Don Jose Abrego’s piano

The Abrego adobe, Monterey

The Abrego adobe, Monterey

Don Abrego

Don Abrego

Jose Abrego's  grave, Monterey Don Jose Abrego, was born in Mexico city, on March 3, 1813, and came to Monterey in 1834 aboard the Natalia, as part of a scheme, unsupported by the Mexican government, to secularize the missions. Hijar and Padres had a plan to set up a colony. ‘The Pious Fund’ ( bequests and gifts to the Missions) had already been appropriated by the Mexican Government, with the proviso that the revenues would be used for the benefit of the Missions and ‘los Indios.’ But Padres had personal aspirations of wealth and after being banished to Mexico from Monterey by Governor Victoria he vowed to return and complete the secularization with little regard for the neophytes, the owners of the land and the missionaries themselves. With the financial backing of many wealthy adventurers the colonists left Mexico City in April, arriving at San Blas, July 23rd, 1833. They set sail for California at the beginning of August in 2 vessels. On board the Natalia was Don Jose Abrego. Abrego was a former Mexican hatter and he set up his business in Monterey. He went on to hold many offices including the administrator of San Antonio Mission and custom house officer, eventually becoming treasurer of the province from 1839 to 1846, and a prominent merchant. He married Doña Josefa Estrada de Abrego in 1836 and they had 18 children, all born in the adobe house. Urban legend had it that he had a portion of the timbers from the historic vessel built into his house after it had been shipwrecked in Monterey Bay. According to one account the shipwreck occurred during a storm while the passengers were celebrating the New Year, 1834. But during extensive renovations recently no such timbers were apparent. The adobe home, in Monterey, is now a women’s club and I was able to gain access to it in the Summer of 2012. When California became a state in 1850, Abrego found himself to be an official of both the Mexican and Yankee governments. In 1862 he established a soap factory in Monterey and was active in local affairs until his death in April 1878. Don Jose Abrego is buried in the once picketed-fence family plot in Monterey’s historic cemetery.

According to Dulce Bolado, who became Mrs Francis Davis of Tres Pinos, the adobe spanned a block and was enclosed by a high wall encompassing a patio where Dona Josefa received friends. She was an accomplished needle-worker and possessor of many fine French fans, which were available since ships from many countries landed at Monterey to trade their goods. The Abregos had in their home one of the first pianofortes ever brought to California. A paper attached to the inside of it, written by Mr. Abrego, stated: “In 1841, Captain Stephen Smith arrived with his vessel in Monterey, and I engaged him to bring me a piano on his next trip to this country. In March, 1843, he returned to this city in a brigantine; he had three pianos on board. I bought this one of him for $600. He then sailed to San Francisco, where General Vallejo purchased another of the pianos. The third one was afterward sold by Captain Smith to E. de Celis at Los Angeles.”

On one occasion this piano was borrowed by Larkin for the use at a ball given in Monterey to celebrate the visit of Commodore Jones, an American naval officer. According to H. H. Bancroft in California Pastoral, San Francisco, 1888, p. 428, ‘Abrego granted the request, but suggested that a piano would not be of much use, since no one knew how to play on it. But to the surprise of all, it was solemnly affirmed, the boy Pedro Estrada succeeded in playing the instrument, although he had never touched one before!’ The piano had brass pedals, two brass candle holders according to E. D. Holden. Don Jose not only had one of the first pianos n California but also the first full length mirror. In 1931 Don Jose’s granddaughter, Dulce Bolado Davis (née Julia Bolado) , had the piano at her home at Tres Pinos, April 14, 1931. Rachel and I visited Tres Pinos in October, 2011.

The Abrego piano was a six-octave, made by Breitkopt & Hartel, of Leipzig, Germany and imported by Brauns & Focke, general commission merchants of 20 German Street, Baltimore. I contact Breitkopf & Haertel and found that they began manufacturing upright and grand pianos in 1807. After a relatively short period of time these instruments developed a very good reputation. There are several documents in which Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Clara and Robert Schumann as well as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner commended the good quality of the instruments manufactured by Breitkopf with regard to sound and workmanship. One of the Breitkopf pianos was a wedding gift for Clara Schumann from her husband. Breitkopf won golden prize medals for their instruments on important exhibitions for example on those taking place in Dresden and London. In the production department 20 people worked and manufactured on average 100 instruments per year i.e. they were more concerned with quality than with quantity. After approximately 5000 pianos had been manufactured Breitkopf stopped production in 1872 for lack of room and not at least for economic reasons .

Baynard Taylor attended a party at the Abrego adobe in 1849 and gives an account in his book El Dorado. ‘I attended an evening party at his house, which was as lively and agreeable as any occasion of the kind well could be. There was a tolerable piano in his little parlour, on which a lady from Sydney, Australia, played “Non piu mesta” with a good deal of taste.’ At the 1892 California State Fair, the Monterey County Exhibit listed fragments from the Natalie. The exhibit was organized by Charles Wolters (misspelled Walters in the artlcle) and Father Casanova. Jose Abrego apparently bought the vessel that had been wrecked on the rocks in Monterey Harbor [probably opposite the first train station site at Figueroa Ave.].