A tune of their own
"River City's gotta have a boys' band!" proclaims audacious Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Willson's The Music Man, the musical recreation of small-town life in Iowa at the turn of the last century. But twenty years earlier across the Mississippi in Aledo, Illinois, "Prof." E.D. Wood brought forth his idea: to have an all-girls' band. And so it came to pass, and my grandmother and great-aunt played in it.
In one of the boxes of family papers we have lugged around the nation through our several household moves are possible the remaining traces of the Aledo Ladies Cornet Band: "The Ladies Cornet Band March" sheet music, copyright 1885 by E.D. Wood and illustrated with a sketch of sixteen-piece uniformed female band with a male instructor standing at the side; a cabinet card photo of a band member in uniform; and grandmother's autograph book containing the signatures of most of the musicians. Also, we have memorabilia of another female group, Kate Baker's Ladies Silver Cornet Band, for which Grandma and Aunt Bertha later played and traveled with in Missouri.
Prof. Harold Hill promoted his band as the answer to keeping local boys out of trouble (the pool hall), but in those days a town band filled a purpose beyond that of heading off juvenile delinquency. A brass band came to be considered essential to the life of a town, showing that it was a live-wire, up-to-date community. And the band provided light entertainment before the advent of the phonograph, radio, movies, and television. Consider the appeal of the Aledo newspaper in May 1900 (long after the demise of the ladies' band): "Aledo needs a band. She needs not only a band, but a good one. There is not one single feature which would add more to the attractiveness of our city than a good band."
In the mid-1800s, an average town band "might number twelve to fourteen players," (larger after the turn of the century), and "the membership of such bands tended to be all-white and all-male," according to a research bulletin of the Kansas State Historical Society, which undoubtedly reflects the Illinois experience as well. "Brass instruments plated with nickel or silver were very popular, giving rise to the many groups known as 'silver cornet' bands." The repertoire "relied heavily on music that the audience found fun and familiar— popular songs, marches, and patriotic pieces."
"Prof." Wood, who had come from Iowa to open a music store in Aledo, advertised his Conservatory of Music ($4 per week with board and use of instruments) in May 1882. He had a novel idea: an all-female ensemble. A year later his band was ready to perform in public. That summer the Aledo Democrat announced that the ladies' band would sponsor an ice cream festival at McCrea's Hall, admission ten cents. The newspaper editor reported:
"The Young Ladies' Brass Band has given Aledo a good deal of free music within the last week, in the course of its practice for the 4 of July engagement. Improvement is quite visible, and this open air traveling practice will no doubt strengthen the lung capacity, so much needed in that class of music."
A week later the band made the first of several out-of-town appearances, boarding a river packet for a journey down the Mississippi to play concerts in Burlington, Fort Madison, and Keokuk, Iowa.
Wood composed "The Ladies Cornet Band March" in 1885. The cover announced, "Beautifully Arranged for Organ or Piano by Prof. E.D. Wood, Director and Manager of the celebrated ALEDO LADIES CORNET BAND, The only complete ladies cornet band in the world." Of course, the band members were uniformed. The cover illustration
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and a cabinet card photograph of one musician depict the suitably feminine attire, with a few military touches: a closely fitted, long-sleeved blouse with small epaulettes and three vertical rows of buttons, a full pleated skirt with a ruffled hem—all topped with a wide-brimmed straw boater.
Membership in the band was the start of venturesome two years for the girls—and they were girls. My future grandmother, Lenore Boyd, was sixteen, and her sister, Bertha, was thirteen. The messages in Lenore's autograph book suggest that most of the musicians were or had been recent schoolmates.
Lenore's instrument was the valve trombone. Bertha played drums. They were the middle and youngest daughters of Martin and Lydia Bear Boyd. Martin was a well-to-do farmer who moved to the county seat, Aledo, built a large residence, and served a term in the state legislature. Lenore and Bertha attended the Aledo Academy and, for an uncertain length of time, the Immaculate Conception Academy in Davenport, Iowa, a sort of finishing school for those families who could afford it.
Through the summer and fall of 1883 and 1884, the Aledo newspaper reported the Ladies' Cornet Band's continuing engagements, which included another ice cream festival, a skating rink concert, a Decorations Day parade, the "Old Settlers Pic Nic," the Mercer County Fair, political rallies, and "Jollifications." The musicians were busy, traveling by riverboat and palace car. In addition to concerts in nearby towns, their engagements took them as far north as Hillsdale on the Rock River and as far south as Astoria in Fulton County.
Lenore's autograph book records brief notes by twelve of the musicians and the "L.C.B.," with references to pleasant memories such as the "boat rides" at Burlington. "We can never forget the 'Band' in which we sixteen played," noted another player. Two writers, including sister Bertha, mentioned one not-so-pleasant experience on "that Hillsdale hill."
But the jolly times were over too soon. After November 1884, news stories about the Ladies Cornet Band ceased to appear; the band was no more. The following June, Aledo's newspaper reported that some members of the band were "assisting" another band in the town of Joy, seven miles west. "Prof." Wood was the instructor. In September of the following year, however, Wood died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-two. In a heart-felt obituary, the editor of the Democrat recalled:
"He [Wood] loved music dearly and was never more happy than when he was teaching others. He often talked to the writer of these notes of his desire to see the day when the youth of Aledo might be aroused to a right appreciation of it."
While I have little memory of my grandmother (she died when I was seven), Aunt Bertha lived much longer. But I never thought of them as musicians. I regret that I never asked about their youthful adventures, which I'm certain they had. In 1888 they joined the band of Kate Baker of LeClede, Missouri, "the only female band in America with a lady drum major" (but which did have two male musicians). That group accompanied a root, herb, and bark medicine show operator, Dr. Diamond Dick (a.k.a. George B. McClellan, but no the Civil War general), in a four-month campaign through Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas promoting his remedies under the banner of "Indian Methods Alone!" That's a story for another day.
But it might provide some solace to Prof. Wood to know that in the 1940s, another enthusiastic band leader, Elmer Ziegler, who displayed some of the same flamboyance of Professor Harold Hill, arrived in Aledo from Iowa, aroused interest in band music, and organized a prize-winning town band, composed mostly of school-age musicians. I know—I played the drums.
L. Boyd Finch, a retired National Park Service regional official, has written articles and book reviews on Southwestern history. The Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, published his Confederate Pathway to the Pacific: Major Sherod Hunter and Arizona Territory, C.S.A. He attended Knox College and earned a BA. from the University of Arizona and a M.A. from Stanford University.
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