the company.” (Erie Morning Dispatch, Sept 19, 1888). The company’s sales and showroom was originally at 921 State Street, later moving to 1222 State Street. It was the factory’s location at 25th and Ash that is largely credited with much of the home construction in that area of the city, as employees of the company chose to build their homes close to the factory where they worked, and for a while, it was a large and busy workforce. “The capacity of the works will be between fifty and sixty instruments every week–it will be one of the largest piano factories in the United States. This important addition to the business of Erie will be learned of with satisfaction by every citizen.”
In the 1890s there was an economic downturn and the Colby Piano company struggled to remain in business. However, business started to look up in 1894. Colby was quoted in the Erie Times on Sept 28, 1894 in a candid conversation that gives you a sense of his personality: “When people are hungry and it takes all they can earn to supply bread, there is no demand for such things as pianos among the masses. We have been fairly busy during the recent depression, but we, of course, suffered the same as all other institutions. During the past two months, however, we have noticed a decided change for the better. Orders have been coming in so rapidly that we have not been able to fill them and we are far behind at present … A piano manufacturer can tell the pulse of trade as nearly as anyone I know, because his business is the first to feel the effects of a panic and the last to recuperate.”
The pianos were of impeccable quality and were largely made with imported, exotic woods. “The company finishes its cases almost entirely in rosewood, St. Jago Mahogany and in Sicilian walnut, and special pains are taken to have this portion of the work done in a manner which will ensure its durability.” To give a sense of the value of a Colby piano, in 1889, the Erie Commercial Travelers Association held a fundraiser and raffled off a Colby piano which was valued at $800 (which would today be equal to $24,000).
While the Colby family lived in Erie, their homes were largely in the E 8th and Parade Street area. In 1891, Charles and Ellen Colby bought a home from Joseph B Crouch, who owned a number of residences on E 8th Street, was a Civil War veteran and was a successful flour mill owner. Two homes are associated with the Colby family: 348 E 8th Street and 332 E 8th. According to tax records, these homes were both built in 1812, although accurately, they were likely built in the mid to late 19th century. Both are still standing, one is a single family home (348) and one is a rental, split into apartments (332). Both are Italianate in style, with 348 being the more grand and ornate home. By the time Charles died in 1895, he was living at 332 E 8th Street. He was described as a “model man, considerate and loving as a husband, and kind and indulgent as a father.” (Erie Times News, April 9th 1895)
After Charles died, his son, Charles took over operation of the company for three years before turning over the property to the Secretary/Treasurer of the Colby Piano Company George Diehl, who took on some financial issues that the company had accumulated. The Colby Company remained in Erie through the turn of the century.