Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Forty Years – An Inspiring Milestone

The extended Riggs clan gathered on Sunday for a joyous occasion – a surprise party celebrating the 40th wedding anniversary of my aunt Dana and uncle Bill.

Dana is my dad’s sister.  I was 3 1/2 years old when she got married, and I don’t remember much about her wedding, except that one of the bridesmaids was particularly kind to me, and she wore a groovy dress.
Welcome to 1971!  It’s probably the last time I wore a skirt that short.

I hadn’t realized until Sunday, when I asked my dad some questions about the wedding, that he had walked down the aisle with Dana.  Their father, Ronald, had died three years earlier, before I was old enough to really know him.  My grandmother Eleanor was there, though, looking happy in her pale pink dress (the skirt of which, I might add, was longer than mine, but still above the knee).

She and my grandfather were married for 30 years.  They got married at the Little Brown Church in the Vale in Nashua, Iowa on Dec. 11, 1937.  I don’t have any pictures of that event, so I can’t report on the wedding couture of the day.  But I do have this photo of them from several years later, with my dad and his brother, before Dana made her appearance:
My grandparents with sons Robert, left, and William.  Dana wasn’t born yet.
My great-grandparents on the Riggs side, G. Oliver and Islea, did reach the 40-year milestone in their marriage.  They would have celebrated it in December of 1938, five days before my dad was born.  I don’t know if people made a big deal about anniversaries back then, and I have found no indication that G. Oliver and Islea had any kind of celebration.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t have a surprise party on a golf course, like Bill and Dana did – it was winter, after all, and their older son and his wife were expecting a baby any day.
Bill and Dana with their anniversary cake.
Dana and Bill’s older daughter, Jessica, spoke at the anniversary party about how well her parents complement each other – Dana, the interior designer, and Bill, the engineer.  It’s interesting to think about how this might have applied to my great-grandparents, who were both musicians, but played different roles in the community.  A successful marriage surely involves compromise, teamwork, a willingness to forgive, and an enthusiasm for supporting your partner’s passions and interests.  If G. Oliver and Islea continued to enjoy each other’s company as much as my aunt and uncle do after 40 years of marriage, they were lucky indeed.

We are blessed to have Dana and Bill in our family, and I wish them many, many more happy years of marriage.  Cheers!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Highlights of an Evening in Barden Park

St. Cloud’s Barden Park hosted its last municipal band concert of the summer last night.  I wish I could have attended.  A jazz combo of high school and college students, directed by John Herdan, was scheduled to play at 6:30 p.m., followed by the St. Cloud Municipal Band.

Neighborhood resident and Barden Park Committee Chair Juliana Elchert said in an email promoting the event that the park’s flowers are lovely right now – plus, it was her birthday (Happy belated birthday, Juliana!), and she and her husband were on root beer float duty.  I hope they had a great turnout.
Elias enjoys a root beer float while seated next to his cousin, Sam, last summer.
Juliana invited my dad and me to speak at the park last summer before one of the band concerts.  Her email reminded me of what a great time the Riggs clan had at the event, where I presented some history about G. Oliver Riggs and his St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band, and my dad talked about his connections to the park and his stint playing with the band.  The emotional peak of the night for me was when Dad took out G. Oliver’s cornet and played it.  I don’t know how he was able to maintain his composure – I still get choked up now, thinking about how cool it was to hear him play his grandfather’s cornet in the park that contains so many Riggs family memories.

Thanks to my cousin Kristina and her husband Doug, I have video to share from that evening.  I have included some selected clips here (for more about that evening, you can read my post from last year, A Perfect Evening in “Riggs” Park).

An introduction/setting the scene:


The boys in the band, and G. Oliver’s legacy:


My dad’s municipal band experience, and G. Oliver’s cornet:


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Doc Putnam’s Gold Star Band

When I wrote last month about how my great-grandfather’s Grand Forks band played at the 1909 North Dakota State Fair (see the blog post No Fair!), I knew I was missing something.  I knew that G. Oliver had at least one other connection to the North Dakota State Fair, but I couldn’t recall what it was.

The answer came to me last week, when I was researching my post about Fairmont, and ran across the name of C.S. Putnam.

Clarence Simeon Putnam was a Fargo doctor who gave up his practice in 1903 when his downtown office burned, five days after his insurance had lapsed.  It was a fortuitous fire for fans of band music.  According to the North Dakota State University’s Gold Star Marching Band website, Putnam got a job teaching arithmetic at what was then the North Dakota Agricultural College.  A longtime cornet player, he also took over direction of the college’s 14-member ROTC cadet band in the spring of 1903.

Putnam was born in Vermont in 1859.  His dad had led a Union regimental band during the Civil War and had died during Sherman’s March to the Sea (as explained on this NDSU history department page).  Putnam had pursued an interest in music for years, in addition to his medical practice, so the career change wasn’t quite as extreme as it seems.  You can see a photo of Doc Putnam, circa 1915, by clicking this NDSU Archives link.

During the time Putnam began directing the cadet band, G. Oliver was directing bands 70 miles north of Fargo, in the town of Crookston, and he was doing a lot of solo work, on both the cornet and the violin.  I don’t know how or when he met Putnam, but they clearly had met by the summer of 1908, because that’s when G. Oliver played in Putnam’s band.

G. Oliver Riggs played a cornet solo at this 1908 concert.
G. Oliver was invited to play cornet solos with Putnam’s band during its engagement at the 1908 North Dakota State Fair in Fargo (for a time, the fair was held in Fargo in even-numbered years and in Grand Forks in odd-numbered years).  He also served as the band’s assistant director.

According to a preview article that ran in the Fargo Morning Call/Fargo Daily Argus, the Putnam Band was to give a free, pre-fair concert on July 19, 1908, at the Grand Theatre in Fargo.  The band members would appear in their new uniforms for the first time, and with several new instruments.  Numbers on the program included the Zampa Overture by Ferdinand Herold; the sextet from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti; and a cornet solo by G. Oliver, Facilita by John Hartmann.  The other featured soloist was J.W. Jeffers, a euphonium player from St. Paul. 

A concert preview with a photo of G. Oliver Riggs, on left.
I found a few other newspaper clippings in the family scrapbook about Putnam’s band.  One was an article that ran during the fair.  It previewed the day’s events (that particular day was Old Settler’s Day at the fairgrounds – not a theme you see anymore), which included a band concert at the Old Settler’s headquarters tent.  It explained that the band had given an excellent concert the previous evening, before and after the auto races.

“Overtures, marches, and popular airs were played and the crowds gave evidence of their appreciation by spontaneous and generous applause ... (G. Oliver) pleased thousands of visitors at the fair grounds by playing a beautiful cornet solo, the Air “Facilita” by Hartmann during the band concert.”

Another article from the Fargo Call described a gathering of the band after the state fair had ended.  G. Oliver “took the floor and in a characteristic speech, presented the genial doctor with an order for an elegant gold medal, the design to be selected by the recipient.  On account of the lack of time the members of the band were unable to get just what they wanted and an order was placed with a local jeweler.”

Reading this left me with two questions: what did the writer mean by a characteristic speech; and, did Putnam ever order his medal?

The final clipping I found had a goofy headline and subhead: Will Help Some; Dr. C.S. Putnam Says G. O. Riggs Ought to be Able to Do Things.  The headline contained almost as many words as the entire news item, which appears to have been published in the Grand Forks newspaper after G. Oliver had taken a job directing the band in that city.

“In a letter to Fred Redick of this city, Dr. C.S. Putnam, at the head of Putnam’s band of Fargo, says in part: ‘Am glad you have G. O. Riggs with you as director.  You ought to have a cracker-jack band soon and the more the merrier.  He ought to be able to do good work with you and I heartily wish you success.’”

G. Oliver wasn’t the only one who could do good work with a cracker-jack band; Putnam could have been talking about himself.  Except for a few years’ absence from the band, from 1914-17,  Putnam directed the NDSU band until he died in 1944.  The band website doesn’t say what Putnam did during his break, but it does describe him as a dynamic leader.  It also mentions that Putnam incorporated “Gold Star” into the band’s name in 1923-24, when it received a presidential citation and a Gold Star for earning its third consecutive 100 percent inspection rating as an ROTC unit.

Other interesting things I learned about Putnam are that he arranged the music for the official North Dakota State Song, the North Dakota Hymn, and he wrote the music for the NDAC alma mater, the Yellow and the Green.  The university’s Carnegie Library was renamed Putnam Hall in 1951.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Day Trip to the City of Lakes

My friend Laurel and I spent most of Wednesday in Fairmont, a town in southern Minnesota that’s about 12 miles from the Iowa border.  Laurel is a Fairmont native, and she graciously volunteered to be my personal tour guide as I conducted research for a travel article I’m writing for the Star Tribune.

I knew that music and culture were important to the town’s growth a century ago, so I kept my eyes and ears open to possible connections between Fairmont and my musical great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.

Guess what?  G. Oliver didn’t let me down.  He continues to be the Kevin Bacon of his generation.  More on that six degrees of separation game* in a minute.

I don’t know if G. Oliver ever spent time in Fairmont, but it seems like a place he might have visited.  Located on a chain of five lakes, Fairmont was a happening spot at the turn of the last century.  Its opera house was built in 1901, around the time G. Oliver’s bands were playing at the Grand Opera House in Crookston.  In the teens and early ’20s, the dance pavilion at Fairmont’s popular lakeside resort, Interlaken Park, hosted performing groups including the Interlaken Orchestra, the Fairmont City Band, the Menke Melody Orchestra, and Harold Bachman’s Chicago-based Million Dollar Band, which attracted 10,000 visitors.

*For those of you playing the Six Degrees of G. Oliver Game, it seems likely that G. Oliver and Harold Bachman were acquainted, or at least knew of each other.  In 1909, Bachman became the protege of C.S. Putnam, band director at what is now North Dakota State University.  A year earlier, G. Oliver was the cornet soloist and assistant director of Putnam’s band when it played at the North Dakota State Fair in Fargo.  Also, Bachman studied music in 1915 under Hale VanderCook in Chicago, and in 1916 he played with the Chicago-based Bohumir Kryl Band.  G. Oliver, VanderCook and Kryl were all well-known cornet students of Alfred F. Weldon.
Putnam’s Band in 1908.  G. Oliver is in the second row, to the right of the drum.
 But I digress.  Back to Fairmont.
A view of the stage in the Fairmont Opera House.
Laurel and I weren’t able to visit the Interlaken Park dance pavilion because it burned down in 1972.  But we did tour the opera house, which had just concluded a successful run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, put on by Fairmont’s Civic Summer Theatre.

As Tom Arneson explains in his book, And the Curtain Rises: the Story of the Fairmont Opera House, small towns used the term “opera house” to describe these public venues, even though opera was rarely performed in them.

“... The use of ‘opera’ in the name was politically expedient, for at this time musicals and plays were believed by many to be morally corruptive (and actors and stage musicians to be of doubtful virtue), but opera was revered as product of high civilization.  So an Opera House could be respectable and acceptable while a Variety Hall was not, even though what transpired in the buildings was exactly the same.”

The opera house began showing movies in 1912.  It was remodeled and renamed the Nicholas Theater in 1927 – the city band played for the opening – and it operated as a movie theater until 1980.  Fortunately, at the time it closed, efforts already were underway to purchase and renovate the building for continued community use (those efforts were led by Arneson’s parents, Robert and Mary, who died in a car crash in 1984).  Today, the Fairmont Opera House operates year-round as a venue for live theater and music performances.
Organs that once were used at the Fairmont Opera House and now are on display upstairs.
Another music-related stop on our tour was the Sylvania Park Bandshell.  I knew from my pre-trip research that the bandshell was built in 1926 and is still used for weekly summer band concerts.
The Sylvania Park Bandshell, on the eastern shore of Lake Sisseton.

The bandshell was designed by George Pass and Sons of Mankato, and the first concert was performed there on June 10, 1926.  I haven’t researched the history of bands in Fairmont, so I don’t know for sure who directed the band that year, but it may have been the same man who directed the Fairmont band in 1929.  His name was Guy C. Donnelly, and he was an acquaintance of G. Oliver’s.

How do I know this?  Well, it occurred to me while I was in Fairmont that I remembered seeing a Fairmont man’s name listed somewhere in my Minnesota Bandmasters Association files.  So when I got home, I dug out the group’s letterhead from 1929, the year G. Oliver served as president.  It lists Guy C. Donnelly from Fairmont as the group’s first vice president. 

I did some further research, and thanks to a link from Laurel, I learned that Donnelly began directing Fairmont’s band as early as 1919, according to the New Bands item in the Sept. 27, 1919 issue of the Music Trades:

(G. Oliver and St. Cloud band trivia buffs might notice another familiar name in this news item: Theodore Steinmetz, listed as director of a boys’ band in Eau Claire, Wis.  Steinmetz would later direct the boys’ band in St. Cloud, in 1927, when G. Oliver was working for C.G. Conn.)

I don’t know how long Donnelly remained in Fairmont as director, or whether he continued to be involved with the Minnesota Bandmasters Association, as G. Oliver was, until it merged with the Minnesota Music Educators Association.  That’s a research topic for another day.

The only other mention of Donnelly I found online was in a publication about the history of the Drake University Bands, written by alumus Thompson Brandt.  According to Brandt’s book, The Curtain Rises on the Drake Band, Donnelly had been the high school band director for Gordon Bird, one of Drake’s most academically accomplished band directors.  Bird was born in Fairmont, and Donnelly encouraged him to pursue a career in music.

This news interested me because I played in the Drake University concert, marching and pep bands for two years in the late 1980s.  I didn’t play for Bird, though; he was way before my time.

Bird enrolled at Drake in 1932 and graduated in 1936.  He served as assistant band director for one year and then took over as director, serving in that role until 1954.

I don’t know if Bird and G. Oliver ever met.  Bird at one time served as president of the Central Iowa Bandmasters Association, so he certainly would have known Maj. George Landers, G. Oliver’s longtime friend who was a founding member of the Iowa Bandmasters Association.  G. Oliver was a featured speaker at the 1941 Iowa Bandmasters convention, so it’s quite possible that his and Bird’s paths crossed.

Brandt mentions in his book that Bird “was inspired in music by his grandfather, who was influential in beginning Fairmont’s city band in the late nineteenth century.  An uncle bought Gordon his first cornet and later financed his Drake education.”  Brandt does not mention the names of these relatives of Bird’s.  Perhaps G. Oliver knew them, too?  I wouldn’t bet against it.