Saturday, November 26, 2011

Happy Birthday, G. Oliver!

I can’t let the day go by without acknowledging its significance.  If by some miracle of science my great-grandfather were still living today, it would be his 141st birthday.

G. Oliver Riggs, born Nov. 26, 1870
The above photo was taken in Crookston; I’m not sure of the year.  It seemed like a good photo for this blustery November day.

I also like this photo below.  It’s blurry, but you can tell that he’s smiling, which is not a typical expression for G. Oliver in his photos.  He must really have liked that car.

G. Oliver was born in 1870 near Wapello in Louisa County, Iowa.  Here are some notable people who also were born on Nov. 26, according to
• Eugene Ionesco, playwright, born 1909
• Eric Sevareid, born in 1912 in Velva N.D., newscaster, CBS Weekend News
• Charles M Schulz, born in 1922 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, cartoonist
• Robert Goulet, born in 1933 in Massachusetts, singer, actor, television, film, Tony-Award winner
• Tina Turner, born in 1938 in Brownsville, Texas, singer
• Rich Little, born in 1938 in Ottawa, Canada, impressionist/actor

Can you imagine what a birthday party it would be, to have all of them celebrating together?!  

Happy 141st Birthday, G. Oliver!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rebecca and Her Civil War Sweetheart

My daughter, Louisa, is nearly done performing in Little Women, the Musical (the last shows are tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow at 2), and her character’s part in the show has me thinking about my great-great grandmother, Rebecca Susan McManus Riggs.
Louisa, as Meg, with second cousins Piper and Kali.
Louisa plays Meg, the oldest March sister, who falls in love with a tutor named John Brooke.  In the musical – which is slightly different from the book – there’s a scene where John appears wearing a Union solider uniform, announces that he has enlisted, and proposes to Meg before leaving to serve in the Civil War.  It’s one of my favorite scenes in the show – Louisa and Mickey Morstad, who plays John, are so sweet together, and their song, “More Than I Am,” is lovely.


My great-great grandmother Rebecca lived a real-life variation of this scene.  The daughter of Robert McManus and Louisa Todd McManus (yes, Rebecca’s mother’s name was Louisa – I didn’t learn this until after Steve and I named our daughter Louisa), Rebecca was born Feb. 21, 1846, near New Boston, Illinois.  Her future husband, Jasper Riggs, grew up in nearby Joy, Illinois.  I don’t know how or when they met, or when they started courting.  I do know that Jasper enlisted with the 45th Illinois Infantry in 1861, near the start of the war, and fought at Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Vicksburg, among other places; and that while on leave in 1864, he returned to Illinois and married Rebecca.  They were married April 25 in Aledo by a justice of the peace.  He was 20 and she was 18.

Rebecca’s obituary, written in a poetic style that you just don’t see anymore, explained it this way:

“From a national standpoint, those were stormy days thru which our nation was passing from the birth to early womanhood of this girl. And when she was 17 years of age the Southern states made good their threat to secede from the Union if Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the U.S., organized the confederacy and fired upon the flag.  Pres. Lincoln called for volunteers and among the young men who enlisted was a man by the name of Jasper Riggs, who united in marriage to Rebeccah Susan McManus while home on a furlough in 1864. After the wedding he went back to his regiment and fought with it until the close of the war.”

I would love to know more about what Rebecca did during the war, and how she handled the worry and uncertainty.  Besides Jasper, and her brother Levi, she must have known dozens of other young men who were serving with Illinois regiments.  Many did not return, including her brother-in-law George Sloan, who died of measles in 1863 in a Memphis hospital.

Jasper did return, though, and the newlyweds moved across the Mississippi River to Louisa County, Iowa, where they started a family.  Daughter Loie was born in 1867, and son G. Oliver followed in 1870.  Tragedy struck in 1871 when Loie died (of what cause, I have not yet determined).  Another daughter, Daisy, was born in 1876 when the family lived in Nebraska.  Rebecca and Jasper returned to the Joy area in 1890, where Jasper ran a hardware store.  An accomplished accordionist in her younger years, Rebecca encouraged her children’s interest in music, and she supported son G. Oliver’s pursuit of a musical career.

Jasper’s health had never been great after the war (he injured his wrist at Vicksburg and was shot in the knee near Goldsboro, N.C. in 1865).  He died in 1911 when the couple was living in Missouri.  Rebecca returned to Joy, where she lived as a well-respected member of that small community for many more years. 

Rebecca McManus Riggs, 1846-1930
Rebecca died on Feb. 20, 1930 – the day before her 84th birthday – at her home in Joy.  She’s buried in the New Boston cemetery next to her daughter Loie.

When she died, the United States was in the early years of the Great Depression, and it was a time of severe worldwide economic downturn – if that sounds familiar, it’s worth considering the reflection that concludes her obituary:

“We are constantly reminded of the difficult problems our generation must solve – we somehow feel all these and more to be true.  Yet we are not pessimists.  But we likewise feel that only as we are able to bring over into our own age that same spirit of devotion to duty, of self-denial, loyalty to ideals even when it costs a conviction that we have specific duties to perform, and a willingness to see them thru, as was so characteristic of that generation of which the deceased was a part, will we be able to render a good account of our stewardship for the years of our active life.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bringing Down the (Barn)house

Before any notes were played at Monday evening’s 31st annual district band concert in Northfield, I knew I’d have to blog about the event.  A concert devoted to music of the Civil War, including a song by Iowa composer and music publisher C.L. Barnhouse?  An impressive 618 participating student musicians in grades 5-12, including two of my children and two nieces?  A guest musicologist offering historical background and showing slides of Civil War soldiers and scenes?  It was as though the band directors had tailored the concert specifically to appeal to me.

The Northfield News today posted a video of the concert, with snippets of songs from each band.  I also took video at the concert and have included two video clips from the evening.

The first one is of Sebastian’s eighth grade band, directed by Ethan Freier, playing “The Great Locomotive Chase” by Robert W. Smith.  At the beginning of the clip, the guest musicologist, Randall Ferguson (in the red uniform) explains the historic event upon which the song is based.

(A Northfield resident who has taught music in the Farmington schools for 36 years, Ferguson also teaches classes on ethnomusicology and the music history of the United States through the department of continuing studies in Hamline University’s graduate school.  I met him when we both worked on the planning of the 2010 Vintage Band Festival.) 

Seb has a trumpet solo about two minutes into the piece.


This second clip is of the high school’s concert band (comprised of sophomores, juniors and seniors) playing a Barnhouse march, “The Battle of Shiloh.”  It sounds much happier that you’d expect, considering the subject.  Directed by Mary Williams, the band has an awesome French horn section – six players in all, including Louisa.


The concert concluded with the combined band of 618 musicians playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to a standing-room-only crowd of parents, family members and band enthusiasts.  It was a feat that my great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs would have appreciated – he was known for directing large bands, especially during his years in St. Cloud.

As the son of a Civil War veteran who fought at Shiloh, G. Oliver also would have appreciated the musical selections of the evening.  He had been known to include Barnhouse compositions in his own band concerts, and I’m certain the men knew each other, at least by reputation, although I haven’t done much research about their acquaintance.

Five years apart in age, Barnhouse and G. Oliver had several things in common: both played cornet, both directed town bands at age 16, both directed bands in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, both were in bands that performed at the Iowa State Fair, and both were friends of George Landers, father of the Iowa Band Law.

Charles Lloyd Barnhouse was born in 1865 in West Virginia and dropped out of school at age 14 to work as a laborer.  According to the C.L. Barnhouse Company website, Barnhouse played in and directed the town band in Grafton, West Virginia, before he joined various traveling show bands, gaining experience as a cornet soloist and director.  He began composing during this time, and he moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where he directed a band and started his own music publishing company in 1886 with catalog No. 1, “The Battle of Shiloh” March.

In 1890, Barnhouse became director of the Burlington (Iowa) Boat Club Band, and in 1892 he settled in Oskaloosa, where he directed the Knights of Pythias Band.  That same year, G. Oliver moved to Mount Pleasant to teach at the Conservatory of Music at Iowa Wesleyan University and direct the IWU Cadet Band.
C.L. Barnhouse, 1865-1929
Barnhouse directed the Oskaloosa Band (aka the Iowa Brigade Band) for many years; he died November 18, 1929, at age 64.  His company, C.L. Barnhouse, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year as one of the world’s oldest band-focused music publishing companies.

I imagine Barnhouse would be pleased to know that his first published song is still eliciting audience applause nearly 82 years after his death.  I hope to find out more about him and his connections to G. Oliver when my dad and I travel to Mount Pleasant in March to give a presentation on G. Oliver at Iowa Wesleyan.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Sneak Peek at Little Women, the Musical

I’m getting ready to host a cast party tonight for the opening of Little Women, the Musical, so I can’t spend much time blogging this morning.  But I thought I’d at least post a video I took at last night’s dress rehearsal.


It’s such fun to see a staging of one of my favorite books from childhood, starring my daughter, Louisa, as Meg.  I cried a few times during last night’s performance, and Sebastian and Elias admitted to being moved by the story as well (spoiler alert: someone dies).  As a young girl who read Louisa May Alcott’s book over and over, I strongly identified with the character of Jo, the sister who has grand dreams to be a famous writer, and I found myself inspired all over again last night watching St. Olaf College student Rachel Saliares bring that character to life.

“Here I go, and there’s no turning back.  My great adventure has begun.  I may be small, but I’ve got giant plans to shine as brightly as the sun.  I will blaze until I find my time and place.  I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace.  I will not disappear without a trace.  I'll shout and start a riot, be anything but quiet.  Christopher Columbus, I’ll be astonishing.”

I will surrender my Minnesota modesty now to say: the Northfield Arts Guild’s production of Little Women, directed by Mishia Edwards, is a wonderful show – go see it!  It runs for three weekends, starting tonight.  To buy tickets online, visit the Northfield Arts Guild website.