White River Junction — After sifting through the scorched pianos and ashen sheet music of a piano store off Route 5 on Friday, a team of eight state investigators concluded that accidental misuse of an extension cord caused the Thursday night fire that claimed one of the community’s unique businesses.
Frederick Johnson Pianos, founded in 1930 and the only piano store in the area, was destroyed, though no one was injured in the nighttime blaze.
Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney stood in the cold, drinking coffee out of a paper cup, watching Friday morning as smoke made its way from buried pockets of smolder into the frigid air. He’d been awake for about 30 hours, his bedtime interrupted shortly after 10 p.m. on Thursday, when emergency responders identified the piano store as the source of smoke that had first been detected by staff at the VA across Route 5.
It was a tough fire to fight, Cooney said, in part because the immense weight of the store’s inventory — an estimated 100 pianos of all shapes and sizes — heightened the risk of a structural collapse, which meant firefighters couldn’t enter the building.
Cooney said that, as firefighters directed streams of water into the basement, both the roof and the first floor did eventually collapse, trapping burning materials between layers of roofing and flooring.
“It’s like a stack of pancakes,” he said.
Detective Sgt. Tom Williams, a fire investigator for the Vermont State Police, watched with other state fire investigators as an excavator dug at the debris, exposing flames that were immediately extinguished by a hose-wielding firefighter.
At the end of the day, Williams said, the facts had led the investigators to a conclusion about the fire, which he said was accidental.
The fire began, he said, where a long extension cord was coiled in a pile, which increases the resistance and allows heat to build up. The problem was exacerbated, he said, because the cord was being used to conduct electricity to two space heaters in the unheated garage, which overtaxed the cord’s capacity.
Longtime co-owner and President Dale Howe, a well-known piano tuner in the Upper Valley, died in October; the other co-owner is Richard Johnson. According to the website, the business was for sale. Investigators said the store was fully insured.
Johnson declined an interview request.
Allan Day, a Williston, Vt.-based piano technician who is vice president of the Vermont Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild, said the fire was a “catastrophe,” and a piano dealer’s worst nightmare.
“I used to be a dealer in Chicago,” he said. “There wasn’t a night that would go by that I wouldn’t hear a fire engine and worry about it.”
Day said the loss would be even more keenly felt because Frederick Johnson Pianos was the only store in the area, and the market is working against new stores opening.
“It really was the only store in this area that had a lot of pianos for people to choose from,” he said.
Steinway, one of the industry’s biggest players, recently canceled its contract with brick-and-mortar outlets like Frederick Johnson Pianos in favor of certifying technicians as salespeople.
“The store has had a series of cascading problems starting with the loss of the Steinway contract to the death of Dale Howe,” Day said. “The daughters have had to take over the dealership, and they’re just coming into the state.”
Day said the financial losses might not be confined to the store.
“There are many people who had pianos on consignment in that store and now they’re out of luck, unless insurance can pay for the loss,” Day said. “I was just talking to one woman whose piano had just sold. They were ready to pick it up. Now that won’t happen.”
Another Hartford company, the Village Piano Shop, serviced and restored pianos, but closed its doors in January, while Blue Mountain Guitar Center closed its only West Lebanon location in favor of online sales in 2016.
The Frederick Johnson building was built in 1970, and has housed the piano store since it moved to White River Junction from Norwich in 1972, according to the company’s website.
Assessing records say the wood-frame building, built in 1970, was nearly 8,000 square feet, split between the first floor and basement, plus a 1,500-square-foot warehouse. It was most recently assessed at about $353,000.
Patrick Branstetter, former owner of the Village Piano Shop, said that Frederick Johnson Pianos had a rich history, built on the personality of Johnson himself, who had a variety of vocations and interests including farming, tuning organs, and an ice cream stand. During its heyday, he said, Johnson supplied brand-name pianos to many of the region’s institutions, including Dartmouth College and the University of Vermont.
But Branstetter said the piano industry in general, and Frederick Johnson Pianos in particular, had fallen on hard times in recent years, with missing ceiling tiles and a leaky roof adding to the general sense of decline.
“It used to be a piano carried with it a sense of stability and permanence,” he said. “It’s a moving, working object that lasts for 100 years. Nothing is really like that anymore. We’re in a transient place now. We’re laptop-based.”
The piano store fire is the fourth in a string of unrelated Upper Valley fires this week.
Authorities believe that one, a blaze that caused heavy damage to the Circle K in Ascutney, was set by someone who broke into the convenience store, but a garage fire in Hartland is believed to have started near a snowmobile, and Hanover Fire Chief Martin McMillan on Friday said the cause of a fire that destroyed a home on Stevens Road is “undetermined, but it’s not suspicious.”