Monday, May 31, 2010

War, Peace and a Tradition of "Taps"

My dad played "Taps" this morning at a cemetery in Carlos, Minn., a town 9 miles northeast of Alexandria.  He plays "Taps" every year on Memorial Day.  It's a meaningful tradition.

For many years, Dad and his buddy Bill Flaig would play echo "Taps" for the Mass at St. Mary's Cemetery, then follow the parade to Kinkaid Cemetery, the burial site of Civil War veteran and former Minnesota Gov. Knute Nelson, one of Alexandria's most famous residents.  When I was in the high school band, I, too, played at the Kinkaid service.

For four years, my dad played with the St. Cloud Municipal Band at its annual Memorial Day concert at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center.  And more recently, he's been at Carlos.

Playing for Memorial Day was also a tradition for my dad's paternal grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  Of course, when G. Oliver started playing for the holiday, it was known as Decoration Day, which started as a way of honoring Civil War soldiers.  G. Oliver's dad, Jasper Riggs, fought with the 45th Illinois Infantry, Co. I;  three of Jasper's brothers also fought for Illinois: General Washington Riggs (that's his name, not his rank), Marion Riggs and Clay Riggs.  So it's not surprising that G. Oliver would want to participate in the annual observances.

The marker for Jasper Riggs in the New Boston, Ill., cemetery, next to the grave of his wife, Rebecca.  Jasper was buried in Hunnewell, Mo., where he died in 1911.

It appears that G. Oliver began playing for Decoration Day in 1886, about the time he directed his first band, at age 15, in Esbon, Kansas.  He continued to observe the holiday in whatever city he was living – including Crookston, Bemidji and St. Cloud.  In 1941, in the midst of World War II, he performed in and directed his 57th Decoration Day program, as leader of the St. Cloud Municipal Band.  I know this because it's listed in his entry in the 1941 editon of Who's Who in Minnesota.

G. Oliver didn't serve in a war, but he came close.  In the 1890s, he was a member of an Iowa Regimental Band led by his longtime friend, Maj. George Landers, later known as the father of the Iowa Band Law.  G. Oliver quit the 51st/55th Regimental Band to take a job in Crookston.  The regimental band was sent to the Philippines to fight in the Spanish-American War.

The 51st/55th Infantry Regimental Band, based in Clarinda, Iowa.  G. Oliver is in the back row, second from the right.

G. Oliver returned to the band as a guest cornet soloist in the early 1900s, and he participated in the band's 1906 trip to the South to dedicate the Iowa memorials at several Civil War battlefields, including those at Shiloh and Vicksburg, where his dad fought, and where so many died.

I am grateful on this day to all those who have died in service to our country.  I'm grateful to the men and women who have served or who currently serve in our armed forces.

And I am grateful for the 24 notes of "Taps."

The song has no official words, but it does have several popular verses, including this one:

Thanks and praise, For our days,
'Neath the sun, Neath the stars,
'Neath the sky,
As we go, This we know,
God is nigh.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Band Concert Programming: Boxing and ... Batons?

I was scanning Crookston Band concert programs from my great-grandfather's scrapbook earlier this week when I saw something I'd never noticed before and laughed out loud (which means something because I'm usually a silently amused person).  At a concert on April 19, 1901, listeners were treated to what seems to be an odd juxtaposition of events: band music followed by a boxing match.

The concert featured guest soloists Mr. Jeremiah Schefstad, described as "the finest violinist in the northwestern United States," and soprano Miss Alma Fontaine.  And it closed with three 3-minute rounds of boxing between Kid Corbett (weight 60 pounds) and Kid Jeffries (weight 70 pounds).

Kid Eli, left, and Kid Seb, right, recreate the 1901 boxing match after Seb's orchestra concert Tuesday night.

I was in St. Paul yesterday, and I couldn't resist stopping in at the Minnesota History Center's library to see if I could find out more about the boxing contest.  Was G. Oliver trying to draw a new crowd for the concert, or was he hoping to expand the experiences of the regular concertgoers?  I was curious.

The April 19, 1901 concert program.  The boxing contest is listed at the bottom.

The day before the concert, the Crookston Daily Times ran a news item on page 8 stating that the reserved seats for the concert had been sold, and that there was great interest in hearing the soloists.  It said this about the boxing: "The ladies have come to understand that the boxing contest will be nothing out of the way, and understand that it will be amusing to them as well as to the gentlemen.”

The only other mention I could find of the boxing was in a April 20 news brief on page 5:

"The boxing match that was listed on the program given at the Grand last night afforded considerable amusement.  The contestants advertised as Kid Jeffries and Kid Corbett proved to be Hector and Charley Rapin."

I'd like to know more about Hector and Charley, and why this was so amusing, but the humor is probably lost to history. 

I do wonder what the soloists thought of the boxing.  I discovered this morning that a biography of Schefstad is available at the Norwegian-American Historical Association, located up the hill from me on the St. Olaf College campus.  According to the NAHA website, Schefstad (it lists his first name as Jeremias) was a Norwegian-born violinist who moved to Crookston in 1888 (10 years before G. Oliver).  After studying in Europe, he returned to the area, working as a teacher and soloist based in Grand Forks, N.D. 

I have not found a mention of boxing in any other Crookston concert programs.  I did, however, find a band and orchestra program from Aug. 11 (year not listed) that featured a different entertainment.  According to the program, during the band's final song, "Charge of the Battalion" by Hall, Master Frank Martin was to "give an exhibition of fancy baton movements."

I don't know enough about this period in band history to explain the boxing and batons; I imagine it must have been typical for that time to include such things to help keep audiences interested in returning.  Perhaps I could ask some of the band experts who'll be in Northfield Aug. 5-8 for the Vintage Band Festival

Maybe one of the bands would like to close a concert with a boxing match.  I know a couple of kids who'd be game.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

My Ongoing Love Affair with Carnegie Libraries

The first old building I ever loved was the public library in my hometown of Alexandria, Minn.  Walking up the steps of the Carnegie Library, built in 1903, and opening the door was like embarking upon an adventure.  I didn't know what I was going to find, but the anticipation was part of the experience.  If you blindfolded me now and opened up a vial containing the smell of the library, I would know it instantly, although I can't begin to describe what it smelled like.

My earliest visits to the library are hazy, but I know that my mom was with me.  Upon entering the building, we'd walk down the stairs to the lower level, where all the children's books were shelved, and where the children's librarian had her desk.  I don't recall my mom putting a limit on the number of books I could check out; it was probably as many as I could carry.  There was such satisfaction in presenting the books for checkout and watching the librarian take the cards out of the books and stamp each one with the due date.  As convenient as the electronic checkout is now, I miss the cards and the stamps.

 Alexandria's Carnegie Library, built in 1903, is for sale for $990,000.

I went through a phase where I was determined to read every book in the children's section.  I think I made it mid-way into the Bs before I realized that while it might be possible to read every volume, it wasn't practical because not every book was worth my time.  It was a good lesson to learn early.  As I grew older, I started venturing upstairs, turning left at the big checkout desk and ferreting out grown-up books that appealed to me.  I was a huge Agatha Christie fan for a while.  I read James Michener and Herman Wouk.  It felt like a rite of passage, being mature enough to bike to the library on my own and check out books from the adult section, knowing that my little rectangular card gave me the same rights as any other library card holder.  Then, I would bike home (after buying a package of Cherry Nibs from Trumm Drug), and flop on my bed for two hours, reading until my cheeks were flushed and my parents called me for dinner.

Times change, of course, and although I'm happy to say that Alexandria still has a bustling library, it's no longer housed in the old Carnegie building, designed by architect Henry A. Foeller.  The Douglas County Library moved in the 1990s to a space a block or so away, in the old Central School building, where I attended junior high school.  When my kids, my mom and I visited the library during spring break in March, I noted that the space is much more accessible for people with disabilities, since it's all on one floor, and I admired the number of volumes it contained, but I longed for the charm of the library of my youth.  I missed the polished wood, the chandeliers, the large windows and the grandeur – all of which seemed to say to me, "Reading is Momentous."

I noticed this morning while searching online for information about the library that the Friends of the Douglas County Library auctioned off items from the old library earlier this month, including bookshelves, Depression-era glass, chairs and light fixtures.  If I'd known earlier, I might have considered bidding on a piece of my past.  But it's probably better that instead I recently renewed our family membership in the Friends of the Northfield Public Library organization.

The Northfield Public Library is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.  It also is a Carnegie Library.  I didn't think about that when we moved here in the summer of 1998, but I don't think it's a coincidence that we moved to a town with a vibrant public library that has a long history of serving the community.

We received this bookmark, designed by high school student Josie Dockstader, for renewing our FOL membership.

The library kicked off a series of centennial celebrations on April 25 with a birthday party, which also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Northfield Arts Guild.  Louisa performed at the event with other members of the Northfield Youth Choirs.  The library has begun hosting a series of monthy Saturday evening concerts, and it's also brought in some authors for readings, with more centennial events to come.  The most recent issue of the Northfield News featured three pages on the library's past, present and future.

The dedication of the Northfield library in April 1910 included performances by quartets from Carleton and St. Olaf colleges.  This does not surprise me.  Live music and community events go hand-in-hand, and in towns where you find strong support for libraries, you also find strong support for the arts.

What I didn't realize, until I starting researching Carnegie libraries for this blog post, is that each Minnesota town my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, lived in had its own Carnegie library: Bemidji, Crookston and St. Cloud.  For him, these were not "old buildings," but quite new ones.  In fact, when the Crookston Public Library was dedicated in November 1908, G. Oliver's orchestra provided the live music.


This article about the library dedication was pasted into my great-grandfather's scrapbook.

My dad and I are traveling to Crookston after Memorial Day, so I will get the change to see the building up close.  The Crookston Public Library (now a branch of the Lake Agassiz Regional Library) moved in 1984 to a new building that's adjacent to the old library.  I'm not sure whether the old building is used for anything; I guess we'll find out.

Minnesota has 65 Carnegie libraries, some of which are depicted in these postcards.  Unlike Alexandria and Crookston, Northfield's was renovated in 1985 to remain in use as a public library, which pleases me greatly.  It has large windows, polished wood and a sense of history.  There has been talk in recent years of adding on again to meet the increased demands.  Although some people proposed building a new library in another location, I think the current plan is to add on to the library in 2014 at its present location.

Libraries are an important life force in a community and are worthy of our support.  And so I wish a happy 100th birthday to you, Northfield Public Library!  May you celebrate many, many more.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Proud Parents, Cookies and the Benefits of a Recital

My piano teacher, Mrs. Rolfsrud, believed in the importance of recitals.  I never thought to ask her why she went through the trouble of scheduling the occasional performance events in her studio in Alexandria, Minn.  She must have felt that her students benefited from the experience of diligently preparing a piece and then playing it for others.  It always felt like a big deal to me, in a good way.

I don't recall the titles of the songs I performed in recitals during my nine years of lessons (thanks to my dad and his tendency to save everything, I still have programs that could tell me, if I could locate them in the Joy Archives).  What I do remember, though, is the feeling of being at a recital: the nervous stomach while you waited for your turn; the wave of empathy upon hearing someone else make a mistake; the out-of-body experience of sitting at the piano and having your fingers take over from your brain; the relief in playing a piece nearly mistake-free, or at least well enough that you didn't embarrass yourself.  And when it was over, the sweet taste of a treat and the warm embrace of your parents making it all seem worthwhile.

Sebastian performing in St. Olaf's Christiansen Hall, accompanied by Olivia Krueger on piano.

I've been thinking about recitals since Saturday, when Steve and I attended a "Students of Students Recital" at St. Olaf College.  Sebastian's viola teacher, St. Olaf student Kara Erstad, organized the spring recital, which has been a tradition for at least the last couple of years.  Northfield youth who take lessons from St. Olaf music students were invited to participate.  This year, five students performed: two on violin, one on viola, one on snare drum and one on cello.

Sebastian played the Chorus from "Judas Maccabaeus" by Handel.  I could tell when he missed two notes by the expression on his face, but other than that I think he was pleased.  His favorite part was at the end, when he sampled a few types of cookies and chatted with his teacher.

Sebastian with his viola teacher, Kara Erstad.

The recital was held in a choir room in the Christiansen Hall of Music, named for F. Melius Christiansen, founder of the St. Olaf Choir.  F. Melius is best known for his work with the choir, but when he came to St. Olaf in 1903, he was in charge of the band and the music department.  What hardly anyone knows, besides my dad and me, is that F. Melius and my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, were friends and contemporaries.

I became aware of this connection when I found a December 21, 1936, St. Cloud Daily Times article about rehearsals G. Oliver was conducting for an annual state band contest.  One of the contest pieces, "First Norwegian Rhapsody," was written by Christiansen.

"Dr. Christiansen and Director Riggs of St. Cloud have enjoyed a 25 year friendship," the article states.

I think F. Melius (born 1871) and G. Oliver (born 1870) likely met in the early 1900s when Christiansen began taking the St. Olaf Band on tours to west-central Minnesota towns including Crookston, where G. Oliver directed bands before ending up in St. Cloud.  F. Melius went on most of these band tours until 1920; his choir tours began in 1912.  The last time I know F. Melius was in Crookston during G. Oliver's tenure there as band director was in February 1915.

I imagine G. Oliver would get a kick out of hearing that his great-great grandson performed in a recital in a hall named after his friend F. Melius.  G. Oliver also might be pleased to know that his descendants are continuing the family tradition of recitals, which goes back to G. Oliver and his wife, Islea, who began teaching piano when she was a high school student in Aledo, Ill. 

Islea continued to give lessons wherever they lived, and she often hosted recitals for her students in her home.  I don't know what kind of refreshments my great-grandmother liked to serve to her students and their parents, but I'm guessing the treats were homemade. 

A program from a 1911 recital in Aledo, Ill., at the home of Islea's mother, Flora Bassett Graham. My grandfather, Ronald Riggs, played a duet with his mom, and G. Oliver also performed.

It gives me a warm feeling to think that recitals really haven't changed that much in a century.  Students still have to persevere, summon their courage, and trust that they will gain internal benefits by participating.  The tangible benefits of parental hugs and cookies are a great incentive, too.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Meet Another Musical Family

Last week, on the ride to the Twins game with a bus full of 8th graders, I put the names of all my blog followers into a hat and had Louisa draw the winner of the blog challenge.  I'm pleased to announce that the Vintage Band Festival pin goes to (imagine drumroll here): Owen Mibus.

Congratulations, Owen!  And thanks to all of you who are reading and following my blog.  I appreciate your support.

Owen is a data warehouse architect for Patterson Dental Inc. in Mendota Heights, Minn.  He and his wife, Myrna, are both private pilots who live in a residential airport near Webster.  Myrna is a freelance writer buddy of mine who blogs about her family's bicycling and flying adventures, among other topics.  They have two children, Rose, who's almost 11, and Ryan, who's almost 8.

Owen Mibus, center, with son Ryan and daughter Rose.

Myrna tells me that Owen played the violin from 4th grade through 9th grade.  He doesn't play much anymore but can still keep up with daughter Rose when she practices.  He also can pick out a few tunes on the piano. 

"Owen loves listening to music, especially classical, but he doesn't get a chance to sit down and listen to music as often as he would like to," Myrna says.  "Perhaps he will at the Vintage Band Festival."

She says that one of Owen's greatest musical "moments" was taking a music appreciation class at the University of Minnesota from Vern Sutton, where he was the top student in his class of about 160 students.

Myrna played the violin from 5th grade through 11th grade.  Now she plays the mandolin and sings and often is seen onstage in a Northfield Arts Guild theatrical production (most recently, in "Chicago").

Owen and Myrna are raising their kids to make and appreciate music, too.  Ryan sings in the church choir and occasionally plays the violin and piano but has not started lessons yet.  Rose plays oboe and violin, sings, and plays chimes in the church's chime choir.  She's had some piano and harp lessons, too.  Myrna says Rose wants to try the bassoon next and has posted a list of "instruments I want to play" on the kitchen bulletin board.  So far, 15 instruments are listed.

I look forward to following the Mibus family's musical adventures in the coming years as the kids get older.  And I hope to see them at one (or more) of the Vintage Band Festival concerts in August!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Searching for Sousa in Crookston

Three weeks from today, my dad and I will be packing for a short research trip to Crookston, Minn., where my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, directed adult and juvenile bands for about 15 years, from 1898-1909 and again from 1914-1918.

What we would love to find, in the archives of the Polk County Historical Society, is a photo of John Philip Sousa and G. Oliver together, from either of the concerts Sousa's Band played in Crookston when G. Oliver lived there.  I don't think such a photo exists, but if it does, and we obtained a copy, I would be so ecstatic I'd forget I ever cursed Sousa back in my high school band days while playing the boring French horn off-beats in one of his marches.

This line drawing is from the March 11, 1899 edition of the Crookston People's Press.

I am certain from all the research I've done that G. Oliver and Sousa knew each other, and I've also discovered that they had several mutual acquaintances, including Iowa bandmaster and composer Karl King, University of Illinois band director A. Austin Harding, and George Landers, father of the Iowa Band Law.  The last time that G. Oliver and Sousa were together – at least the last time I can document – was in November 1925 at the Minnesota Bandmasters Association convention in Minneapolis, where Sousa was made an honorary member of that organization.  What I don't know is how or when they first became acquainted.  It's not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it's one of the mysteries I set out to solve when I began researching G. Oliver's life.

I first became aware of a G. Oliver/Sousa connection when I read an old St. Cloud Times article in which a former St. Cloud Municipal Boys' Band member said that G. Oliver used to talk about Sousa and had once played with the eminent bandmaster.  I learned that a statement like that can be easy to make but difficult to prove (it's like a man claiming that he saw Jesse James and his gang the day before the attempted raid on the bank in Northfield).

So I dug deeper and discovered that even though there's a wealth of detailed information out there about Sousa's Band and its tours, it's difficult to obtain a definitive answer.  G. Oliver's name does not appear on any official band rosters, so I'm pretty sure he was never a member of Sousa's Band.  But according to information my dad obtained from the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, it wasn't uncommon for talented local musicians to sit in with Sousa's Band when it toured.  So, I think that's what G. Oliver did.

The letterhead of Bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs in the early 1900s.

When Sousa's Band came to Crookston in March 1899, Crookston was not a big town, but it was an convenient stop on the railroad line.  My dad and I like to think that Sousa chose to perform there because he knew he'd have a receptive audience due to G. Oliver's success in developing the Crookston municipal band.  But it's really just guesswork (like my speculation in an earlier post that the two men could have met at the World's Fair in Chicago).

Sousa already was influential by the late 1890s, and he remains well-known today, 78 years after his death.  It would have been helpful to me if G. Oliver had mentioned his interactions with Sousa in his writings.  But then I think about how I've encountered some famous people in my life and haven't written about it, and I can see why a person might not think to record it for posterity.  Or maybe G. Oliver did write about it in letters that weren't saved.

Sousa directed the U.S. Marine Band for 12 years and left in 1892 to form his own band, which toured numerous times, both nationally and internationally, between 1892 and 1931.  Sousa booked various vocal and instrumental soloists to perform with the band during the tours.  One of the soloists in Crookston in 1899 was band member and trombonist Arthur Pryor, who wrote more than 300 ragtime and other popular compositions (including, and I have to mention this for my daughter's sake, the comic waltz "Frau Louisa"). 

One misperception I had about Sousa was that he only wrote and played marches.  His band concerts always included his popular marches played as encores, but the programs consisted of a variety of classical pieces and featured vocal and instrumental solos.

For example, the program for the March 28, 1899, Crookston concert included Pryor performing the solo "Love Thoughts," soprano Miss Maude Reese Davies singing "Linda di Chamounix" by Donizetti; and violinist Miss Dorothy Hoyle performing "Souvenir de Haydn," by Leonard.

When Sousa's Band returned to Crookston for a concert on March 4, 1901,  Pryor again performed a trombone solo, "The Patriot."  Soprano Miss Blanche Duffield sang "Maid of the Meadow," and violinist Miss Bertha Bucklin performed Ries' "Adagio and Moto Perpetum."

Sousa's Band performed both concerts in the Grand Opera House, the same place G. Oliver's bands performed during the winter (in the summer, the Crookston bands played outside in a moveable bandstand).  The Grand Opera House also is where Mark Twain gave a lecture on July 29, 1895, three years before G. Oliver's arrival in Crookston.

I could be mistaken, but it appears to me that this building is still in use as the Grand Theatre, which claims to be the oldest continually operating movie theater in the country.  That's one of the questions I hope our visit will answer.  If it is the same place, it would be fun to go inside and catch a movie.

There are other buildings in town that date back to G. Oliver's time, including the Palace/Wayne Hotel, which was included on the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota's "10 Most Endangered Historic Places" list in 2009 because the county plans to demolish it.  The long-vacant hotel, built in 1896, anchors Crookston’s Commercial Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.  While we're visiting, I hope to learn more about the local efforts to save the building (like the Facebook page I discovered today, Friends of the Palace/Wayne Hotel).

I've never been to Crookston, and my dad hasn't been there since he was a young boy.  I'm looking forward to taking the self-guided walking tour of the historic downtown to get a sense of what the town might have been like a century ago.  My dad and I also plan to visit the cemetery where G. Oliver is buried next to his wife, Islea, their daughter Rosalie, and their infant son, G. Oliver Jr.

It would be great to find some old (but new to us) photos of G. Oliver's Crookston bands or some interesting news articles while we're at the historical society.  What I'm expecting to happen, though, is what seems to happen whenever my dad and I attempt to glean information about G. Oliver's life from potential sources – we end up providing those sources with more information than they have to offer us.  But that's OK, because we're happy to share. 

Regardless of the outcome, the trip, for me, will be another wonderful part of the journey into my ancestral past, which always seems to connect in remarkable and unexpected ways to my own musical life.