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From pianos to powerboats

The young women in this picture have such bright smiles and they seem to be having such fun out on the lower Connecticut River in this handy-looking speedboat.

The image, however, belies the story behind it.

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Times were tough in 1931. The stock market was down, unemployment up, the future uncertain. Some of America’s oldest, most dependable industries were under siege in a free-falling economy and changing society.

Take Pratt, Read and Co., of Deep River, Conn. The trusted firm was in its sixth decade, one of the country’s leading manufacturers of piano parts. Some of the most famous performers in the world, seated at their Steinways, were fingering Pratt, Read’s ivory keyboards.

In the 19th century, the piano was king, and virtually everyone had one in the parlor. Dutiful daughters practiced their scales, courting couples played each other love songs, and pioneers carried them west in covered wagons. By the ’30s, though, the family piano was passé; people listened to the radio and went to the movies. No more Saturday evening sing-alongs. Pratt, Read and Co., with sales nearly at a standstill, slashed salaries by 25 percent and tried to diversify. The directors turned to boats.

Naval architect George Crouch was called on to design a pair of small open powerboats. Pratt, Read and Co. put its idle crew of expert craftsmen to work in the former keyboard shop and out came the Harpoon Sportsman (at $250) and Runabout ($350). Alas, these good-looking little boats proved too costly for a Depression-burdened clientele. Only a few were built and the project was abandoned after a year, the remaining boats sold off at cost.

Pratt, Read and Co. survived the Great Depression and went on to manufacture gliders during World War II, some of which were used in the D-Day invasion of Europe. The last of the Harpoons is in the possession of the Deep River Historical Society. A reminder of what might have been.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.