Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bear Necessities

I thought of my great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs earlier this week when I read that the Minnesota Zoo’s black bear exhibit was opening this weekend.

According to David Peterson’s article in the Star Tribune’s South section, “Minn. Zoo bearing up well, indeed,”  the new 15,000-square-foot exhibit is home to three orphaned black bear cubs from northern Minnesota. They are the first black bears ever to live at the zoo, and they already have been a big hit with families who have previewed the exhibit.

The exhibit apparently emphasizes the prevalence of bears in pop culture – and this reminded me of the legendary encounter G. Oliver had with a bear in northern Minnesota more than a hundred years ago.

I mentioned this incident in a 2010 blog post, but it’s such a fun story it bears repeating.

Bandmaster Riggs soothes a bear with a de Bériot tune.
According to the March 6, 1903, edition of the Crookston Daily Journal, the city’s popular bandmaster was chased by a bear while on a trip near Bigfork in northern Minnesota. As he ran, G. Oliver discarded all of his possessions except for his valuable violin, and he finally climbed a tree with violin in hand and waited for the bear to leave.

“After shouting for help ... Mr. Riggs, having heard of the efficacy of music in charming the savage beast, drew his bow and played an air from de Bériot which so pleased and affected Bruin that he went away to bring the balance of his family to the concert, and incidentally when it closed to let the cubs taste of a Crookston musician. When he returned, Mr. Riggs was miles away up the trail. Our artist’s imagination has reveled in the possibilities of the situation with the above result.”

I would love to know more of the facts behind this tall tale. I can believe that G. Oliver would have run across a bear while on a trail, but did he really have his violin with him – was he that devoted to his practicing? If so, it’s no wonder he got discouraged when his students didn’t show the same dedication.

Even though it may stretch the truth, the story does reflect G. Oliver’s ability to perform under pressure. Most concerts aren’t a life-and-death situation – fortunately – but certain audiences can be pretty tough to please.

As for de Bériot, I know that the composer was one of G. Oliver’s favorites in the early 1900s, but I can’t vouch for his popularity among bears. It’s possible that the young bears at the Minnesota Zoo would prefer a tune by Chuck Berry, Barry White, Barry Manilow, or maybe Louis Armstrong’s “Blueberry Hill.”

In honor of the bears and the opening weekend of their exhibit, I will close this post (before it gets too unbearable) with lyrics from the pop culture hit “Bare Necessities” from Disney’s The Jungle Book:

Where-ever I wander, where-ever I roam,
I couldn’t be fonder of my big home
The bees are buzzing in the tree

To make some honey just for me
When you look under the rocks and plants,
Take a glance at the fancy ants
And maybe try a few
The bear necessities of life will come to you 



Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Building a Better Band

I went to the Minnesota History Center’s library yesterday – I like to think of it as my St. Paul office – hoping to learn more about a 1935 photo of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that I recently acquired from a second cousin. 

After I’d spent 70 minutes with the microfilm machine, I decided the St. Cloud Daily Times was not going to help me better understand the connection between the photo and my great-grandfather, Minnesota bandleader G. Oliver Riggs. And just as I conceded defeat, I found an intriguing, unrelated article that made my whole visit worthwhile.

That experience is pretty typical of my research quests. Surely there’s a life lesson in this!
At the Minnesota History Center, waiting for the library to open.
The photo of President Roosevelt was taken on the afternoon of Dec. 9, 1935, in front of the train station in downtown South Bend, Indiana; he had traveled to the city from Chicago to accept an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. The writing on the back of the photo suggests that G. Oliver played for Roosevelt in front of the La Salle Hotel, which was across the street from the station. At that time, G. Oliver directed the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ band and was a well-known figure in St. Cloud.

President Roosevelt stands in front of a car parked outside the train station.
Because the St. Cloud newspaper often mentioned G. Oliver’s comings and goings, I hoped it would reveal more details about this event. Had G. Oliver taken some of his St. Cloud band boys to South Bend? Or was he simply there assisting his son Percy, who directed a high school band in that city?

Unfortunately, the newspaper’s only story about the Dec. 9 event – a national wire story about FDR’s stop in South Bend – did not answer any of my questions. But I noticed the newspaper did run a story on Dec. 6 announcing that G. Oliver had scheduled an important meeting for parents of band members for Jan. 9. So I scrolled into January and found this headline on page 4 of the Jan. 10, 1936, edition of the paper:

Band Building Proposed For City By Riggs

Band building? This was news to me. The lengthy story underneath the headline explained G. Oliver’s idea: to meet the practicing needs of players and instructors, he proposed constructing a 60 foot by 60 foot municipal band building on city property that would house a large rehearsal space, offices, practice rooms and a space for music libraries for use by the municipal bands and all the area schools.

I found that idea intriguing, especially because he was proposing it in 1935, the year the Works Progress Administration’s public works projects – including those related to the arts – began putting people back to work and helped pull the country out of the Great Depression.

But what I found even more interesting were the excerpts of the speech G. Oliver gave to the 150 parents in attendance, in which he discussed how bands and group music had evolved in the five decades he had worked as a director.

“‘Fifty years ago,’ Mr. Riggs said, ‘only a few who were really musical and who loved to play music made any attempt to study music seriously. Twenty-five years ago, more people studied music, but they seemed to understand thoroughly that music was a difficult subject and were willing to practice from one to three hours a day and, of course, made good progress. The present day boy or girl, it seems to me, does not wish to practice at home, and most parents do not care, or are too busy at something else to see that the child does practice daily. There cannot be anything of any merit accomplished without work. This holds good in learning to play a musical instrument.’”

It was hard not to feel a little sheepish reading the last part of that paragraph. No doubt, the minutes of practicing that my kids manage to put in each week would leave him unimpressed. But I also felt a little bit better knowing that parents back in the 1930s were not necessarily more successful than I am in getting my kids to practice – and they didn’t have to deal with computers, cell phones and other electronic distractions.

“‘Considering it as a fact that these young people of today, who are members of our bands and orchestras, cannot or will not practice at home enough to get good fundamentals and advance enough to have a fairly good command of technique on the instruments,’ he declared, ‘the only way I see for us to make further advancement in this wonderful work is for the teachers to have facilities where supervision of personal practice may be given by the teacher or an assistant.’”

In making his case to the parents, G. Oliver said that some of the best school and municipal bands in the country had facilities like the one he was proposing (did this, I wonder, include South Bend?). Poor facilities, which were much more common, posed a great handicap for the development of a quality program.

“‘The study of music is here to stay,’ Mr. Riggs said. ‘I think we should keep abreast of this great movement and encourage its continued success and advancement. I believe we should think more about developing the young mind to do more good, clean thinking, with the understanding that by diligent work and sensible living only, good results can be attained.’”

According to the article, the parents supported G. Oliver’s proposal and expanded the parents committee to seven members to work on the project. As for what happened next, I guess I need to return to the library and do some more research. Knowing how this process works, though, I expect that the answers I seek will be elusive, and the searching will instead yield surprises and new questions.

But that’s OK – it’s all about the journey, right?


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Chasing Another Presidential Mystery

Now that the presidential conventions have concluded, I’m hot on the trail of a mystery involving President Roosevelt and my bandleader great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.

Which President Roosevelt, you ask? I thought I knew the answer to that question until yesterday, when I received a package in the mail from my second cousin Patricia.

Patricia – whom I’ve only met via email – said in January that she had a photo of G. Oliver playing for President Roosevelt in front of a hotel.  Would my dad and I like it, if we didn’t already have it?

One of the photos Patrica sent to me.
Just so you know, for future reference, my immediate answer to anyone offering G. Oliver-related band photos, newspaper clippings or memorabilia is yes, please! In this case, I was especially intrigued because I had no idea that such an event had occurred.

Patricia promised to locate and send the photo when she had the chance, so in the meantime I did some online research and discovered that Theodore Roosevelt visited Clarinda, Iowa, in 1903 and had breakfast with Iowa Gov. Albert Cummins at the Linderman Hotel. I perked up at this find because G. Oliver’s good friend George Landers directed the regimental band in Clarinda, and G. Oliver occasionally played cornet with the band during the early 1900s – perhaps the photo was of this event? (for more on this speculation, see my old post, Bully for Presidential Visits).

This seemed plausible. And G. Oliver may very well have attended that event. But I have no evidence of this; the historical museum in Clarinda has not responded to my request for newspaper clippings, and the package from Patricia did shed any light on this possibility.

No, Patricia’s package opened up a new mystery. The writing on the back of two small black and white photos she sent says this: G. Oliver Riggs, South Bend, Ind., La Salle Hotel, playing for President Roosevelt.

My jaw didn’t drop when I read this, but I must have looked surprised. It was not what I had expected. I had clearly guessed the wrong hotel and the wrong city, and I likely had the wrong Roosevelt. But the location of South Bend made sense to me. G. Oliver’s younger son Percy (Pete) – Patricia’s grandfather –  directed a high school band there, the James Whitcomb Riley High School Band, from 1935 until at least 1941 (I'm not sure of the exact year when he left, but it was by 1946). Had President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited South Bend during the time that Percy lived there?

Percy (Pete) with wife Patricia and daughters Islea (front) and Marijane
Why, yes he had, as a matter of fact. He came to South Bend in 1935 to accept an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. According to Notre Dame’s online archives, Roosevelt’s special train arrived in South Bend from Chicago a little after 2 p.m. on Dec. 9, 1935, where he was met by administration officials.

The university account doesn’t mention anything about a reception outside the La Salle Hotel. However, the nine-story Georgian Revival hotel, which was built in 1921, was located directly across the street from the train station. Knowing how G. Oliver operated, and how his sons learned from him, I would be surprised if Percy hadn’t arranged for his high school band to play for the president’s arrival. And had G. Oliver arranged to to be present for the occasion as well, to assist his son?

The former La Salle Hotel in downtown South Bend
If so, why would the photo identify G. Oliver on the back and not Percy? G. Oliver, at that time, was directing the St. Cloud Municipal Boys’ Band. Had he traveled to South Bend with members of his band?

According to the university archives, Roosevelt accepted the degree at a ceremony in the gymnasium in front of a crowd of 5,000 students and visitors. “The University Band struck up ‘Hail to the Chief’ as Roosevelt came on the stage leaning on the arm of his aide. Roosevelt was tremendously popular and the cheering was long and lusty... ”

Had my great-grandfather and great-uncle attended this ceremony, two years into FDR’s first term, at a time when our country was beginning to inch out of the Great Depression? What had it been like to live during that time, I wonder – not knowing whether the economy would pick up, not knowing that our country would enter into another world war six years later? Were they fearful? Hopeful? Will my descendants look back on this time, in the weeks before the 2012 presidential election, and wonder about me?

Percy, Marijane, Percy’s mother-in-law Mary (I think?) and G. Oliver
As usual, a new piece of information leads to more questions – many of them unanswerable – in my quest to tell the story of my great-grandfather’s life and career. Time to don my sleuthing cap and get to work.