On Friday, February 23, something grace-filled occurred at the Art Hall at the Koreshan Unity Settlement. A little after 2:00 pm, concert pianist Bella Gutshtein, sat down to play the 1885 Steinway piano. Before she put her hands on the keys of this concert piano, she urged her small audience to remember that in the face of whatever darkness we may have in our lives, music and beauty can offer light. Then, she breathed life into a few movements of a Brahm’s piano concerto, and I was aware of the extraordinary gift of grace that I had received.
I was leading a tour on Friday, and had met the concert pianist the day before, when she came into the Art Hall to practice on the Steinway. She and I struck up a conversation, and we quickly realized that we shared a devotion to keeping the history of the Settlement alive, she with her music and I with my tours and docent work in the Art Hall. I asked her if she would consider playing a short section of the concerto for my Friday tour group before I began my orientation talk and launched into the walking tour of the Koreshan Unity Settlement. Bella enthusiastically agreed since she knows that the 1885 Steinway is as much of a symbol of this religious-utopian Settlement as any extant artifact.
The Koreshans, who came down to undeveloped Florida in 1893, carved a new life out of the mangroves and scrub oak and saw palmettos along the Estero River, then known as Mosquito Creek. They considered music and the arts essential parts of their lives. The story behind the piano is a testament to this belief. It was crated up in Chicago in the early years of 1900, came by train as far as the train went, which was Punta Gorda. The crate was off-loaded and taken to a warehouse on Koreshan property on what is now Fort Myers Beach. From there, it was put on a shallow draft boat and rowed and poled up Mosquito Creek, about 4 miles to the Settlement. The whole trip took about three months, and it now sits in Art Hall.
This story illustrates the richness of the tapestry of the peripatetic life that Peter and I have chosen living on the road. First, it reenforces the transcendent quality of music to bring people together. Here I am, a non-musician, living on the road in an Airstream, a second-year volunteer in a Florida state park, talking to a classically trained pianist from St. Petersburg, Russia who is connected to the Naples Philharmonic, and we find a common bond in a piano.
This homage extends back years to our settled life in New Hampshire. My former employer, the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, is committed to create, perform, and teach chamber music, and to explore the power of music to connect and foster understanding among people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. Thank you, Lenny and the Quartet, for the gifts you so generously shared with me, gifts which continue to enrich my life.
Second, the story of the Steinway piano, made back in the days before Steinway standardized the keyboard at 88 keys, reminds me of the trip Peter and I made to the remarkable Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix in the second year of our life on the road. At the MIM, we watched a video detailing how the Steinway pianos are made today, still by hand. Thank you to a couple of fellow Airstream nomads who told us about the museum in Phoenix and to Peter’s son, Davis, who ventured into the unknown world of MIM with us and joined us in extending our visit by a second day when he came to visit us.
Third, I am reminded of how so many of our dearest friends and family speak the language of music so much more fluently than either of us. From the talents of playing a musical instrument to the gifts of transforming their voices into instruments, we are rich with family and friends who would concur with the Koreshans’ dedication to music as an expression of what they most value.
There was a couple on my tour Friday who were visiting the Settlement for the first time with their adult son. I pointed out the grave of the only Settlement member who is buried in the park. Hedwig Michel, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1940, fled to the Koreshan Unity Settlement and lived here until her death in 1982. She was the woman who engineered the donation of the remaining Settlement lands to the state of Florida in order to keep the history of the Settlement alive. My guest, who was Jewish, was moved by Hedwig Michel’s courage in the face of the darkness she had witnessed, and her intention to begin again and to make a difference. What an exquisite thread to be woven in the tapestry of one’s life.
More simply, we each continue to add to the colors and textures of our lives here. Peter has started baking in the wood stove on Wednesdays, making original recipes from the Koreshan cook book taken from the early days of the settlement. This past week it was the Koreshan “risin bread”, sweet potato soup and double crust mango pie. Yes, the mango pie was amazing and he’ll be doing that recipe again.
I am working on a series of new events telling the story of the Women of Koreshan during March, Women’s History Month. We are organizing new special tours that are staffed by my some of my fellow women volunteers and park staff employees. The re-enactments include dressing in period costume, so stayed tuned for more details.
This Settlement is a remarkable little Petri dish containing a living example of the significant events of the late 19th century in the United States. The rise of religious reforms, utopian ideals, and women’s suffrage created innovations and social experiments of which Koreshan Unity was just one example, and these three movements attracted women in overwhelming percentages. Koreshan Unity was typical and this March, we are telling the story of some of these women.
More to come, and until then, may the tapestry of your lives continue to be woven with the richness of beauty and light, and when possible, may it include music.
Peter and Liz continue to enjoy their time volunteering at Koreshan State Park in Estero, Florida living in their Airstream and soaking up the warmth and sunshine.