At the turn of the 20th century, more than 150 companies made player pianos.
But today, as Ken Davis takes in old player pianos for repairs, finding the right part is an uphill battle. Davis is doing work that few people these days do, or even know how to.
“People have always had trouble finding people to repair their pianos,” he said.
And player pianos are no exception. With the advent of the internet and available, cheap labor, the number of specialty businesses are dwindling.
Fewer farriers are taking the time to make horseshoes. It’s difficult to find organists for church services, and repairing shoes is an unreliable business model.
Times have changed. So who still practices these dying arts in our modern world?
The horseshoe maker
Spencer Ray of Buhl takes joy in the physical work of shoeing horses, and feels a sense of accomplishment when a job is done. Just don’t expect him to pass the skill along to the next generation.
“I’m not teaching my kids how do to it,” Ray said Feb. 2 as he waited for a horseshoe to get red-hot in a small propane forge in the back of his truck. “It’s physically demanding. I’m hoping they become doctors and lawyers.”
Injuries on the job are fairly common. Ray said he’s been knocked out once, and another time, his arm got pulled out of socket. The main reason he has another job, he said, isn’t for the money — it’s for the health insurance.
Ray has been a farrier for about 15 years, and he estimates there are about 50 like himself left in the Magic Valley. But his method of “hot shoeing” a horse — and his ability to hammer out a horseshoe from concave iron — is less common these days.
“The art of making shoes is dying because I can go on the internet and get this delivered to my door,” Ray said, holding up a pre-made horseshoe. “It’s just so much easier to buy ‘em instead of make ‘em.”
Ray estimates that only about 5 percent of farriers in the area do hot shoeing, as the faster cold shoeing doesn’t require the same equipment.
According to Equus Magazine, hot shoeing is when a new horseshoe is heated in a forge and placed briefly on the foot to sear the place where the shoe will lie. Ray said the shoe attaches better to the foot that way, and hot shoeing helps the farrier identify uneven spots.
Spencer Ray Horseshoeing is a mobile business, and Ray’s truck setup allows him to travel with all his tools and equipment as he shoes hundreds of horses a year. On Feb. 28, he demonstrated how to make a circular “egg bar” shoe in the Times-News parking lot.
“The last shoe I made was a year-and-a-half ago,” he said.
Pre-made horseshoes, which many people have switched to in the past few decades, can be easily modified for a horse within minutes. Like with people, some horses need specialized horseshoes for therapeutic reasons.
Still, some horses require specialized shoes that can’t be pre-made anywhere. And if you’re in a particularly rural area and can’t get a horseshoe, being able to make your own is a handy skill.
Ray owns a couple of horses himself, which is why he first picked up the farrier trade.
“I didn’t want to pay somebody else to do it,” he said. “And then somebody wanted to pay me to do theirs.”
The stained glass artist
For centuries, churches around the world have used stained glass as an architectural symbol of prestige. But here in the Magic Valley, it’s difficult to find artists who take up stained glass artistry as more than a hobby.“I’d have loved to have had a studio and a shop,” said Bette Krepcik, a stained glass artist in Twin Falls.
But she never found the money or opportunity to invest in a full-time business. Even as a hobby, it requires an investment of several hundred dollars to get the proper tools and supplies.
“Glass has gotten very expensive, and people have backed off a little bit,” Krepcik said. “It’s a fun art.”
Krepcik, 81, first learned how to make stained glass after taking a class at Oregon State University in 1984.
“My mom and I took art together when I was younger,” she said.
She kept at it, taking classes to learn new techniques and hone her skills. After she moved to Arizona in the 1990s, she pieced together a window for a Lutheran school in Lake Havasu City. Krepcik then brought her craft with her to Twin Falls in 2004.
Today, in the garage behind her house, Krepcik enjoys creating stained-glass crosses using templates she gets out of catalogs. A small glass saw and grinder sit on tables nearby.
“After you cut your glass, you grind your edges so they’re smooth all around,” she explained.
The next steps include adding foil and soldering. But some people have a hard time with the idea of cutting and breaking glass — especially as it’s become more costly to buy. The glass saw costs another $300 and a grinder costs around $700.
Krepcik has sold some of her crosses for $30 or $40, depending on size, but most of them she gives away as gifts for people to hang in their gardens. She has also completed several large windows, but she typically doesn’t take orders.
“I would rather show someone how to do it themselves, so they can make their own window,” she said.
Krepcik also makes stepping stones, using ideas she gets from Pinterest.
TnD Collectables in Burley makes stained glass windows as more business than hobby, but phone calls and requests for interviews were not returned. According to the business’ website, the studio creates stained glass, fused glass and mosaics.
The shoe repair shop
Almost four decades ago, a former cowboy from Colorado opened up a shoe repair store in Jerome.Steve Gorrell had learned some tricks of the trade from his father, who owned Valley Shoe Repair in Twin Falls. But really, he said, “it’s all common sense.”
Now, 39 years after opening as The Shoe Shop, Gorrell’s business has expanded into more than just shoe repair. He operates The Shoe & Tack Shop with his son, Clay, and his wife, Patty. The three of them stay so busy, they spurn advertising altogether.
The trio repairs mostly cowboy boots, work boots and ladies’ heels these days. But repairs are only about a third of the business. The shop has diversified to do more things the Gorrells enjoy, including making unique chaps, purses and holsters. They also repair saddles and bags.
“Shoes have changed a lot. They’re not as expensive as they used to be,” Clay Gorrell said. “It has to be worth redoing, because it’s not inexpensive.”
Many modern shoes are made with the intent of being disposable. Some of them simply can’t be repaired, and with others, a repair could cost more than the shoe itself.
The store also retails various shoes and tack — and the Gorrells can add a lift to a shoe if a doctor prescribes it. These help compensate for differences in leg lengths, which can happen after an accident.
When they first opened The Shoe Shop, all the little towns around the Magic Valley used to have shoe repair shops, Patty Gorrell said. But the decline in business meant most of those disappeared, leaving only a couple in the Magic Valley.
The Gorrells spend three days a week working on shoe repair orders, which sometimes get shipped or brought in from Utah or Nevada.
“We don’t dare ever fall behind,” Patty Gorrell said.
Otherwise, she explained, they wouldn’t have time to do the fun stuff – stocking the shop with leatherwork and filling special orders.
Brenda Manning says her career as an organist started with a baptism by fire.
When she got the call in 2011 asking her to be the organist for Twin Falls First United Methodist Church, she remembers saying, “Well, that sounds good.” The only problem: She had never even played the instrument in front of an audience before.
“I was more scared than anything when I first started,” she said.
Seven years later, she sees it as a calling.
Before hearing from the church, Manning had always considered herself a pianist – not an organist. But she got the job without even having to audition.
“In this town, (organists) seem to be far and few between,” she said.
As the preferences of congregations change, some churches have been moving away from organs and hymns to more contemporary instruments and styles of music.
“I think for many, the organ represents old-fashioned, even though I think of it as traditional,” Manning said.
But Twin Falls First United Methodist takes pride in its 1920 pipe organ built by the Austin Organ Co. The church used to have a contemporary service in addition to its traditional one, but doesn’t anymore.
“Some people have been going to church here since they were born, and they want the organ,” Manning said.
The church’s instrument has had some significant upgrades over the years. In 1990, the church spent $20,000 to replace parts and add pipes. Electrical upgrades allow each organist to sign in and save settings for easy recall later.
Manning learned piano when she was 8 years old. She played multiple instruments in high school and later majored in music with emphasis on piano and composition. On Sunday afternoons, her family used to have singalongs with neighbors.
She taught herself to play the organ early on, but didn’t learn proper pedaling techniques until she took lessons about a decade ago.
“There’s something about learning an instrument the way it was intended,” she said. “The biggest bummer in the world is I can’t play more than one instrument at a time.”
The organ is a daunting instrument to tackle, requiring both hands and both feet — sometimes all at once — to manipulate the keys on the manuals, the pedalboard and the volume.
Manning’s church gig is a part-time job. She plays one church service each Sunday, but it requires 10 to 15 hours of practice every week. She also plays piano and keyboard almost every week for church. When she isn’t practicing, she’s often at her studio upstairs, teaching private lessons.
In an effort to encourage others to come to the church, Manning has started brown-bag organ concerts on Wednesday afternoons until Easter. Anyone who knows how to play the organ is welcome to sign up to be a performer — with any style of music accepted.
“I like Baroque music,” Manning said.
The piano repairman
Ken Davis doesn’t know how to play piano — but he can get a piano to play itself. Davis, 76, refurbishes and repairs old player pianos out of his Twin Falls garage. He’s one of the last.
“We’re all dying,” he said. “As soon as I’m gone, you won’t be able to find anyone 2,500 miles from here. There’s not enough money in it.”
Davis admits that he hasn’t changed his own prices in years, but says it’s because he doesn’t want to discourage people from getting their pianos fixed.
“I’ve had pianos shipped to me all the way from Newark, New Jersey,” Davis said. “I’ve done a player for one of the richest men in Idaho.”
That man was Melaleuca’s Frank VanderSloot, but Davis didn’t know who he was when he first took the call several years ago.
“I said, ‘I’ll talk to him as long as he doesn’t try to sell me anything,” Davis said.
One of the oldest pianos he’s repaired was built in 1863. When it came over from Utah, he saw remnants of the rats and mice that had made the piano home.
Davis is largely self-taught. He never learned how to read music or how to properly play a piano, but he knows what it should sound like. His career rebuilding pianos began in the mid-1980s when a friend from Utah asked him to refurbish one.
But Davis liked the work enough to continue teaching himself. He has the book and the tools — including a contraption he invented using a shop vacuum in a box. He will fix any piano you bring him, but the old players are what he enjoys the most.
“They say if you enjoy your work, you never work a day in your life,” Davis said. “That’s what this is.”