To get to Steve Misener's piano exhibit, turn at the white farmhouse with the big porch, head straight past the chicken shed and pull up to the warehouse out back. If you wind up at the theological bookstore, you've taken a wrong turn.
It's an unusual — and unusually idyllic — location for a collection of exquisite pianos and organs dating from the 1700s and 1800s, some of them once played for European audiences.
But for Misener, an upbeat piano tuner and technician from tiny Stockholm, S.D., the Lake Elmo-Stillwater area farmyard is a fine place to share the history and mechanics of the piano, using what may be the single largest personal collection of vintage keyboards in the country.
"It's fun to show the pianos off a little bit, but I think the broader part of that is to excite people about music and to be playing music," he said. "If I can get a dozen piano students to stay with piano lessons one more year, it's worth it."
Misener opened his exhibit, called Keeping Time, last week at 2270 Neal Av. N. in West Lakeland Township, the home of Loome Theological Booksellers and proprietor Chris Hagen. He is offering tours Monday through Saturday of the exhibit, at 10 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m., through May 8. The exhibit is free, but donations are accepted.
Not much publicity has been done for the show, and the first week saw only a few dozen visitors. Misener is hoping to see more music teachers with their students in the weeks remaining.
"People are not going to drive to Stockholm to see the collection," he said. "If I want it to be enjoyed, I need to bring part of it. And so that's one of the things that I'm willing to do."
On a recent morning, Misener was showing visitors the 25 pianos and organs on the warehouse floor, a fifth of the 130 instruments he has stored at his shop and house in Stockholm. He stopped at a John Bland square piano, one of only five known to exist.
Bland, he said, "was the Dick Clark of his day, kind of this musician extraordinaire," who published Mozart and Haydn's work in England and had pianos built under his name. Haydn even stayed at his house in London.
"Could this have been an instrument that Haydn might have played on?" he asked.
In another corner was a 125-year-old cylinder piano, which played a clanging version of "Over the Waves" as Misener turned the crank. He pointed to a large log-like cylinder, dotted with staples that play the piano as it turns. "This is the ancestor of the compact disc," he said.
These are not your standard uprights. Some are square or square grand pianos, wide rectangular instruments that are no longer made, along with several grands. Made of mahogany or rosewood, many feature wood inlays and hand carving. The oldest instrument is a German pipe organ dating from 1690, its bellows patched with pages from 15th-century books.
Misener will tell you the history of each instrument, how it works and what's unusual about it. He played an Aeolian Orchestrelle organ from a Masonic lodge in Redfield, S.D., and noted that his 1856 Steinway square piano was one of the first west of the Mississippi River.
He nodded to a Broadwood grand acquired for Brahms' use when the composer was to visit London in 1878, but then got seasick and had to cancel.
"So this is a piano," he said, "that Brahms nearly played."
Misener, 56, grew up on a South Dakota farm with an interest in history, music and mechanical things. It all came together, he said, when he became a piano technician.
Today his trade area extends from Denver to Chicago and northern Minnesota. He regularly works on instruments for the Schubert Club in St. Paul.
Misener's collection happened naturally. Many of his pianos were given to him; some he rescued just as they were about to go to the dump, and a few he bought at auction.
They served as a "set of encyclopedias" to consult when repairing other pianos. But in 2009, he invited music teachers to look at a few of them at his shop in Stockholm.
"They came and they said, 'You know Steve, you should take this thing on the road.' Well, seven years later, I'm still loading a truck," Misener said.
In each year since, he has put select pianos on exhibit for a month in such spots as Dassel and Clinton, Minn., Watertown, S.D., and Freeport, Ill. His website (stevemisenerpiano.com) includes reviews such as this one from Reluctant Spouse: "I am not a musician. My wife told me I had to come and see this. This was really incredible."
At some point, Misener may seek a permanent home for his pianos; one possibility is the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. In the meantime, he's preparing a detailed catalog on the collection so their provenance is clear.
Misener has won neither wealth nor fame, but he is recognized in piano circles for his knowledge and expertise. He was invited to speak at a symposium next month in London, but had to decline because it conflicted with the exhibit.
Many of the pianos are priceless, although not for the reason you'd suppose. It's difficult to appraise the collection, he said, because demand for vintage instruments is sketchy at best. Not that it matters much to him.
"I wouldn't encourage kids to collect pianos, per se," he said, laughing, "but do something. Find some way to live something passionately, and I think we will all be better off for that."