Saturday, October 30, 2010

“Vicksburg is the Key” – Part 2: Iowa and G. Oliver


Go read the story of thy past. Iowa, O! Iowa
What glorious deeds, what fame thou hast!
           Iowa, O! Iowa
So long as time’s great cycle runs,
Or nations weep their fallen ones,
Thou’lt not forget thy patriot sons, Iowa, O! Iowa
– from The Song of Iowa by S.H.M. Byers

Dad and I were hastily skimming newspaper articles and assorted letters and documents, trying to get through the file folders in all five boxes of George Landers’ papers before the Iowa City branch of the State Historical Library closed for the day.  It was June 2007.  Just like in a movie, it was in the last file folder I searched that I found a document of importance: a list of 23 names, with a notation written in cursive at the bottom that appeared to say “Band - South”  Included on the list was the name of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, solo cornet player, with an x indicating that he had paid.
G. Oliver is No. 9 on the list; Landers is No.23.
I might have overlooked the piece of paper if I hadn’t already known some important pieces of information: 1) Landers had directed a band, the 51st/55th Regimental Band, that traveled to the South  in 1906 to dedicate battlefield memorials to Iowa soldiers; 2) G. Oliver was a longtime friend of Landers and occasionally played cornet with Landers’ band; and 3) the Riggs family scrapbook contains a 1906 article from the Vicksburg newspaper about the Iowa delegation’s visit.
An article from the Nov. 15, 1906, Vicksburg (Miss.) Daily Herald.
Once I’d found out that Landers took his band on this trip, I had a hunch that G. Oliver had gone, too.  He was living in Crookston, Minn. at that time, directing bands.  His father, Jasper Riggs, had fought at two of the battlefields, Shiloh and Vicksburg, so it would have had personal significance for him, but a Des Moines Register story about the trip didn’t mention the names of the band members.  I was looking for more concrete proof.

This “Band South” list was the first piece of evidence I had to back up my theory.  My heart raced with excitement as Dad and I gathered our things and left the library with a copy of the list.  It was a find that made all the digging worthwhile.  When we returned to Minnesota, I scanned the Crookston Daily Times on microfilm at the Minnesota State Historical Library in St. Paul for any mention of the trip.  I found this article:
The Crookston Daily Times, Nov. 28, 1906, p. 7
A 150-member Iowa delegation, led by Gov. Albert Cummins, made the two-week trip by train.  Along for the ride was a Cedar Rapids newspaperman named Ernest A. Sherman.  Sherman wrote a number of articles about the trip for The Saturday Record that later were published as a book, Dedicating in Dixie.  My friendly local bookseller, Jerry Bilek of Monkey See, Monkey Read, helped me track down a battered copy that once belonged to the Algona (Iowa) Public Library.  Since G. Oliver left behind no writing about his experiences in Vicksburg, I was thrilled to read Sherman’s account of the visit.

I found another source of information about the trip in the library at the Iowa Gold Star Museum at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa, Dedication of Monuments to Iowa Soldiers: Vicksburg, Andersonville, Chattanooga, Shiloh, published in 1908.  This book includes text of all the speeches given at the memorial dedications (boy, were some of those guys long-winded!).  It also listed all the names of the people in the delegation, including the 23 band members.

I know from all these sources that G. Oliver and the rest of the group arrived in Vicksburg on Nov. 14, 1906, and toured the park and the national cemetery, where nearly 17,000 Union soldiers are buried (the largest internment of Civil War dead in the country).  That evening, the band played at a formal reception for the Iowa delegation, hosted by Vicksburg citizens.  Mississippi Gov. James Vardaman, known for his white supremacist views, bypassed the reception to attend a Daughters of the Confederacy event in Gulfport. 

This is how Sherman described the reception:
“… The ladies were beautifully attired, there was gold braid in plenty worn by the Staff to relieve the sombreness of the men’s evening dress, the 55th regimental band gave an exquisite concert program, and the punch bowl, after the receiving line had done its duty, was the center of attention.  That punch bowl, presided over by two of Vicksburg’s society leaders, assisted by a bevy of Vicksburg’s most charming young women, was a revelation to many of the Iowa party.  They do not use water in their punch at Vicksburg.”
The next day, the delegation did more sightseeing and processed to the Iowa State Memorial at 1 p.m. for the official dedication.  Gov. Cummins and Gov. Vardaman were among the speakers, and a chorus of about 100 Vicksburg schoolchildren sang “America.”  The band played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,”and “Dixie,” and the famous Iowa poet, Maj. Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers who’d been a prisoner of war at Andersonville, recited a piece he’d written for the occasion, appropriately titled, “Vicksburg.” (Byers also wrote the official state song, “Song of Iowa.”)

The Iowa State Memorial is built of granite and bronze.
Massachusetts sculptor Henry H. Kitson created six bronze panels depicting scenes from the Vicksburg campaign.
When the dedication ceremony began, Sherman was not with the rest of the group.  He was sitting directly across a valley from the Iowa Memorial, on the parapet of the Railroad Redoubt, a Confederate stronghold that Iowa soldiers attacked on May 22, 1863.  Sherman had climbed the hill to copy the inscriptions on the bronze tablets erected to the Iowa 22nd Regiment, led by Brig. Gen. Michael Lawler. 
We don’t think Steve is a direct descendant of Brig. Gen. Michael Lawler, but we like to think they’re related somehow.
Sherman sat enjoying the silence and pondering what had occurred there forty-three years earlier, when the sounds of the ceremony drew him out of his reverie.

“I heard the commands given as the Vicksburg Light Artillery fired the salute.  I heard the opening words of Captain Merry, chairman of the Iowa Commission.  I heard the prayer by Chaplain Frisbie, the music by the band, the singing of the schoolchildren, the reading of Colonel Rood’s report as secretary of the Commission, and the magnificent address by Governor Cummins.  It was wonderful.  Such a demonstration of peculiar acoustic conditions!  And marveling, I sat for an hour, absolutely alone, yet in touch with the world across that valley where once the North and South struggled for the mastery.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

“Vicksburg is the Key” – Part 1: Illinois and Jasper


“Vicksburg is the key.  The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
– Abraham Lincoln
When my boyfriend Steve and I visited Vicksburg National Military Park in 1991, I secretly wished I was from Illinois.  Illinois had the most impressive memorial in the park, and – judging from the number of smaller monuments along the driving tour – its soldiers appeared to have played a more prominent role in the Union’s victory than those from my home state of Minnesota, or Steve’s home state of Iowa.

Steve was on break from medical school at the University of Iowa and had come to visit me in nearby Natchez, Miss., where I was working as a newspaper reporter.  We spent a few hours that day exploring the park’s hills and ravines, and imaging the horrors of war experienced by both sides during the 47-day siege of the city, perched on a bluff 300 feet above the Mississippi River.

I didn’t know then that we’d return 18 years later, a married couple with three adventurous children, armed with an important discovery: my Riggs family history ties directly to the impressive Illinois State Memorial I’d admired, and to the Iowa State Memorial that’s located on the park’s southern loop.
The Illinois State Memorial is 62 feet tall and is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome.
I had known, growing up, that a Riggs ancestor from Illinois had fought in the Civil War, but I’d never attempted to find out more details.  A few years ago, when I began researching the musical career of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, I learned that his father, Jasper Riggs, had fought with the 45th Illinois Infantry, Co. I.  I looked up Jasper’s regiment history and was stunned to discover that he’d fought at Vicksburg, as did two of his brothers, and at least one brother-in-law.  And, what I was even more fascinated to learn, his regiment had participated in three dangerous assaults on the Confederate’s formidable defenses.

Steve and I decided several months ago that Louisa, Sebastian and Elias were probably the perfect ages to take on a tour of Civil War battlefields (14, 12 and 10), so we planned an October vacation that would include visits to both Vicksburg and Shiloh, where Jasper also fought.  I had a particular quest in mind for our Oct. 24 visit to Vicksburg; I’d read somewhere that the names of all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who fought at Vicksburg are listed on bronze tablets inside of the memorial.  I wanted to find Jasper’s name.
Louisa, Elias and Sebastian pause on the steps of the memorial.  There are 47 steps; one for each day of the siege.

We locate the 45th Infantry panel on the wall.

Jasper's name, listed with other members of the 45th Illinois Infantry, Co. I.
Louisa makes a rubbing of Jasper's name.
The 45th Illinois Regiment was positioned on Jackson Road near the Shirley House, the park’s only surviving wartime structure.  Called “the white house” by soldiers, it’s currently under renovation and is located near the Illinois Memorial.  It’s also near the site where Jasper’s regiment made three failed attempts at attacking one of the Confederate’s major fortifications (the Third Louisiana Redan), before Gen. Ulysses S. Grant called off the attacks and prepared for a siege.  I learned from reading Jasper’s pension file that he injured his left wrist during the June 25 attack, when the 45th exploded a mine and splinters from a log struck Jasper in the face and arm.
A sign at the Third Louisiana Redan tour stop explains the mine explosions.
During our visit to the park with the kids, we ate a picnic lunch in our rental car while parked in the lot by the Illinois Memorial and the Shirley House.  We feasted on ham and cheese sandwiches, chicken wraps, chips and soda, in the same place where Jasper likely had meals of hardtack, beans and coffee.  His meals don’t sound that desirable, but they would have been welcomed by the poor Confederate soldiers and Vicksburg civilians who resorted to eating dogs, cats and mules during the siege.

With no reinforcements, and food running low, Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton decided to surrender to Grant.  Union troops rode into the city on July 4, 1863, and replaced the Confederate flag on top of the Vicksburg courthouse with the Stars and Stripes.  They also raised the regimental flag of the 45th Illinois Infantry, in recognition of its role in the campaign.

In my next post, I will tell the story of how my great-grandfather, G. Oliver, made his own pilgrimage  to the Vicksburg military park in 1906.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Shiloh: A Place of Peace

It seems contradictory to find peace at a battlefield that saw so much bloodshed over a two-day period in 1862.  But on our family’s visit Wednesday to Shiloh National Military Park, it was difficult to imagine a more peaceful place.
A battlefield marker showing where my great-grandfather, Jasper Riggs, fought with the 45th Illinois Infantry.
Known for being one of the most pristine Civil War battlefields, Shiloh is located off the beaten path, about two hours east of Memphis, and 45 miles north of Corinth, Miss.  I haven’t looked up the park’s attendance figures, but during our afternoon there we often felt like we had the entire 4,200-acre park to ourselves.

It was much more populated when my great-great grandfather, Jasper Riggs, was encamped there in April 1962 as a member of the 45th Illinois Infantry, Co. I.  Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and about 40,000 Union troops were positioned west of Pittsburg Landing near Shiloh Church, waiting for Gen. Don Carlos Buell to arrive with reinforcements so the Union could advance on Corinth, a strategic railroad crossroads.  Anticipating the Union’s strategy, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston launched a surprise attack with 44,000 troops the morning of April 6.
Jasper Riggs was encamped at this site when the Battle of Shiloh began on April 6, 1862.
According to the official regimental history, members of Jasper’s regiment had just had their morning inspection and had stacked their arms, preparing to eat breakfast, when they learned of the attack.
The breakfast call had just sounded, when the “long roll” was beat on the color line, and in three minutes, at most, the men had their arms in their hands, and the officers were in their places.  The order was to move to the left and front, “double quick,” to support Sherman.  The Forty-fifth went into the fight at Shiloh with about 500 men.  It was in the front line from first to last of the two days’ fight.  On Sunday it fought mainly on its “own hook” after the first engagement, under the command of Colonel Smith, and fought back and forth over the same ground a number of times.  Late in the day it fell back, leisurely, and took its place with its Brigade and Division, on the right of the line, when the final stand was made.  Here the Forty-fifth laid on its arms during the night in the rain, and moved forward on Monday morning at daylight. 
The Confederates pushed the Union troops, including Jasper’s regiment, back toward the Tennessee River on the battle’s first day.  Buell’s troops arrived by river overnight, and by the end of the second day, the Union recovered all the ground it had lost, and the Confederates retreated.

Both the North and the South were shocked by the reports of the battle’s 23,000 casualties.  Of the 500 men in Jasper’s regiment, 26 were killed, and 199 were wounded or missing.  Jasper survived, as did his older brother General Washington Riggs, who fought with the 17th Illinois Infantry.

The Shiloh National Military Park was established by the federal government in 1894.  Forty-four years after the battle, Jasper’s son, my great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs, traveled to the park in November 1906 with an Iowa delegation to dedicate monuments to Iowa solders who had fought there.  G. Oliver played the cornet with the 51st/55th Regimental Band, directed by his longtime friend George Landers.

Iowa Gov. Albert Cummins and other delegation members in front of the Iowa State Memorial.
While we were searching for the markers that showed the movement of Jasper’s regiment during the battle (they were not easy to find, even with a detailed park map), we also found many of the Iowa regimental monuments G. Oliver visited in 1906.  During that tour, the Iowa delegation stopped at each of the 11 Iowa regimental monuments for brief ceremonies that included a speech, a prayer and a song by the band.  The band also participated in a ceremony in front of the towering Iowa State Memorial, and performed a sacred concert in the Shiloh National Cemetery.


I learned from a browsing through a book in the gift shop that the Iowa State Monument was damaged three years after the dedication when a cyclone struck the park.  The tall column broke in a couple of pieces and had to be rebuilt.
The Iowa State Monument as it looks today. 

I could write more about our experience at the park, but I’d rather close with the last few paragraphs of a speech by Jesse A. Miller, the son of Lt. Colonel Alexander Miller of the Sixth Iowa Regiment.  The younger Miller spoke these words at the Nov. 22, 1906 dedication of the monument to his dad’s regiment:
This monument is erected to the memory of those who fought and suffered here, and it is a fitting memorial.  The thing it teaches to us is not so much the valor of those who died and suffered here, as that we who come after them must live a big and noble life to merit what our forefathers have done for us.  I, as one who was born after the war, as one who knows nothing of the wear except as I have heard and read, feel that I am a better man and will live a better life for having visited these battlefields; and I believe that the people of all the states of this Union would be better citizens if they would visit the battlefield and see what we have seen and hear what we have heard.  I hope that as the days go by and as the years roll on, that annually there will be pilgrimages from the north and from the south to these fields, that inspiration may be received by others as it has been received by us, and that these memorials will ever tend to raise the citizenship of this country and make the people of this nation a better and higher type of civilization than any that has gone before.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Yankee Family Heads to Dixie

I awoke at 5:30 this morning, too excited to sleep any longer.  All I could think about was our upcoming Southern vacation.  Our six-day adventure will start and end in Memphis and include visits to Shiloh National Military Park, New Orleans, Natchez, Miss., and Vicksburg National Military Park.

I’ve already been to all those places except for Shiloh.  I had a reporting internship at the Natchez Democrat the summer after my sophomore year in college, and I returned in the fall of 1990, after graduating from Drake University, to work at the newspaper for a year.  During that year, I met a woman who told me, “Once you’ve touched the red clay of Mississippi, it stays with you.  You’ll be back.”  She was right.  Steve and I last visited Natchez in April 1997, with 1-year-old Louisa in tow, on the way to a medical conference in Texas.  This will be the first visit for Sebastian and Elias.
Louisa and Steve in front of Rosalie in Natchez, Miss., in 1997.  Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant set up temporary headquarters here during the Civil War.
Founded in 1716 by French colonists, Natchez is known for its many antebellum mansions and its location on the Mississippi River.  It wasn’t burned during the Civil War; the town surrendered to Union troops.  Gen. Ulysses S. Grant set up temporary headquarters at Rosalie, a home high on the river bluff, after the fall of Vicksburg in 1863.

Vicksburg is only about 75 miles from Natchez, so it was an easy day trip when I lived in Natchez.  I have visited the battlefield there twice, once with my parents and once with Steve.  I didn’t know either time that it held significance for the Riggs family.

It wasn’t until I started researching the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, that I learned two surprising things: 1) G. Oliver’s father, Jasper Riggs, fought at Vicksburg, and at Shiloh, with the 45th Illinois Infantry, Co. I; and 2) G. Oliver traveled to both Vicksburg and Shiloh in November 1906 with an Iowa delegation that dedicated the Iowa memorials at both parks.  G. Oliver was living in Crookston, Minn., at the time, but he was invited to play cornet in the 51st/55th Iowa Regimental Band, directed by his longtime friend, Maj. George Landers.  The delegation also traveled to Andersonville and Chickmauga and Chattanooga.
This photo of the band was taken in front of the Rossville Gap/Missionary Ridge monument in Tennessee.  G. Oliver is in the front row, fourth from the right.
Steve and I have been preparing for the trip by doing some reading; he’s been reading Shelby Foote’s novel Shiloh, and I’ve been rereading parts of Tony Horwitz’s nonfiction book Confederates in the Attic.  Horwitz visited both Shiloh and Vicksburg.  In his chapter about Shiloh, he meets some people who have come to the battlefield because their ancestors fought there, and he mentions feeling envious of them, writing: “They had a blood tie to a patch of American soil that I never would.”

I admit it is with an odd mixture of pride and curiosity that I investigate this “blood tie” I have to these parks, knowing that if Jasper hadn’t survived those battles – and so many didn’t – my kids and I wouldn’t exist, and all the lives that emanated from his would be erased.  I can only speculate on what it must have felt like for my great-grandfather, G. Oliver, to visit the newly formed military parks, some 40 years after his dad fought there.
G. Oliver Riggs with his father, Jasper Riggs, in 1899.
In an effort to prepare the kids for what we’re going to see on the trip, last night we watched the parts of The Civil War: a Film by Ken Burns that mention Shiloh and Vicksburg.  I hadn’t seen the movie since it debuted on PBS in September 1990, right around the time I moved to Natchez.  The 20-year-old historical documentary was just as compelling to me now it was then, if not more so.  Louisa and Sebastian both seemed to enjoy it, which I expected.  Seb is a huge history buff, and Louisa, although not as keen on history as Seb, is always interested in a well-told story.  And Elias?  Well, he spent the last 20 minutes of the movie lying on the rug, under the coffee table, wishing we’d chosen to watch something else.

It’s Elias, the plain noodles kid, the child with a low tolerance for complicated historical explanations, who will be the wild card on this trip.  Other than the hotel pool and TV, will he find anything to interest him?  Time will tell.  When I asked him earlier what part of the experience he was most looking forward to, he replied dryly, “The trip home.”  Ouch.

In fairness, I imagine that sentiment was shared by Jasper during his time in the South.  Elias may have more in common with his great-great-great grandfather than he realizes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Shout-out to My Grandfather

I spend so much time writing about the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, that I don’t get much chance to focus the spotlight on my grandfather, Ronald.  Because he would have turned 109 this month, I’d like to dedicate this post to him.

Ronald Graham Riggs was the eldest child of G. Oliver and Islea Graham Riggs.  He was born Oct. 23, 1901, in Crookston, Minn.  He was the first grandchild for both sets of grandparents, and no doubt was doted upon when they got the chance to see him (the Riggs grandparents and Graham grandparents both lived in Illinois in the early 1900s).
G. Oliver with baby Ronald.
Islea with baby Ronald.
My grandfather grew up surrounded by music.  When he was young, his mom taught him piano, and his father would take him along to band rehearsals.  It wasn’t too long before he was playing in bands himself.  His parents would require him to perform for company – a practice he must have disliked, because he made a point of not repeating that practice with his own kids.  He spent his first decade in Crookston and Grand Forks, then lived in Havre, Montana, for a few years, before returning to Crookston with his family and graduating from Crookston High School in 1919.
My grandfather Ronald played the clarinet and saxophone.
I won’t attempt to write a comprehensive account of my grandfather’s long, music-filled life in this one post.  I need more space to do him justice.  But it’s probably important to mention that he was a talented musician who became an excellent band director.  I think it’s also fair to say that my grandfather lived in the shadow of his father for many years.  It would have been difficult to avoid this, since G. Oliver had a larger-than-life personality.  That may be one reason why, after several years directing high school bands in Farmington and Thief River Falls, and directing the band at St. Cloud State, Ronald left the music education field and became a political science professor at St. Cloud State University.

My grandfather liked to golf ...
And fish ...

and travel with his family.
Ronald with my uncle Bob, my aunt Dana and my dad, William.
He had bachelor’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State, a master’s in education from the University of Minnesota, and a doctorate degree in education from the University of North Dakota.  He was active in the Minnesota Music Educators Association and was posthumously inducted into the MMEA Hall of Fame in 1986.  He received the Silver Beaver Award in 1960 for his work with the Boy Scouts.  He served on the St. Cloud City Council and the Charter Commission, and was a member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

I’m sure he would have enjoyed spending time with all his grandkids, but he died before he got the chance to meet most of them.
Grandpa Ronald goofing with my older brother, Pete, in September 1967.
I was not yet one year old when my grandfather died on Oct. 12, 1968, of a heart attack, so I have no memories of him.  But it’s been fun to get to know him now, through my research.  I think he would be proud of all the accomplishments of his children, grandchildren, and passel of great-grandchildren.

Happy early birthday, Grandpa Ronald!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Interview with a Music Man

I was so busy during the Vintage Band Festival, trying to hear as many concerts as possible, that I wasn’t able to spend much time talking to musicians and directors.  Fortunately, through the modern wonder that is Facebook, I have had the opportunity to become better acquainted with one of the band directors who attended, William L. Reynolds, of the Independent Silver Band of Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
William L. Reynolds with G. Oliver Riggs at the Vintage Band Festival in August.
Reynolds and I share an interest in researching band history, and an appreciation for how community bands of the late 19th and early 20th centuries played the soundtrack of our country’s history.  He is making history come alive through his work with the Independent Silver Band, a recreation of a town band from the late 1880s.
A photo of the original Independent Silver Band of Mt. Vernon, Ill.
Reynolds also directs the same group of musicians performing as a Civil War band, the 48th Illinois Volunteer Regimental Band.  He teaches music in the public schools, and he also spent several years performing in circus bands.

My great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, directed his first band in 1885 in Esbon, Kansas, at about the same time that the original Independent Silver Band formed.  I never had the chance to interview G. Oliver about what it was like to be a real-life music man.  So it’s with great pleasure that I present a Q and A with Reynolds about his work. 

Why do you think it’s important for people of this century to hear and perform music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
Most important to me is the beautiful music that has been virtually ignored by the musical community.  In the many courses I have taken in music history, none has mentioned John Philip Sousa.  If they don’t mention the most famous of the period conductors/composers, one can only imagine the vast store of resources untapped.  Fortunately, due to the efforts of people such as Paul Niemisto and his crew of the Vintage Band Festival, and members of the participating groups, some of this music is once again hitting the musical scene.

We of the Independent Silver Band try to use music that is not played by other groups, and try to emphasize music with a connection to Southern Illinois. 

How many members do you have?  What qualifications do they need to join the band?
We perform with 2 E flat cornets, four B flat Cornets, two E flat alto horns, two trombones (or tenors) one baritone, two tubas, two percussionists, one vocalist, and moi.  Sixteen in all.  I arrange most of the music we perform specifically for our instrumentation.  The original ISB used one E flat clarinet, and three B flats, and one more alto.

Our requirements would come more under the category of philosophical than musical.  We are trying to portray, as accurately as we are able, music of the period, and these instruments do have eccentricities.  These are a part of that portrayal.  Our musicians must have a command of their instruments.  A willingness to spend time learning some difficult music.  A willingness to spend money for instruments, and a desire to keep this music alive.  We have a large network of players in our area, and we draw on them for our performances. 

How often do you rehearse, and how often do you perform?
We rehearse twice a month, on the second and fourth Sundays, at the First United Methodist Church in Mt. Vernon.  The members of the original ISB were all members of this same church.

We play primarily in the Southern Illinois area, and St. Louis, Missouri. We play concerts, balls, church services, reenactments, Chautauquas, memorial services, patriotic celebrations, and many other venues.  Two years ago, we played several Lincoln-Douglas debates.  We also perform as the 48th Illinois Volunteer Regimental Band, which is also a historic group from the area.

I saw on your website that you work as a music teacher in the schools.  What age of students do you teach?
I am the instrumental teacher for grades 5-12, and chorus for grades 9-12.  I have taught every age from kindergarten through college.  I was the adjunct low brass instructor for Kaskaskia College for six years.

Your parents were both musicians and music teachers.  What did they play?  Did they influence your choice of profession?
My father’s primary instrument was trombone.  He was a big band trombone player, and played with the Springfield Illinois Symphony.  He was a music teacher until I was about three years of age.  He dropped teaching for the insurance business, then resumed teaching (band director) my senior year in high school.  My mother played French horn in the school band, but piano, and organ were her major instruments.  She taught elementary music and attended the Orff Institute in Europe.  She and I graduated the same year.  We all gravitated to the circus around 1977.  In 1980, I became the band master on Carson and Barnes, and I hired them in the band.  My mother also became the school teacher on the show.  My parents did not push me into a career in music, but they did have to force me to start.  I didn’t want to play, but I was hooked by my sophomore year in high school.

My great-grandfather was described by some former band students as a martinet.  What’s your directing style?
I really don’t know if I have a style of conducting.  I do not consider myself a good conductor technically.  I am not a “pretty’’ conductor.  I really would rather play.  At the festival, I played very little.

Does your band have groupies?
We do have some people that show at virtually every performance, but it is mostly relatives of my young tuba player.  Several wives of players have been making period clothing and coming to the performances.

What did you enjoy most about performing at the Vintage Band Festival in Northfield?
It is difficult to pinpoint a single, or even a few levels of importance.  I would have to say that one high ranking item would be fraternizing with people of like passions.  The Contented Cow's contribution of serving lunch to the participants gave us an opportunity to “schmooze” and exchange ideas, music, and swap lies (the food was great, too).

The only negative part would be the lack of time to listen to other groups.

What is next for your band?
We have played a number of events since the festival, and have several upcoming.  We played at the Historic Village here in Mt. Vernon, and yesterday we played at the Public Library in a program they have on history.  We will be doing two sessions for the teachers conference in Mt. Vernon on Oct. 29th.  We will be playing a Christmas Concert at the historic Sesser Opera House in Sesser, Illinois, and the magnificent “Great and Fancy Ball” at the Old Courthouse (where the Dred Scott decision was argued) in St. Louis, Missouri.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think people would be interested to know? 
I would like to invite everyone to visit the website and see pictures of some of these events.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wanted: A Hired Girl

I feel like such a blogger slacker.  It’s been my goal since I started this blog to post an average of twice a week, and I haven’t posted anything since Sept. 24.  I could blame it on a combination of things: flooding, a bedroom renovation project, adjusting to the rhythm of the new school year.  But I’ve decided to blame it on my lack of a hired girl.

My great-grandmother, Islea Graham Riggs, had a hired girl 100 years ago when the family lived in Grand Forks.  I know this because the girl – a 30-year-old woman, actually – is listed on the 1910 census form as a live-in servant.  I was astonished when I discovered this because it never occurred to me that they might have had money for such an expense.  As I thought about it, I remembered that it was not uncommon at that time for families to hire help, even those that weren’t wealthy.

I’d like to know more about this woman, and what she did for the family.  Did she cook and clean?  Did she look after little 2-year-old Rosalie while Ronald (my grandfather) and Percy were at school, so Islea could attend meetings of the Thursday Musical Club, practice piano and teach music lessons?
G. Oliver and me, standing in front of 411 Reeves Drive in Grand Forks.  The Queen Anne home served as a meeting place for the Thursday Musical Club, a group Islea joined in 1909.
The servant’s name was Lena Gorder.  She was born in North Dakota in about 1880, and her parents were from Norway. 

At the time of the census, the Riggs family lived at 708 S. 4th St.  My great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was directing the Grand Forks municipal band and organizing a juvenile band; the family had moved to Grand Forks in 1909 from Crookston, Minn.  I tried to find their house when my parents and I visited Grand Forks in June, but it appears that the site no longer exists; it was replaced by a levee that protects the neighborhood from river flooding.  It’s part of the Greenway, a 2,200-acre recreation and flood mitigation system built between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks after the devastating flood of 1997.

The Greenway also appears to have swallowed up Central Park, which opened in August 1909 and was located just northeast of the former Riggs residence.  G. Oliver’s band played at the opening of the city park in August 1909.  Several thousand people attended the concert, and G. Oliver played a solo with the band, “A Dream of Paradise.”
A postcard of Central Park, where G. Oliver's band played.

The Greenway did not expand as far west as 412 Minnesota Ave., which is listed as the Riggs family’s residence in the 1909 city directory.  This location was empty lawn when we drove by it in June.

We were able to locate the home of Mrs. W.A. Gordon, who served as president of the Thursday Musical Club.  She lived at 411 Reeves Drive in the tony neighborhood southeast of downtown.  A Historic Reeves Drive walking tour publication published by the Great Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau says this about the Club:

“The Thursday Musical has always had a high standard.  Some of our society ladies, mothers of families all, were fine pianists and singers.  This club was organized Aug. 4, 1898, at the home of Mrs. W.A. Gordon.  Gordon’s home was the regular meeting place until the ‘Thursday Musical’ moved its new Steinway Grand to the Pioneer Club ballroom and had it for its permanent meeting place.”

I don’t know if Islea ever performed at Gordon’s home.  I do know, from a Grand Forks newspaper article, that she and G. Oliver both performed at the club’s Nov. 24, 1909 meeting, which was held in the parish hall at St. Mary’s, a neighborhood church.

The brochure explains what the Reeves Drive neighborhood was like in its heyday, from the mid- 1880s until the early 1900s, noting that almost all the residents had live-in servants, and many spent their summers at cottages on Maple Lake or Lake Bemidji, Minnesota.  I imagine these were the folks who attended G. Oliver's band concerts at the nearby Metropolitan Theatre, and who were providing money for community improvements and events.
G. Oliver's band rehearsed at the Metropolitan Theatre three times a week in 1909.
The walking tour brochure includes an excerpt from a book called The White Kid Glove Era, written by a resident, Mrs. Mathilda Engstad, that explains what sophisticated society was like around 1900.

She wrote, “We got along very well without mechanical refrigerators, electric washers, or vacuum cleaners.  We had a strong and willing maid in the kitchen, and a seamstress would come every six months or so to replenish our wardrobe.  We had time to and did entertain our friends at dinners and luncheons in our homes, when we could show off our finest table-linen, our silver and our china; when we had bouillon cups and cut-glass finger bowls, and tiny after-dinner coffee cups.  We had leisure to relax, to read and to attend study and music clubs.”

I could do without the bouillon cups, but the rest of it sounds attractive – way more glamorous than my modern life as a writer and mom who works from home.  Who couldn’t get along without an electric washer, if you had someone else to do the work?  Who couldn’t use someone “strong and willing” in the kitchen?  What I probably need most right now is someone strong and willing to help me organize my ever-growing files about my great-grandparents.  I wonder if Lena had a great-granddaughter?

I don’t know what happened to Lena after the 1910 census was taken.  By 1917, the sophisticated era in Grand Forks had faded, as the important families in the flour milling and saw milling industries moved to Minneapolis, or California.  The Riggs family also left the city, in May 1910, in search of new musical adventures.  I hope they sent Lena a postcard.