Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Louis W. Hill and the Carnival Cowboys

The 2011 St. Paul Winter Carnival begins tomorrow (Jan. 27), and that makes me think of one of my favorite, unexpected finds about the life of G. Oliver Riggs: his brief stint as a cowboy.

OK, my great-grandfather wasn’t exactly a cowboy, but he was a member of the Montana Cowboy Band, and that’s just as surprising to learn about a man who was a classically trained violin and cornet soloist-turned band director.

In 1917, the cowboy band participated in an event that would never fly today – it paid a surprise visit to the governor and legislature during the St. Paul Winter Carnival and fired shots inside the State Capitol.  The sessions of both the Senate and House were suspended for about an hour as the the band and about 300 other visitors from Montana and Oregon entertained the legislators.
A postcard of the band that I bought on eBay.  G. Oliver is in the back row, second from the right.
I wrote about this in a post last year, soon after I found articles about the event on microfilm at the Minnesota History Center.  If you didn’t read the previous post, Carnival Capers at the Capitol, it’s worth a look.  The St. Paul Daily News article I included provides some wonderful details and makes me wish I could have been there to experience it.

G. Oliver joined the band when he lived in Havre, Montana, and it attracted the attention of Louis W. Hill, the second son of railroad tycoon James J. Hill.  The younger Hill, who was instrumental in creating and developing Glacier National Park, hired the band in 1912 to promote the state of Montana.  He paid for the band to travel to expositions in Minneapolis and Chicago with a group of Blackfeet Indians from Glacier.

G. Oliver had to quit the band when he left Havre in 1914 and moved back to Crookston.  But when Hill invited the band to play at the 1917 Winter Carnival, G. Oliver traveled to St. Paul to join the group for the event.

The Ramsey County Historical Society recently published a book about Hill, called "The Dutiful Son: Louis W. Hill, Life in the Shadow of the Empire Builder James J. Hill."  Written by Biloine (Billie) Whiting Young, the book includes a chapter about how Hill revived the tradition of the carnival, which was established in 1886.  The Pioneer Press ran an excerpt from the book in last Sunday’s paper, called He Built an Empire of His Own.

I don’t know if the book mentions anything about the cowboy band.  I was hoping to buy a copy so I could check, but I see from the website that it’s already sold out.  I’m disappointed that I’ll have to wait for a second printing, but I’m glad to know that there’s so much interest in these fascinating people and stories from our past.

1 comment:

  1. Jeez, Joy, your great-grandad was amazing. He showed up everywhere and jumped right in. His rolodex must have been huge.