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.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Last Days of G. Oliver Riggs

Sixty-five years ago, my great-grandfather lived in a rented room at the New Hotel Markham in Bemidji.  Two days a week, he boarded a bus and traveled 25 miles north to the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

G. Oliver Riggs had tried retirement, but at age 75, after a year of rest at his cottage on Grace Lake near Bemidji, he went back to work.  It might have been for the money, or the personal satisfaction, or both.  There was no pension fund for pioneering Minnesota music men, but he also wasn’t one to relax for too long.

My grandfather Ronald had encouraged G. Oliver to take the job organizing and directing the first band at Red Lake High School.  G. Oliver’s immediate concern was finding enough instruments for all the Ojibwe and white students who wanted to play – as of late January, there were only 26 instruments for 50 band members. Finding the money for instruments had always presented a challenge for him, since his early days as a director, and it remains a stumbling block today for aspiring student musicians (see my post from September).

G. Oliver seemed confident, however, that he could convince the school board at its Feb. 6 meeting to come up with the money for more instruments.
A letter written by G. Oliver Riggs to his son Ronald in January 1946.
He wrote several letters to my grandfather in the waning days of January, providing updates on how the band was coming along, and discussing the business of trying to sell the Grace Lake property, which had been his retreat for years.
A letter G. Oliver wrote to son Ronald on school stationery, dated Jan. 23, 1946.
The sequence of the letters is confusing, partly because one is incorrectly dated Jan. 28; by that date, he was no longer living.  In that letter, he tells Ronald, “It has never been hard for me to organize a band.  I am not smart enough to play the game any way but straight.  Children seem to know people better than some older people do.”

In an undated letter that appears to be his last to my grandfather, he mentions that he’d felt the best he’d felt in a long time the previous Friday, after returning from the school.  He had felt less well the day before writing the letter, he said, but he believed the band work was doing him some good (he suffered from heart trouble).

G. Oliver returned to the school on Thursday, Jan. 24, 1946, and stayed overnight.  Sometime during the night he became ill.  He was rushed to the hospital in Bemidji, but died on the way there of a heart attack at about 10 a.m. on Jan. 25, 1946.  He was 75 years, 1 month, and 29 days old.
G. Oliver Riggs, 1870-1946
G. Oliver was survived by his two sons, Ronald and Percy, and their families.  G. Oliver’s wife Islea had died in 1942, and his younger sister, Daisy Riggs Reed, had died in 1943.

He was not a religious man, and his funeral was held the Monday after his death at McKee Funeral Home in Bemidji.  Professor Carl Thompson of the Bemidji State Teachers College provided the vocal music.  According to estate papers, the funeral expenses totaled $450.  G. Oliver was buried in the family plot in Crookston.

After G. Oliver died, the Red Lake Superintendent of Schools, Gordon Ose, wrote a letter to my grandfather, saying that the death was a shock, and that G. Oliver would be sadly missed.

“It was so destined that I happened to spend the last four hours of your father’s life with him, and I want you to know that he was his old lovable self right up to the time he was stricken.  He was truly a band master to the very last, and you and Percy have every reason to be proud of him,” Ose wrote.

In a follow-up letter, Ose reported that everyone was enthusastic about my grandfather’s plan for the memorial fund the faculty established in G. Oliver’s name.  I don’t have any documentation from my grandfather about what that plan was – perhaps it was for a scholarship, or was used to buy instruments?

Ronald also received a letter from George Landers, the famous Iowa bandmaster and lifelong friend of G. Oliver’s, who wrote, “Your father was an outstanding man.  He had done much to assist youngsters in making this old world a better place to live in with music.”

In March 1946, the Schmitt Music News paid tribute to G. Oliver, who had served as president of the Minnesota Bandmasters Association in 1929 and had judged many band contests throughout his career:

“The entire school band field is indebted to Mr. Riggs, for he was a pioneer in boys bands and his organizations were models after which many school bands were patterned … His bands were noted for size, unusual discipline, and perfection of performance.  His part in building the foundations of school instrumental music will always be a fitting memorial to a gentleman, musician, and educator.”

I’m proud of my great-grandfather and his legacy.  But it’s more than pride that compels me to tell the story of his life.  I think it’s important to understand the history of music education in Minnesota during this difficult economic time when schools are stretched for funds.  G. Oliver kept his bands going through wars and the Great Depression, and the communities where he worked were better for it.  As the parent of three young musicians, I feel it’s more important than ever to let those in charge of budgets know that the arts are a vital part of the public school experience.

As G. Oliver’s friend Landers believed (so strongly that he put the phrase on his letterhead), “Music is the heritage of every child.”

It’s up to all of us to honor the work done by G. Oliver Riggs, George Landers, and other music education pioneers, and make this world a better place to live in by ensuring that music education is valued for all children, regardless of race, sex, religion or income.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Failure in Tacoma

One hundred years ago, in January 1911, my great-grandfather was trying to get back on track after one of the few failures in his professional career.

The previous year, 1910, had begun with great promise.  G. Oliver Riggs was directing the city band in Grand Forks, N.D., and receiving accolades.  National music magazines The Metronome, American Musician and Art Journal and The Dominant had published stories about him in the summer of 1909, noting his work in Crookston and his move to the bigger city of Grand Forks.  The June 1909 issue of The Metronome called him “one of the leading cornet soloists in the West” and “one of the most successful directors of amateur bands in the United States.”


Perhaps encouraged by this success, and lured by the potential for greater opportunities, he quit the Grand Forks job in March 1910 to go to Tacoma, Wash., and form a professional band of about 40 members.  I’m not sure why he chose that city; he did have an uncle in the area, and he may have had friends or acquaintances who’d moved out there.

In a letter he wrote to the Tacoma News, published Feb. 22, 1910,  he said that Tacoma businessmen and musicians desired a high quality band, and that he had the qualifications to direct and manage such an organization.

“Everyone enjoys a fine band, but a poor band is an absolute nuisance,” G. Oliver wrote.  “A good band is the best kind of an advertisement for a city.  A poor band is also an advertisement, and I should imagine several poor bands in any one city all at the same time would advertise the city so properly along the wrong line that it would require considerable money spent during a year to offset one bad feature.

“You should not be satisfied with anything but the best.  Place your standard very high and demand splendid results.”

The city at the time already had a number of bands – as many as 11, according to one source.  But G. Oliver gained the backing of the Chamber of Commerce and the Commercial Club, and by April 1 had begun assembling a new band.  After four rehearsals, a band of 35 musicians from the city performed a concert at Wright Park.  The Sunday afternoon concert drew an estimated 6,000-7,000 people (Tacoma’s population in 1910 was about 84,000).

The initial response was encouraging.  As he’d done in other cities, G. Oliver proposed that businessmen put up the money for his salary – in this case, $4,000 for one year – and he would direct the band in a program of regular concerts, as well as at special events, bringing positive attention to the city.  Despite the support from the Chamber and the Commercial Club, the proposal appears to have stirred resentment and jealousy among some of the other band directors.  Some businessmen in the growing city were also balking, due to other ventures they already were being asked to support financially, like the building of a Y.M.C.A.

Faced with opposition, G. Oliver, it appears, changed tactics, and proposed forming the band under the Tacoma National Guard.  According to one news account, the Tacoma National Guard association adopted a resolution to form a Coast Artillery Band of 28 pieces, to be mustered in and equipped before May 30, 1910. 

This effort must not have worked out to his satisfaction, either, because by early June, G. Oliver announced that he was leaving Tacoma.  The June 7, 1910, article in the Tacoma Tribune states that G. Oliver was leaving because Tacoma’s cool summer evenings were unsuitable for outdoor band concerts.

“Band concerts are always most successful where the evenings are warm and people are driven out by the oppressive heat indoors to visit the parks.  In Tacoma such oppressive heat is unknown, and while the bandmaster enjoys this climate, it militates, he believes, against the success of his proposed Coast Artillery Band,” the article states.

I don’t believe the weather had much, if anything, to do with it.  It was clearly the politics.  That’s why I find this whole episode fascinating.  G. Oliver accomplished so much during his extensive career, it’s nice to know that he had some setbacks, too.  Most of us know what it feels like to not get the promotion you’d sought, or to find yourself treading water in a job, wondering whether your talents would be put to better use and would be greater appreciated elsewhere.  It’s never easy to go through those experiences.  When you look back on them, though, you realize they helped you grow personally and professionally.

I am speculating, of course, but I imagine G. Oliver gained important knowledge through this particular failure that in some way led to his later successes.

It wasn’t too long before he found his way.  After he left Tacoma, G. Oliver got a job teaching violin and cornet at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, where he had taught before taking the job in Crookston.  He toured with the college glee club that spring as a cornet soloist and organized a boys’ band of 35 members in Mt. Pleasant.  When the academic year concluded, G. Oliver took a job in Havre, Montana, and by the end of May he was conducting the first concert of the Havre city band.

I have no information about how suitable the Montana weather was for outdoor concerts, but judging by the fact that G. Oliver stayed in Havre until 1914, I think it’s fair to say that the city offered a better political climate than Tacoma.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Do You File Monster Snakes Under M or S?

I’ve been working on a blog post for two days now, and it’s still not reader-ready.  The main problem is that I can’t locate a couple of items I want to scan that I know are in my office somewhere, in my piles of G. Oliver Riggs articles and memorabilia.  Because my office is cold, especially by the window, I don’t feel like spending much time in there.  Also, I’ve been feeling a bit distracted by all the items on my to-do list for this week.

It’s already the fifth day of the new year, though, so I feel compelled to put something on virtual paper.  Thanks to my dad, I have just the thing.  I received a package from him yesterday containing an item I think is worthy of its own, short blog post (this item, I should add, comes from his own piles of G. Oliver Riggs articles and memorabilia.  Music isn’t the only genetic trait running through this family).
The Mercer County Fair in Aledo, Ill., 1908, with the Rajah Monster Snake exhibit in the background.
This is a postcard I hadn’t seen before, of the 1908 Mercer County Fair in Aledo, Ill.  G. Oliver addressed it to his sons, Ronald and Percy.  On the back, he wrote: Dear Boys, Do you remember the co. fair?  See if you know anyone in this picture.

The postcard doesn’t have a stamp on it, so it doesn’t appear that it was mailed.  I looked more closely at the people in the photo and didn’t see anyone I recognized from family photographs – I wasn’t sure if he was implying that the boys were in the photo somewhere (a precursor to Where’s Waldo), or if he was just thinking they might know someone because they often visited relatives in Aledo, Illinois, where their mom Islea grew up.

This photo amuses me for several reasons.  I love the snake exhibit, of course.  I’d like to know more about what that was like.  I like the juxtaposition of the ice cream cone stand and the one selling cigars and tobacco.  And I’d like to know the story of the guy in the lower right corner of the photograph.

It’s fun to gaze at the postcard for a few minutes and think about warm county fairs on this chilly January day.

OK, back to filing.