By Meghan E. Gattignolo
In 1857, a local man named Thomas Yateman Dixon bought his soon-to-be wife Mary Elizabeth Raimey a new piano.
He didn’t buy her just any piano, but a square grand piano made by the Haines Brothers of New York. The piano proved to be an exquisite wedding gift. Made in the Rococo Victorian style, boasting beautifully carved ornate legs, intricate inlays, rosewood finish and mother of pearl keys, the Dixon family likely had the prettiest piano of all their friends and neighbors. The instrument was special-ordered from New York, and it arrived just in time on Thomas and Mary’s wedding day on November 18, 1857.
Thomas Dixon could afford such a piano – his family owned several iron mines and the Antonia Furnace. During the first half of the 19th century, mining iron ore was big business, and Tennessee was the leading state in the industry in the South. While these properties made the Dixon family wealthy, they became a liability during the Civil War when Union troops showed up on Dixon’s doorstep. In February 1862, Confederate soldiers at Ft. Donelson surrendered to the North. Soon, Clarksville became an occupied city. Union soldiers went to great lengths to destroy as many furnaces and iron mines in the area as they could to keep iron out of production in the South during the war. Dixon was one of many unfortunate souls who lost it all.
Dixon fled his home to hide with some property he knew the Union soldiers would want – his mule teams and wagons. To protect his family, Dixon did not tell his wife where he’d gone. In an attempt to get the information, Union troops threatened Mary by throwing straw and kerosene on the floor of the Dixon home… and lighting it on fire. Mary and her children barely escaped alive. The wedding gift from a few short years ago, however, was saved by those enslaved by the Dixon family. The women of the home somehow managed to carry the grand piano to safety, wrapping the huge instrument in wet blankets to protect the wood from burning. When all was said and done, the wedding gift was the only object of value the Dixon family had left, thanks to the quick thinking of the enslaved women who risked their lives to save it.
The Dixons’ piano was donated to the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center in 2002. Take a look at it yourself during your next visit to the Museum! The grand piano stands facing you when you reach the bottom of the stairs on the Lower Level, next to the Kimbrough Gallery. Still in excellent condition for a 166-year-old instrument, except for some scarring from the fire out of sight on the back, you can see how it must have been the most treasured object in Thomas and Mary Dixon’s house, and how happy they must have been to see it after the smoke cleared.
Haines Brothers Rococo Victorian Square Grand Piano – Antique Piano Shop
Iron Industry | Tennessee Encyclopedia
Customs House Museum & Cultural Center Exhibit
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.