Monday, August 30, 2010

The World’s Most Famous Boys’ Band

The Minnesota State Fair opened Thursday, which means it’s the perfect time to explain my great-grandfather’s connection to what’s also known as “The Great Minnesota Get-Together.”  I have a few stories to tell, but I’ll use this post to focus on the the Bemidji Boys’ Band’s great fair adventure of 1922.

The 75-member Bemidji BoysBand in 1922.
G. Oliver Riggs moved to Bemijdi in January 1919 after accepting an offer to direct the city’s municipal band and form a juvenile band.  The rest of his family – wife Islea, elder son Ronald and younger son Percy – stayed in Crookston until June, when Ronald graduated from Crookston High School.

By March of 1919, G. Oliver had recruited 111 boys to the band and had begun instruction.  Three years later, the Bemidji Boys’ Band was invited to perform at the Minnesota State Fair.

The 75-member band piled into several vehicles and left Bemidji on Friday, Sept. 1, at 4:30 a.m.  The all-day drive included a 9 a.m. stop in Pine River for milk, and a 1:30 p.m. chicken dinner at St. Albans on Mille Lacs Lake.  After sleeping in tents at the fairgrounds, the band members awoke early the next morning and went to Minneapolis, where they paraded in the streets of the business district and serenaded newspaper and government offices.  That afternoon, they did the same thing in St. Paul.

An article and photo of the band in the Sept. 2, 1922 issue of the Minneapolis Journal.
The above photo is difficult to make out; I copied it from the State Fair scrapbook that’s available on microfilm at the Minnesota History Center library.  My favorite part of the article is the interview with the youngest band member, 10-year-old Basil Britton, who had never seen a streetcar and had “lived all his life in Bemidji ‘where I see buses.’”

An article from the Sept. 3, 1922 issue of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.
Sunday afternoon the boys had a paid engagement to play at Minnehaha Park for a “record-breaking crowd of ten thousand people, thus evidencing the favorable publicity gained by their city parades the previous day,” according to the band secretary’s account of the trip, published in the Sept. 15 issue of the Bemidji Sentinel.  They were treated to an evening meal at the Ryan Hotel (an impressive building demolished in 1962) and a show at the Metropolitan Theatre.

The program for the Minnehaha Park concert, printed in the Minneapolis Daily Star.
The boys played twice each day, Monday through Friday, at the fair’s Plaza Bandstand, and because they were such a big hit, fair manager Thomas H. Canfield requested that the band play in front of the grandstand on Friday evening as a featured act.  Through a newfangled $50,000 amplifier, Tony Snyder, the director of state fair music, introduced the band as “the world’s most famous boys’ band from Bemidji, Minnesota, under the direction of G. Oliver Riggs.”

This is how the Bemidji Daily Pioneer described the Sept. 8 performance: “The act went over big.  The boys were applauded from the minute they appeared in view of the grandstand until they were again out of sight.  The announcement made by Mr. Snyder received a tremendous ovation, as did the first number played by the boys.  An encore just had to be played before the crowd would let the boys leave the front of the grandstand.”

(An interesting side note: the amplifier was donated for the Fair’s use by Northwestern Bell.  Vice President Calvin Coolidge used it earlier in the week for an address that apparently left fairgoers unimpressed.  According to a story in the Minneapolis Daily Star, the audience became restless 40 minutes into the speech and started walking out, causing Coolidge to skip to the end.  The 98-degree heat was cited as the most common explanation for crowd’s behavior.  I wonder how long Coolidge would have spoken if the audience had remained quiet?!)

A photo of the Bemidji Boys’ Band in front of the bandstand, with the grandstand in the background.
The band left the fair the next morning and drove all the way home, stopping in Walker for supper at the New Chase Hotel, and arriving in Bemidji close to midnight.

As I read old newspaper articles Sunday afternoon about the trip, the words “Chase Hotel” jumped out at me because a few hours earlier I’d read a travel article in the Star Tribune about Walker that mentions the hotel.  It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now known as Chase on the Lake.

I ate at the hotel’s restaurant a few years ago, on a trip up north with friends, and enjoyed the view of Leech Lake.  I didn’t realize until writing this post that that by stopping to eat there, I’d once again unwittingly followed the trail of my great-grandfather.  

Now I suppose I should travel to Pine River for some milk, and catch a concert at Minnehaha Park.  Good thing I don’t have to worry about running into Coolidge.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

BBQ Gyros, Dancing Tots and Big Pigs: the Musical?

The 2010 Iowa State Fair concludes Sunday, and our family will have missed attending for yet another year.  As the kids have grown, it's become more difficult to find time in the summer schedule to make the trip from Northfield to Des Moines. 

We used to meet college friends there, and we'd follow a routine for touring the fairgrounds, which included seeing the livestock (big doesn't adequately describe the prize-winning Big Boar; this year's winner, Freight Train, weighs 1,259 pounds), eating fair food (BBQ gyro, anyone?), and admiring the big tractors (big, again, being an understatement).  We also would try to catch a performance by the Iowa State Fair Singers in honor of alumni member Steve (see my previous post for more on Steve's show choir background).  The group exists in slightly different form now and is known as Celebration Iowa.

Steve and Louisa, age 3 1/2 months, meet a puppet pig at the 1996 Iowa State Fair.
Although I'm a Minnesota native, and my maternal grandmother worked at the Minnesota State Fair for years, I have to admit that I find visiting the Iowa State Fair to be a more enjoyable experience.  It's easier to navigate than the Minnesota State Fair, which attracts such a mass of humanity that it can overwhelm a person, depending on the time and day.  The Iowa State Fair can be busy, too, but it's easier to breathe there.  It's more like a big county fair (remember, big = understatement).

I don't want to start a fight, though; they both can be great fun.  A bucket of Sweet Martha's Cookies and a bucket of rigs (rigatoni) from Vescio's are two reasons alone to brave the Minnesota State Fair crowds, although I'd much prefer to do it on a cool, calm evening.

And, if I wanted to look at it from a historical perspective, I can report that my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, performed at both state fairs.

All I know about G. Oliver's Iowa State Fair experience is that he played there in 1891 as a cornet soloist with a band directed by Major George Landers (most likely Landers' Third Regiment Band, a National Guard band based in Centerville, Iowa).  I would love to find a picture of this.  I don't know if the fair has photos going back that far. 

I also know a little bit about the 1891 Fair thanks to information in the book Iowa State Fair in Vintage Postcards by Ron Playle.  That year 600 electric lights were placed around the grounds, and 50 lights were placed at the race track, where G. W. Moore and his dog made parachute leaps. 

"They went up several hundred feet sitting in a large ring suspended below a balloon, then man and dog dropped using separate parachutes," according to the book.

Boy, I'd like to see a photo of that, too.  I wonder if G. Oliver stuck around for the parachute stunt?  Or maybe he went and heard Carrie Chapman Catt give a speech on women's suffrage; that was another event at the 1891 Iowa State Fair.

Before 1900, the Iowa State Fair was held in September, and the temperatures were slightly cooler.  According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the evening of Sept. 3, 1891, was the third coolest night ever at the state fair, with a temperature of 42 degrees; and that year's fair also placed third for overall coolest fair, with an average of 61.6 degrees.  If G. Oliver and his fellow band members wore heavy uniforms during their concerts, they undoubtedly appreciated the cooler temperatures.

It appears that the only building still in use that was around for the 1891 fair is Pioneer Hall, built in 1886.  It now is used for "Rural Americana Old Tyme" competitions like beard growing, husband calling and cow chip throwing.

Music continues to be an important part of the fair, and the Iowa State Fair has been an inspiration for music composers: think of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, a 1945 movie and Broadway musical based on Phil Strong's novel about the Iowa State Fair, or Iowa composer Karl King's "Hawkeye Fair," which he wrote for the Iowa State Fair. 

Not to leave out Minnesota, I should mention that Minnesota Public Radio created a program of fair-inspired music for the 2000 Minnesota State Fair.

I'll talk more about G. Oliver's Minnesota State Fair experiences in a future post, once the 2010 Minnesota Fair gets underway next week.

In lieu of photos from the 1891 Iowa State Fair, I'll leave you with a series of photos from the 2000 fair that demonstrate Sebastian's and Louisa's early interest in singing and dancing on the stage. 

I love that they chose to do this at the "Kid Find Headquarters."  Maybe they were hoping to be discovered by an agent.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Vintage Band Festival, Day 4: Marching through Georgia

It was horribly hot and humid on Sunday, the last day of the Vintage Band Festival, when Sebastian and I attended an afternoon concert by the 1st Brigade Band.  The weather seemed appropriate, since the 1st Brigade Band portrays an actual Wisconsin band that marched through the South with Gen. Sherman during the Civil War.

The 1st Brigade Band doesn't just play a concert, it presents a program that combines 1860s brass band music with historical stories and anecdotes, and includes women dressed in period costume.  As I sat in the shade, listening to the music and feeling the humidity, it was easy to believe I'd been transported to 1860s Georgia – except I had a bottle of water, and not a mint julep, in my hand.

Dan Woolpert, emeritus bandmaster, lets Sebastian hold a vintage brass horn.
The band members wear period uniforms and play instruments that date back to the 1860s.  The bells on the over-the-shoulder instruments point behind the players because the bands would march in front of the troops.  As one of the presenters explained during the program, 80 percent of the tunes in the original 1st Brigade Band's music books were quicksteps - songs played at 104 to 108 steps per minute, to get troops moving down the road.

Members of the 1st Brigade playing their vintage brass instruments.
The band played more than a dozen songs during the concert, including "The 7th Massachusetts Regimental Quickstep," "Glory Hallelujah March," "Rally 'Round the Flag" and an 1861 version of "The Star Spangled Banner," which we were instructed that we didn't need to stand for, since the song didn't become our national anthem until 1931.  During the presentation, the costumed women brought out several different flags that were used before and during the Civil War, like the Bonnie Blue Flag, an unofficial banner of the Confederacy.

Presenters with one of the old flags.
The program closed with the song, "Marching Through Georgia."  I was amused to learn that Sherman grew to hate the song because people would always play it whenever he showed up to events.  It was neat to hear it played on vintage horns as my great-great grandfather Jasper Riggs would have heard it.  Jasper fought with the 45th Illinois Infantry, Company I, and did indeed march through Georgia, after fighting in battles at Shiloh and Vicksburg.

Jasper didn't play in a regimental band, but his son, my great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs, played in the 55th (51st) Iowa Regimental Band when it traveled to the South in November 1906 to dedicate the Iowa memorials at the battlefields of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, and Andersonville.

We are planning to retrace the steps of Jasper and G. Oliver in October when we visit the Shiloh National Military Park and the Vicksburg National Military Park during our family vacation.  We won't make it to Georgia, but we'll be sure to put the song on the iPod in honor of Sherman.

He probably wouldn't be amused.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Vintage Band Festival, Day 3: G. Oliver Riggs Appears

I couldn't let the Vintage Band Festival pass without giving my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, a chance to be part of the fun.  So we brought him along with us – in cardboard cutout form – to Saturday's vintage base ball game that was played down the hill from St. Olaf College's Old Main.

William Reynolds, director of the Independent Silver Band, meets G. Oliver Riggs
The Northfield Silver Stars played the Rochester Roosters in a game using original "base ball" rules.  The Independent Silver Band from Mt. Vernon, Illinois, provided music to entertain the crowd.  Steve, Seb, Elias and I took a picnic lunch and stayed for several innings.

Music by the Independent Silver Band enhances the vintage experience of the game.
As we watched the players and tried to figure out how the rules were different (one example: no gloves are used), I also enjoyed watching and listening to the band members.  The Independent Silver Band is a recreation of Mt. Vernon's original 10-man band that performed for city events like balls and picnics from 1884-1889.  During this same time period, in Esbon, Kansas, my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, organized and directed his own cornet band that played for town events.
G. Oliver Riggs, started the Esbon (Kan.) Cornet Band in 1885 when he was 15 years old.  He's the third from the left; his father, Jasper Riggs, is second from the left

A few years later, after graduating from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, G. Oliver took a job teaching at Iowa Wesleyan University's Conservatory of Music in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.  During the summers of 1895 and 1896, he directed the Aledo (lll.) Cornet Band, 300 miles northwest of Mt. Vernon.

I don't know what G. Oliver thought of baseball, but I know he was familiar with the game.  My great-grandmother Islea Graham Riggs had a first cousin, George Frederick "Peaches" Graham, who played baseball for Aledo in the late 1880s.  Graham went on to greater fame in the early 1900s, playing for the Cleveland Blues, the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies.
A Rochester Rooster prepares to hit the ball with his "willow," now known as a bat.
We left the baseball game early to attend an afternoon concert in Way Park by Newberry's Victorian Cornet Band.  This band plays actual arrangements and instruments from the late 1800s.  It reminded me in style of uniform and in music selection of G. Oliver's early years directing the city band in Crookston, Minn.  G. Oliver and Islea moved to Crookston in 1898 from Aledo.  G. Oliver was a cornet and violin soloist as well as a band director, and he often played solos during the concerts, just as the Newberry band's director, Elisa Koehler, did at Saturday's concert.

G. Oliver Riggs meets another cornet soloist and band director, Elisa Koehler
After the concert, which concluded with the John Philip Sousa march, "Our Flirtations," I introduced myself to Koehler.  She's an assistant professor of music at Goucher College in Baltimore and has posted videos of the band's Vintage Band Festival performances on her blog.  Upon "meeting" G. Oliver, Koelher told me that her great-grandfather, Frank Joseph Kapralek, played E-flat clarinet with Sousa’s Band in the early 1900s.

I told her that we had something in common, because G. Oliver also knew Sousa and once played with his band, although I don't think G. Oliver was ever an official band member like Kapralek.

G. Oliver also visited Bridge Square on Saturday to hear concerts by the Lake Wobegon® Brass Band and the Chicago Brass Band before heading home.  A 139-year-old guy needs his rest.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Vintage Band Festival, Day Two: A Variety of Musical Styles

Day two of the Vintage Band Festival was filled with so many great moments, I can't really pick out a favorite.  I think what I enjoyed best was having the opportunity to hear such a variety of musical styles within a couple of hours, ranging from mariachi to Moravian polka to African American "trombone shout" music.

It was also fun to see so many people attending the concerts and spending time downtown.  I didn't get to any of the concerts that weren't on Bridge Square, but I heard from others that those sites, like Way Park, also attracted good crowds.

Here are photos from the five concerts I attended on Friday:

The Copper Street Brass Quintet, a group of young, extremely talented brass players based in Minneapolis, performed at 3 p.m.
The Copper Street Brass Quintet draws a large crowd at Bridge Square.
Newberry's Victorian Cornet Band performed at 4 p.m.  The Maryland-based band plays instruments built between 1870 and 1900.  Their uniforms and style of music were very similar to what my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, and his Crookston Band wore and played around the turn of the last century.

The cornet soloist performs during the concert by the Newberry's Victorian Cornet Band.  
The youth mariachi band from St. Paul, Las Estrellas de Guadalupe, performed at 5 p.m.

Las Estrellas de Guadalupe performing in their second concert of the day.
The Austrian band Tschecharanka, had a 7 p.m. show.  This is the group's first trip to North America.

Tschecharanka is a 12-member Bohemian-style wind band.
And, in the last concert of the evening on Bridge Square, Kenny Carr and the Tigers from Charlotte, North Carolina, had the audience of (primarily) sedate Midwesterners clapping, dancing and even shouting.  Is that why the band is called a trombone shout band?!

Kenny Carr and the Tigers, a trombone shout band from North Carolina, engages the crowd.
More concerts and fun to come today, including a Civil War-style Battle of the Bands, and a vintage dance at the Northfield Ballroom.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Vintage Band Festival, Day One: A Fabulous Start

Vintage Band Festival director Paul Niemisto can be extremely persuasive – so persuasive, in fact, that the weather couldn't resist his request for assistance on Thursday, the first day of the festival.  We had perfect conditions for the outdoor concerts scheduled throughout the day – it was sunny, and much less humid than what we've experienced lately.  Let's hope that continues through the weekend!

Here are some of my festival-related experiences from Day One:

Seb and Elias say goodbye to Liisi and Saini, Finnish band members who stayed with us.
Saini and Liisi perform with the rest of their 40-member youth band from Helsinki.
The Zumbrota (Minn.) Town Band in concert.
The Chestnut Brass Company from Philadelphia wows the crowd.
The Jack Brass Jazz Band from Minneapolis encourages audience participation.
Band concerts are even more enjoyable with ice cream – right, Frances?!
Hannah and her French silk pie ice cream from Hogan Bros.
The Copper Street Brass Quintet entertains patrons at the Contented Cow.
An impromptu show by members of Kenny Carr and the Tigers, who will perform at 7 p.m. Friday in Bridge Square.
We're off to a fabulous start, and ready for Day Two!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Finns are Here!

One of the neat things about the Vintage Band Festival, which starts tomorrow in Northfield, is the opportunity it provides for cultural exchange.  We've having our own in-house cultural exchange as we host two 15-year-old flute players from the Helsinki Wind Band, a group of about 40 players ages 13 to 20.

The group arrived in Northfield yesterday evening after performing a concert at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis as part of National Night Out.  Another Northfield host told me, as we waited to be paired up with our students, that he'd stopped to hear the concert on the way home from work and thought the band was phenomenal.
The Wind Band of the Music Institute of Eastern Helsinki will perform Thursday at 1 p.m. in Bridge Square.
The band members are spending today touring cultural highlights of the Twin Cities – the Guthrie Theater and the Ordway – before heading to the Mall of America for what's certain to be a completely different cultural experience.  The band performs one concert here in Northfield on Thursday, 1 p.m. at Bridge Square, before heading home to Finland.

The two young women we're hosting gave us several gifts last night: a Marimekko oven mitt and hot pad, a CD of their group, a bottle of Finnish shampoo, and a couple different kinds of candy, including salmiakki, a traditional and popular Finnish candy.  We tried it, and it tastes like salty black licorice.  My kids decided it was an acquired taste – one they're not likely to acquire anytime soon.  The white chocolate-covered blueberries were a hit with them, though.

These are the gifts we received from our Finnish youth band members.
I look forward to hearing tonight about the band's adventures in the Twin Cities, and I am eager to attend the concert tomorrow.