Saturday, March 31, 2012

Origins of a Music Man Tour: Days 4 and 5

I know you’ve all been patiently waiting to find out – how did the Origins of a Music Man Tour end?  Did G. Oliver ever give his credentials to the barbershop quartet that was stalking him?  Did the women of the town join Marian the librarian’s Balzac book club?  Did Wells Fargo jack up its fees for its wagon service?

Ah, I’m just joking with you.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that Meredith Willson’s The Music Man is not based on the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  But, if you keep reading, you will learn how I connect the two men at the end of the tour.

Let’s pick up where I left off: Day 4 of the tour was Tuesday, the day I gave my presentation at Iowa Wesleyan College.  The previous night, my parents and I had stayed in the home where Warren Beckwith grew up – the same Warren Beckwith who played in G. Oliver’s Iowa Wesleyan Cadet Band and later eloped with Abraham Lincoln’s younger granddaughter, Jessie.

The house where Warren Beckwith grew up, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
We arrived on campus Tuesday morning with plenty of time to get ready for the noon presentation.  The talk lasted an hour and drew a crowd of about 30 people, including members of the college music faculty.  It seemed to go quite well – people had some good questions, and there were no technical glitches with my Keynote/iMovie presentation, to my great relief.

G. Oliver and I pose before the presentation.
After the talk, Lynn Ellsworth took us to lunch – she’s the IWC archivist and executive director of the Friends of the Harlan-Lincoln House – and we toured The Theatre Museum of Repertoire Americana, which is also located in Mount Pleasant.  The museum has a fascinating collection of memorabilia and artifacts from theater companies that performed in opera houses during the same time period that G. Oliver’s bands performed.  The collection includes 40 original, hand-painted opera house curtains and more than 4,000 scripts.

This is a display of the museum’s music-related artifacts.
We returned to campus for a tour of the Harlan-Lincoln House, and Lynn showed us the alcove where she thought G. Oliver’s orchestra played during parties for the Lincoln granddaughters, Mary and Jessie, in 1895 (I first blogged about these parties in the post, Party Like It’s 1895).

G. Oliver revisits the Harlan-Lincoln House.
My parents, G. Oliver and Lynn on the front porch of the Harlan-Lincoln House.
We also toured the chapel where G. Oliver performed during his time at Iowa Wesleyan.  It was renovated a few years ago and is a beautiful space with excellent acoustics.

The exterior of the chapel at Iowa Wesleyan College.
We left Mount Pleasant late in the afternoon and drove to Iowa City.  The next day, Day 5 of the tour, we spent the morning at the State Historical Society library going through the files of George Landers, G. Oliver’s mentor and longtime friend.  We found a few items of interest, including a program from a talk G. Oliver gave in 1927 at the C.G. Conn convention in Elkhart, Indiana.  His topic? How to Create More Bands.

After a picnic lunch at Coralville Lake and a visit with friends in Cedar Rapids, we stopped briefly in Cedar Falls to take a photo of the bandshell there.  G. Oliver did not direct a band in that town, but I thought he’d enjoy the visit, since the town is home of the oldest municipal band in Iowa.  The Cedar Falls Municipal Band gives free weekly outdoor concerts at the bandshell in June and July.

The Cedar Falls Bandshell was built in 1996.
We made a slightly longer stop at Music Man Square in Mason City to take a picture of G. Oliver in front of the Meredith Willson boyhood home and statue.


Willson was 30 years younger than G. Oliver; he grew up in Mason City and began playing the flute at age 10 in the Mason City Municipal Band.  He later played flute in John Philip Sousa’s Band and for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra before moving on to radio work and fame in Hollywood.  His show The Music Man opened on Broadway in 1957, 11 years after G. Oliver died.  I’m not sure that Willson and G. Oliver ever met, but they did know some of the same musicians and no doubt had some things in common.


I had a great time on my five-day tour of Iowa.  As the song from The Music Man says (altered slightly to reflect my itinerary):

“You really ought to give Iowa 
Hawkeye Iowa
Des Moines, Albia, Centerville, Mount Pleasant, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Mason City 
Ought to give Iowa a try!”

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Origins of a Music Man Tour: Day 3

I didn’t have access to WiFi last night, and I was busy getting ready for today’s presentation, so here is a recap of yesterday’s activity.

First, I checked out of the 1900 Inn after a great night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast.
The 1900 Inn is located a few blocks from Drake University in Des Moines.
G. Oliver and I visit the Inn’s library.
Then I met up with Mom and Dad, and we drove to Albia, Iowa, where G. Oliver directed the Albia Concert Band and Prof. Riggs’ Parlor Orchestra in 1890-91.  Band is still strong in Albia, and the town has a great bandstand (built in 1995) that is reminiscent of an earlier structure.


Next we visited Centerville, where G. Oliver’s friend George Landers directed a regimental band from 1884 to 1909, when the band moved to Clarinda.  Landers was a mentor and lifelong friend of G. Oliver’s, and G. Oliver occasionally appeared with the band as a cornet soloist.
Centerville has a bandstand, too.
Centerville is the hometown of Francis Marion Drake, the man who founded Drake University.  Steve and I both graduated from Drake, and we met while working in the college library, so it seemed appropriate to stop in at the public library Mr. Drake founded in Centerville.  Plus, it has an amazing stained glass dome.

I have more to say about today’s events, which included my presentation at Iowa Wesleyan college, but it will have to wait until tomorrow.  I’m exhausted!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Origins of a Music Man Tour: Day 2

Today was another beautiful day in Des Moines.  Some highlights:

• Stopped by the Pappajohn Sculpture Park to see it in the daylight


• Enjoyed a yogurt parfait and coffee at the Gateway Market Cafe

• Showed G. Oliver around the Drake University campus

• Enjoyed a latte, a cookie and the free wi-fi at the Smokey Row Coffee House

• Had a wonderful dinner with friends

Now I am hanging out at The 1900 Inn, which seemed like an appropriate place for G. Oliver to stay.  I just finished watching an episode of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS show, Finding Your Roots, and now I need to get back to work finishing the speech I will give on Tuesday.

G. Oliver enjoys some rest after a day of activity.
We’re off to Mount Pleasant tomorrow!

Origins of a Music Man Tour: Day 1

I have embarked upon my Origins of a Music Man tour!  G. Oliver and I left Northfield Saturday morning and arrived in Des Moines by early afternoon.  The drive tired him out, so he stayed in the car while I did some touring for a travel story I’m writing about Des Moines.

Downtown Des Moines has changed quite a bit since the early 1990s, when I worked at the Des Moines Register.  It was great fun to explore the shops in the Historic East Village and soak up the sun.  And it was even more fun to visit with friends later in the evening, after dinner at Alba (I highly recommend the scallops in Romesco sauce and the molten lava cake) and a walk through the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which opened in 2009.

I will meet up with my parents in Des Moines on Monday morning, and we plan to stop in Albia and Centerville (both have G. Oliver ties) on our way to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, for the presentation my dad and I are giving at Iowa Wesleyan College on Tuesday. 


Stay tuned for more stories from the road!



Monday, March 19, 2012

Band Boys and Genealogy Karma

Regular My Musical Family readers might remember that one of the exciting finds of my trip to Crookston two years ago was a 1916 photo of the Crookston Juvenile Band, directed by my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  The photo was hanging in the Polk County Historical Museum, and on the back was a numbered list of most of the 69 people pictured, including my grandfather, Ronald (No. 26) and my great uncle, Percy (No. 44).
The Crookston Juvenile Band, 1916
I mentioned the photo in a June 2010 blog post, Summer Concert Season Kick-Off, and included all the names listed, in hopes that it would be helpful to other people researching their family history – it seemed like good genealogy karma.   

I’m so glad I did.  A few days ago, I heard from a woman whose grandfather and great uncle are pictured in the photo.  Marni Fylling’s grandfather, Ole Fylling, is No. 68; he’s on the far right of the original photo (and is not visible in the above cropped version).  Her great uncle, Pete Fylling, is No. 45.

Here’s a close-up version that shows the Fylling brothers more clearly:

Pete Fylling is No. 45, on the far left; Ole Fylling is No. 68, on the far right.
Marni said she came across my blog post while Googling her family name.  “The Internet is a strange and amazing place,” she wrote.

Strange and amazing, indeed.

I learned from Marni that both her grandfather, Ole, and her great uncle, Pete, pursued an interest in music after their days in the Crookston Juvenile Band.  Ole went to St. Olaf College (just up the hill from my house).  He was a student director during his time there and received a beautiful baton that the family still has.  Pete played and sang for years in the Anton Weeks big band, which was based in San Francisco and was popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

I also learned that a love of music has continued through the generations.  Marni’s father, Bob, was born in Crookston and was a composer and life-long musician.  He played trumpet in the Navy band, and he played trumpet and upright bass in some of his own bands, but mostly he played piano.
“He really considered himself a composer, but played piano for a living – jazz as a young man, then popular music in the 70s and 80s (just because that’s what people wanted),” Marni wrote, noting that her dad continued to play jazz until he died three years ago.
Marni and her sister (who, like her grandfather, attended St. Olaf) both play the piano and enjoy listening to a variety of music, but the performer gene went to their brother, who can play any instrument and who was always game to try something their dad showed them on the piano.
“Having music in the family is truly a gift,” Marni continued.  “As much as I miss my dad, it’s amazing how much of him is still here in his recordings, and we’ll always have that music.”
I am grateful to Marni for sharing the story of her musical family with me, and with the readers of my blog.  Nearly a century has passed since our grandfathers and great uncles played together in that Crookston band; although they would likely be surprised to learn how Marni and I connected, I think they’d be pleased to know that their passion for music lives on through their descendants.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Brown Bag Lunches and Food for Thought

March is turning out to be a crazy month, due to a convergence of writing deadlines, fun holidays (St. Patrick’s Day and spring break) and important, non-writing tasks, like getting our taxes ready.  It’s all good stuff (except for the tax-prep part), but it’s making me feel a little frazzled.  What I’d like to spend more time working on – and what will have to wait for at least another week – is the presentation I’m giving about my great-grandfather toward the end of the month.
G. Oliver taught music at Iowa Wesleyan’s Conservatory of Music from 1892-1896 and 1910-11.
My dad and I were invited to participate in Iowa Wesleyan College’s annual Brown Bag Lecture Series, sponsored by the Friends of the Harlan-Lincoln House.  Our presentation is Tuesday, March 27 from noon to 1 p.m. in the college’s Chadwick Library (the talk is free and open to the public, in case you’re in the area and want to attend). 

I did spend a few hours last weekend gathering and reviewing my research about that part of G. Oliver’s career, and I found a few clippings from the Burlington (Iowa) Hawkeye.  This is the same newspaper that just ran a column about the Brown Bag Lecture Series and mentioned the presentation my dad and I are giving.  Here’s what it said:

Joy Riggs and William Riggs, a daughter-and-father duo from Minnesota, will speak March 27 on “Origins of a Music Man: G. Oliver Riggs and the Iowa Wesleyan Music Conservatory.” G. Oliver Riggs was a violin and band instructor at IWC in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who later gained renown as a bandmaster in Minnesota. 

You can read the full column here.

A Burlington Hawkeye article about an IWU Cadet Band concert, from the Riggs scrapbook.
It’s funny how things come full circle – 120 years after G. Oliver made the news for his musical talents, he’s back in the paper again.  Makes me wonder where my name might turn up in another 120 years.