Monday, November 29, 2010

A Photo Op at the Bandshell

I have a thing for historic bandshells and bandstands.  It’s a condition that developed after I began researching the career of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  I began to notice how many communities still use them, and how widely the architectural styles vary.  Now, whenever I see one – whether it’s vintage or modern – I'm curious about why it was built and how it’s used.

That’s why a Thanksgiving weekend visit to Iowa Falls, Iowa, had to include a stop at Estes Park.  The bandshell there, formerly known as the Estes Park Band Shell, was dedicated in 1931 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  Designed by L.L Klippel, it cost $3,838 and replaced a pagoda built in 1898.  The bandshell is still used today for community events.
The bandshell in Iowa Falls is an example of Spanish Colonial Revival design.
Elias, Seb and Louisa “jam” on the bandshell stage.
The bandshell was renamed the Bill Riley Bandshell after Iowa Falls native son Bill Riley, also known as “Mr. State Fair.”  Riley ran the Iowa State Fair talent search for many years, retiring in 1996.  He died in 2006.  A statue of him, with microphone in hand, was installed near the bandshell.
Bill Riley, 1920-2006
I know that there are many other cool bandshells and bandstands out there, like the one in Ames that has a connection to my great-grandfather’s friend George Landers (Landers directed a massed band at the bandshell’s 1935 dedication).  You can view pictures of other vintage bandstands from around the world, including one from the Iowa State Fair, and one from the St. Olaf College campus, at this website.

Do you have a favorite local bandstand or bandshell?  If so, I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Birth of a Music Man

One hundred and 40 years ago today, a baby boy was born at a homestead outside of Wapello, Iowa.  His parents, Jasper and Rebecca Riggs, named him George Oliver.

The birth occurred on a Saturday, two days after Thanksgiving – a national celebration that President Lincoln initiated in 1863.  Now it was 1870, Lincoln had been in his grave for five years, and former Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had become president.

I can’t say whether that day in 1870 was a raw, windy day, a snowy one or one filled with sunshine.  Perhaps an old Farmers’ Almanac could enlighten me.  Because I have few details to go on, I choose to picture a fictional scene where Rebecca is assisted by a kindly neighbor in a curtained off area of the home, while Jasper entertains 5-year-old daughter Loie with songs and stories.  It’s like something out of Little House on the Prairie, which probably is a reasonable comparison.  Charles “Pa” Ingalls and his family traversed the Midwest around the same time that the Riggs family did; Laura Ingalls was born in Wisconsin three years before G. Oliver’s birth.

Like Pa, Jasper Riggs played the violin and was handy with a rifle.  Unlike Pa, Jasper was a Civil War veteran who’d served in Grant’s Army.  Toward the war’s end, Jasper was shot in the left leg at Jonesboro, N.C.  The ball lodged against the bone below his knee and was never removed.  The constant pain he experienced made it difficult for him to resume farming when he returned home to Mercer County, Illinois.  He and his wife and daughter moved to southwest Missouri for four years and then to Iowa.

Jasper and Rebecca’s good fortune with the birth of their son was followed by heartbreak in 1871  when Loie died.  Although the 6-year-old’s death was mentioned in Rebecca’s obituary, I’ve yet to learn the cause.

The family moved next to Nebraska, where daughter Daisy was born, and where Jasper ran a general store in the town of Dorchester.  A year or two later, the family moved to Kansas, but by 1880 they were back in Dorchester, and Jasper went into the hardware business with his father-in-law.

Like the Ingalls children, G. Oliver and Daisy spent some time in a one-room schoolhouse.  In Dorchester, 10-year-old Oliver, as he was known then, received excellent marks in his October 1881 report: 100 percent in deportment and no tardies.  This nugget of information, gleaned from a school report published in the local paper, would not surprise those who knew him in his later years as a punctual and exacting man with excellent posture.

After the death of Rebecca’s father in 1883, Jasper continued the hardware business for three more years before moving his family back to Kansas.  By this time. G. Oliver played E-flat cornet, violin, piano, and organ, and he decided to start his own band.  He was either 15 or 16 years old; G. Oliver’s own accounts offer differing dates.  In 1886, he enrolled at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and after taking some breaks to earn money for tuition, he graduated in 1892.

Despite the information I’ve accumulated, and the hours I’ve spent pouring over brittle scrapbooks and scouring blurry newspaper accounts on microfilm, I’ve been unable to pinpoint when and why G. Oliver decided to become a musician.  It’s fun to speculate about how it all started, though.  Was it in the womb, influenced by his mother, an accomplished accordionist?  Did he find his calling when, as a toddler, he perched on the knee of his champion fiddler father?

Reflecting upon his career decades later, G. Oliver told a newspaper reporter that he first learned music by ear.

“I don’t remember when I couldn’t play some instrument,” he told the St. Cloud Daily Times when he retired in May 1944.  “I started on the mouth organ, and later played anything else I could get my hands on.”

It’s difficult for me to picture G. Oliver as a baby.  Sadly, we have no pictures of him before the age of 15.  But it isn't difficult to imagine him being able to create music from an early age, as naturally as learning to walk or speak.  He was, after all, a true music man.

Happy Birthday, Great-Grandfather.  May your legacy endure for at least another 140 years.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Encore! Encore!

I have great news for fans of the Vintage Band Festival – the festival is returning to Northfield in August 2013!

Mark your calendars now!  Stay tuned for more details!
Members of the VBF 2010 organizing committee met last week to recap last summer’s four-day event, which attracted impressive crowds (attendees came from as far away as Florida) and boosted the town’s economy.  Enthusiasm was high for organizing another festival; the big question was when to have it.  Because it takes a tremendous amount of planning and volunteer time, the committee determined that it made the most sense to schedule it for Aug. 1-4, 2013.

I’d love to have a book about G. Oliver Riggs completed by then, so I could hawk it to all those vintage music lovers.  Now that I have a deadline to work toward, I’d better get going!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Making Music with a Jumping Flea

Today’s Star Tribune contains an article about the comeback of the ukulele, which apparently means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian.  Now that the instrument has been featured on Glee and in YouTube videos by performing artists like Julia Nunes, it’s achieved a degree of hipness that it couldn’t have dreamed of back in the Tiny Tim days.

It’s fun to see people rediscover an instrument that has so much going for it, including portability (Louisa was just saying this morning, as she lugged her French horn out to the bus, that perhaps she should have chosen the oboe).  The ukulele also is easy to play and has a cheerful sound.

The My Musical Family household has been enjoying ukulele music for several years now, ahead of the trend.  Steve and I bought a ukulele for Elias for his birthday three years ago.  The instrument caught Steve’s eye as we were browsing at Eastman Music in Faribault.  This was around the time that Sebastian was starting on the viola, so it seemed like a good idea for Elias to have something of his own to play.
Elias with his ukulele.
This was also around the time that we fixed the old ukulele that had belonged to Steve’s maternal grandfather, Hubert Stewart.  Since then, we’ve been a two-ukulele family.
Grandpa Stewart’s ukulele.
I think Grandpa Stewart would be pleased.  I won’t attempt to speak for Tiny Tim.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

This Movie is Rated G – for G. Oliver Riggs

Dad and I are still basking in the glow of Wednesday’s emotionally rewarding event.  I gave my presentation, “G. Oliver Riggs, St. Cloud’s Music Man,” to a full house at the Stearns History Museum.

Most people in the crowd appeared to be breakfast club meeting regulars; they come every month to hear talks on a variety of historical topics while munching on doughnuts and other breakfast treats.  We also had a few attend people because of this specific topic, including 88-year-old Francis Schellinger, who played in G. Oliver’s band in the 1930s.

Seeing Francis again made my day.  I met him in June 2008 when we celebrated G. Oliver Riggs Day at the museum, and I interviewed him two months later at his Avon, Minn., home about his experiences in the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ band.  I hadn’t talked to him since then, and I wasn’t sure how his health was.  Turns out, he had a stroke a few months ago, but he still remembered me.

When I told him he looked great, he told me that I hadn’t aged a day and that I looked “vivacious.”  You can see why he’s one of my favorite people.
Me with Francis Schellinger, one of G. Oliver’s former band boys.
Thanks to the efforts of my mom, Anne, we have a video of yesterday’s 50-minute presentation.  I don’t think she expected to be called upon to be my videographer, but she’s a woman of action, a marathon runner and a kayaker, and I knew she’d be up for the challenge.

For those of you who couldn’t attend yesterday but wanted to hear my presentation, pop some popcorn and find a comfortable seat.  You can keep your cell phone turned on, if you’d like.

St. Clouds Music Man, Part 1: How and why the project began


Part 2: G. Oliver’s early years, and his move to St. Cloud



Part 3: The Pride of St. Cloud – the boys in the band



Part 4: G. Oliver’s final years, and concluding thoughts 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Breakfast Club and Waffles

I have limited time to blog this week because I’m preparing for a presentation I’m giving Wednesday morning at the Stearns History Museum in St. Cloud.  My dad, William Riggs, and I will be talking about “G. Oliver Riggs, St. Cloud’s Music Man” at the museum’s monthly breakfast club event from 9 to 10 a.m.


If you’re interested and aren’t able to attend, I’m planning to videotape the presentation and post it on my blog later in the month.

For those of you who’ve been following the story of our new puppy, thanks for your fun name suggestions.  It appears that the kids have decided on a non-musical name: Waffles.  It seems to fit him.  He’s warm, sweet and waffle-colored.
Louisa loves Waffles (and waffles, too).
Waffles (the dog) will not be attending the breakfast club presentation, and I don’t think waffles (the food) will be served, but the museum will provide some refreshments.

If you live in the Northfield area and enjoy eating Belgian waffles, we may see you tonight at the Northfield Youth Choirs’ waffle fundraising dinner at St. John’s Church.  It’s from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.  Louisa and other choir members will be providing musical entertainment.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

“Vicksburg is the Key” – Part 3: My Journey


We all come from the past,

and children ought to know

what it was that went into their making,

to know that life is a braided cord of humanity

stretching up from time long gone,

and that it cannot be defined by the span
of a single journey from diaper to shroud.
 – Russell Baker, Growing Up

It’s hard to believe that I barely knew anything about G. Oliver Riggs four years ago.  My research has unearthed an abundance of surprising discoveries and meaningful stories.  And occasionally, I've stumbled upon some interesting coincidences:

• G. Oliver’s father, Jasper Riggs, lived for many years in the town of Joy, Illinois.
• G. Oliver was born in Louisa County, Iowa, which my Iowa-born husband and I didn’t know when we named our daughter Louisa.
• G. Oliver was a master of PR, and much of his music career is detailed in newspaper accounts.  I grew up to be a journalist with a keen interest in history and music, and much of my career can be traced through my newspaper articles.

And then, there’s my family’s history with Vicksburg.  These coincidences make me wonder about the invisible connections between generations.  How often do we unknowingly follow in the footsteps of our ancestors?

• • • 

It was in Memphis that the impact of what I’d done smacked me in the face – or, more accurately, assailed my Yankee ears.  Dad and I had parked at a fast-food restaurant and walked inside to stretch our legs and order a meal.  The teenager behind the counter spoke, and the unrecognizable words that issued from her mouth could have been Portuguese, they were so different from my Minnesotan, long-o accented speech.

“Yawlredde te ahwda?”

I glanced at my dad, uncertain how to respond.  What in the world had she just said?

For a few uncomfortable seconds, we froze.

“I’m sorry, could please you repeat that?” Dad said politely.

She looked at us as though we were stupid and repeated what to her was a perfectly simple question: “Y’all ready to order?”

Through a clumsy method of pointing and emphasizing key words loudly, we communicated an adequate answer, while a more important question lodged in my mind: “What have I done?” 

I continued to ponder this as we left the restaurant and drove the final five hours of our 25-hour journey from Alexandria, Minn., to Natchez, Miss.  What I had done, what seemed like such a great opportunity and now seemed like a regrettable mistake, was accept a reporting internship at The Natchez Democrat for the summer of 1998, after my sophomore year of college at Drake University.  As soon as I checked in at my place of employment and got settled at my temporary apartment, my dad would fly home and I’d be on my own in this land below the Mason-Dixon line.  Even though I knew the chances were good that I’d survive – Heather, the previous summer’s intern, had returned to Drake with encouraging anecdotes and impressive newspaper clips – my courage faltered.
Me in front of the newspaper office, July 1988.
Things might have been different if I’d known then what I know now:  I wasn’t the first 20-year-old in my family to leave familiar surroundings in the North for a job in Mississippi.  My great-great grandfather, Jasper, arrived in the Magnolia State in 1862 as a member of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee.  If Jasper, too, felt fear and uncertainty, he had far more reason than I.  No one was trying to kill me.  I was just trying to be understood.

Communication problems persisted during my first few weeks at the newspaper.  My very first interview subject was a hard-of-hearing, elderly black woman.  As I began to ask her questions, I knew I was in trouble.  She couldn’t hear me, and I couldn’t understand her, even though we were both technically speaking the same language.  If I hadn’t received translation assistance from the photographer who’d accompanied me, I would have been sunk.

I discovered that summer that words weren’t the only stumbling block.  I had a new culture to absorb, in a place where most residents were as clueless about Minnesota as I’d been about Mississippi.  People generally were friendly and curious about why I’d come to their town, even though I was a Yankee, and they still referred to the Civil War as the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression.

I learned to speak more slowly, and I learned why Southerners move more slowly and take longer lunches – it’s so oppressively humid in the summer, you can’t do anything quickly.  I learned to rethink some of the assumptions I’d made about the South, gained from reading Gone with the Wind and watching episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard.  I did meet some good ole boys, like the Vidalia, La., sheriff who didn’t think females should worry their pretty little heads about gaining access to public records.  I also met many well educated professionals who were dedicated to improving education, health care and other quality of life issues.

For a young, white woman from a mostly white small town in central Minnesota, it was such an eye-opening and rewarding experience that after I graduated from college in June 1990 and completed a fellowship in Indianapolis that summer, I returned to Natchez and worked for about a year as a general assignment reporter.  One of my assignments that year was to cover a seven-day libel trial in Vicksburg involving a white county clerk and a black journalist who worked for Newsweek and was originally from Natchez, Vern E. Smith (in an interesting sidenote, after the jury found that the Newsweek article did not defame the clerk, he appealed.  Elena Kagan, the newest U.S. Supreme Court Justice, was one of Newsweek’s lawyers for the appeal).

These are the experiences I carried with me when I returned to Vicksburg last month with Steve and the kids, this time tracing the paths of Jasper, who’d fought at Vicksburg, and G. Oliver, who visited the city in 1906 as part of a delegation that dedicated the Iowa State Memorial at the military park.

We stopped first outside the old courthouse.  Built by slave labor and completed in 1858, the building now houses a museum.  This is where the Confederate flag flew during the Campaign and Siege of Vicksburg and was visible from almost any point along the Union line.  When Confederate Gen. Pemberton surrendered, the flag was replaced with the Stars and Stripes, and 30,000 liberated men and women came to Vicksburg.  The U.S. Army built schools for the freedmen, and for a time after the war Vicksburg was a model of reconstruction.
In front of the Old Courthouse in Vicksburg, Miss.
It was moving to stand in front of the courthouse, on one of the highest hills in the city, and ponder how far our country has come in 150 years.  The struggles and accomplishments on civil rights issues feel more personal because of my family’s own ties to this Mississippi River city.  My great-great grandfather fought here to preserve the Union.  His son, G. Oliver, visited in 1906 during the tenure of Mississippi Gov. James Vardaman, who advocated white supremacy.  And now, I was visiting with my kids in 2010, two years after our country elected its first African-American president.

Although we’ve taken steps backwards at times, I choose to remain optimistic that my kids and their generation will continue on the path of progress.  I hope they take their own kids on a pilgrimage to Vicksburg someday, and add their stories to the braided cord of our family history.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Productivity Has Gone to the Dogs

I have lot of things I’d like to accomplish this week.  I need to finish the third and final installment of posts in my “Vicksburg is the Key” trilogy.  I need to work on the presentation my Dad and I are giving next Wednesday at the Stearns History Museum in St. Cloud on my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  I need to choose a topic for my next Minnesota Parent column.

Instead of doing any of those things this afternoon, however, I'm sitting on the couch, distracted by the cuteness of our new puppy.
Our as-yet unnamed puppy makes himself at home.
As my blog followers may remember, our longtime family dog Sparky died in July.  We were heartbroken, and although we knew we wanted to get a new dog at some point, Steve and I told the kids we’d need to wait at least until we returned from our October vacation.

I have been checking the listings on local shelters since we got back last week, and when I saw the photo and description of this little guy Tuesday night on the S.A.F.E. Sanctuary site, I arranged for us to meet him yesterday afternoon.  We had only been there a few minutes when he climbed into Louisa's lap and refused to budge.

We think he’s part poodle, part daschund, and 9 months to a year old.  We haven’t named him yet because we’re waiting for input from all five family members (Seb is on an environmental learning field trip until Friday afternoon).

Maybe we'll go with something music-related?