This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A Red Letter Day

09 October 2015

"Now if everyone will just look this way," cried the photographer.

"That's fine, lads. Keep your instruments at the ready." 

"And if the honorable gentlemen and the little lady would turn
toward the camera, please. Thank you very much, vicar."

He snapped the shutter. "Very, very nice. Postcards will be
available at my shop on the High Street later today
and at Mr. Rush's stationery shop on Monday."

In just a fraction of a second the camera captured a proud civic moment in the life of a small town, complete with a brass band, local dignitaries, citizenry and children. All are gathered around a large stone monolith which has chiseled on its side:

Victoria Memorial
Erected by Public Subscription

It's a horse trough.  

This small photograph has no date or mark, but the inscription on the trough indicates a British origin as it honors the memory of the late monarch, Queen Victoria, who died in January 1901 in the 63rd year of her reign. Many places around the United Kingdom and British Empire built monuments to her life. Apparently water troughs and fountains were a popular choice.

The photo has a special quality in the way it fixes the direct gaze of each individual. It was a quick pose, almost like a modern snapshot, with some people still in motion. The image has a sense of anticipation or excitement about an object that seems very ordinary. 

The other quality I like is that most British brass bands pictured in my photo collection are set in a very formal and orderly arrangement of musicians. A casual view like this is rare. This band probably finished playing only a few seconds before the photographer took the picture. 

However, despite its British appearance, without identification this watering trough might be in Australia or Canada instead of England. The only sure thing was written in stone, the year 1906.

It happens that there were surprisingly few commemorative cattle/horse troughs built that year.
The Luton Times and Advertiser of April 27, 1906 reported on one
that was constructed for the town of Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire.

Luton Times and Advertiser
April 27, 1906
THE VICTORIA MEMORIAL — The cattle trough and drinking fountain erected in Golden Square as a memorial of the late Queen Victoria was formally inaugurated on Saturday evening. In the absence, through indisposition, of Mr. Leopold de Rothschild, the water was turned on by Mr. Richard Purrett, the Chairman of the Committee who raised the funds, and the originator and main-spring of the movement.

The memorial stands in the centre of the Square and consists of a cattle trough of axed grey granite with a small push tap and bowl at one end for human beings, and a trough for sheep and dogs underneath. The inscription is "Victoria Memorial; erected by public subscription, 1906." Many leading townspeople were present, and a large crowd of the general public.  

Mr. Purrett gave details of the Committee's work since the proposal was first mooted. A sum of £91 16s. 3d. had been raised, including £11, the net proceeds of the concert in December last, whilst there was a further sum of £9 8s. 6d. outstanding under the head of subscriptions promised.

The present fountain had been erected at a cost of £64, but there would be some further expense for paving and incidentals. It was estimated that there would be a sum of £27 left over for the second fountain, which it was hoped to place in North-street. Mr. Platten, a vice-chairman of the Urban District Council (in the regretted absence of Mr. George Payne, the chairman), formally accepted the fountain, and said it would not only be a Victoria memorial, but also a Purrett memorial. – Mr. Purrett, in reply to a vote of thanks, said that was one of the red letter days of his life. 

Now look at the lettering on the side of the vicar's carriage – *RRETT . It seems odd that no one stood in front of the carriage. Could the missing letters complete the name PURRETT ? Quite possibly it was an advertisement for his business. Certainly the detail of the stone inscription matches the report, but this may be only a coincidence. But the clues seemed close enough to warrant more investigation. 

The town of Leighton Buzzard is in Bedfordshire, England, partway between Luton and Milton Keynes, and about 35 miles northwest of London. The unusual name is derived from the 12th century Leighton clergyman Theobald de Busar, who the Dean of Lincoln used to distinguish this Leighton from another Leighton in his diocese by adding the qualifier Leighton Buzzard.

In 1906 this small town was in an agricultural area where drovers regularly brought livestock into the center of Leighton Buzzard on market days. A combination fountain/trough like this one was a relatively inexpensive solution to the problem of providing drinking water for cattle, horses, and sheep. The fountain for people and dogs offered an extra value, as public water spigots were a rare convenience in England at the turn of the 20th century, (and even now they are not common to find.) The basic design was first made in the 1860s by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, a group that advocated for public access to free drinking water in London and other urban centers. It was considered a humanitarian effort to improve conditions for animals, but it was also associated with the Temperance Movement as an alternative refreshment for the working classes. 

Cattle Trough on London Wall
Source: Wikipedia

Of course in today's world there is little practical reason to keep a public water trough for livestock, so the water trough in Leighton Buzzard's Golden Square was likely removed a long time ago.  

Indeed, it is long gone, but there is another picture of it.

Source: Leighton Buzzard Through Time
 by Colin Ashby, 2013
Google books provided a virtual copy of Leighton Buzzard Through Time, by Colin Ashby, published in 2013. This charming collection of photos and stories of Leighton Buzzard included another vintage postcard street view of the Victoria Memorial horse trough in Leighton Buzzard. The upper story bay window and the arched doorway of the building in the background are a perfect match for the building backdrop in my photo.

Today there is only a roundabout on this site, though the main High St. of Leighton Buzzard  retains a quaint attractive quality. No doubt it has been a long time since anyone needed to water their horse there.

* * *

But what about the chairman of the horse trough fundraising committee? The man described as worthy of adding his name to the memorial too – Mr. Richard Purrett of Leighton Buzzard, does he have a story too?

In 1906 he actually raised enough money to erect two horse troughs for the town. But the second one encountered resistance from the local council which initially objected to its placement on North St. After a few months of debate, the council finally accepted the plan and the second fountain was "inaugurated" on August 29, 1907, as reported in the Luton Times and Advertiser:

The opening ceremony  of the new fountain was performed last (Thursday) night by Mr. R. Purrett. The Leighton Excelsior Band marched through the town and a large crowd collected. The Vicar of Leighton (the Rev. G. F. Hills) presided. and after the singing of the hymn, "O God, our help in ages past," made a short speech.

Mr. R. Purrett said that through the generosity of many noblemen, including the Duke of Bedford, Lord Rosebery, and various members of the illustrious Rothschild family, and also of the ladies and gentlemen of the town, they had been able to erect those memorials to the late Queen. He thanked them for the honor conferred on him in asking him to open two such memorials in his own home town, though he had urged that some subscriber be found for that purpose. The late Queen's life was a fountain of goodness. Over 150 horses had been seen to drink at the Golden square fountain in one day. ....  Mr. Purrett then turned on the water, and after taking the first drink handed the keys to Mr. Platten for the Urban Council. 

It is this description and the arrangement of the people in the photo that makes me believe that the tall bearded man proudly standing in the center is Richard Purrett. I think the staff in his left hand is the plumber's "key" or wrench for the water supply tap to the fountain. 

In order to raise funds for these two troughs, Mr. Purrett organized at least two benefit music concerts in 1905-06, which was not an unusual project for him as he owned a music business, a "music warehouse" specializing in pianofortes, harmoniums and organs. As a young man he started life in Bedfordshire as a farmer, but some time around 1869 he took over an existing business to sell musical instruments in Leighton Buzzard.

1890 Kelly's Bedfordshire Directory

County and city directories are a wealth of fascinating trivia. Just a few pages away from the 1890 commercial section on Pianoforte Warehouses (there were seven listings), are four pages devoted to Bedfordshire's Straw Hat trades.  Besides the categories of Straw Bleachers & Dyers; Straw Factors; and Straw Bottle Envelope Manufacturers, there are dozens and dozens of  men and women working as Straw Hat Block Makers; Straw Hat Blockers; Straw Hat Blocking Machine Makers; Straw Hat Finishers; Straw Hat Machinists; Straw Hat & Bonnet Manufacturers (with over 530 names); Straw Hat Wire Makers; Straw Hat Polish Makers; Straw Hat Lining & Tip Makers; Straw Hat Tip Stampers; and Straw Hat Varnish Makers. 

Considering that everyone in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries always wore a hat, it's not surprising that there were places specializing in mass producing hats and hat materials. But Bedfordshire would not have been my first or last guess for the center of Britain's straw hat industry. 

Leighton Buzzard Observer and Linslade GazetteJune 17, 1869

Mr. Richard Purrett had two sons and two daughters. One son, John Purrett, followed him to work as an assistant music seller in the Purrett music store, and I believe he may be the man in the straw hat just behind Purrett. Likewise the little girl peeking above the stone trough would likely be Purrett's granddaughter.

In July 1913, the Bucks Herald reported on the death of Mr. R. Purrett, age 71.

Bucks Herald
July 19, 1913

Did you spot the giant too?
Go back an look at the full photo and see if anyone stands out.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday No. 300
where the hidden stories in vintage photographs are always the best fun.

How to Play the Mandolin

02 October 2015

The first step towards mastery of the mandolin
is developing finger strength.
Daily exercises will improve digit dexterity
and harden the hand grip.

Remember, maintaining good posture is also an important key
towards advancing to the next level.


Students are encouraged to work together,
as playing duets helps with concentration
and cultivates good listening skills.

Pay careful attention to the music,
and learn to read ahead of the notes.

There are no tricks to learning the mandolin,
just a balanced approach between regular practice and musical fun.

* * *

These two young circus acrobats, presumably brother and sister,
are Les Andreu – Acrobates Mondains.
Their French postcards date from around 1906 to 1909.

Remember, playing the mandolin
can be hazardous to your health.
Always wear a properly secured safety harness.

* * *

 Laurens SC Advertiser
April 04, 1895

Perhaps the parents of Les Andreu knew about the Paris Medicine Co. which produced Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonc.  This mixture of quinine, lemon syrup, and other special  ingredients was a patent medicine concocted by a druggist, Dr. Edwin Wiley Grove (1850 – 1927), as a remedy for malarial childhood fevers and chills. A bottle cost only 50 cents in 1890, and supposedly "makes children as fat as pigs."  

It made Dr. Grove a very, very wealthy man.  

E.W. Grove sold his first elixir in 1878 through the company he originally started in Paris, Tennessee. Recognizing a need to reach a nationwide market, in 1889 he moved the business to St. Louis, Missouri. The drug company's advertisements used the fanciful image of a pig with the head of a smiling baby to create an instantly recognized brand that established Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic as a national leader in the industry. 

Grove kept a summer home in  Asheville, North Carolina, a small town in the Appalachian mountains, which is where I now live. Since the 1890s it had a reputation as a healthful retreat for people suffering from the chronic conditions of tuberculosis. In 1913, Grove and his son-in-law, Fred Seely who was a pharmaceutical chemist and newspaperman., built the Grove Park Inn, a grand hotel and spa that became a focal point of tourism in Asheville. Ten Presidents, from Taft to Obama, have stayed at the Grove Park Inn.

 Cloverpoint KY Breckenridge News
May 14, 1890

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
which always carries a genuine guarantee to cure all ailments and complaints.

The Thomas Family Concert Co.

25 September 2015

Of all the different genres of vintage musicians in my photograph collection, it is images of the family bands that I find most intriguing. In past times, choosing to make music a family lifestyle was unlike other family occupations like farming or shop keeping. Compared to the thousands of antique photos of families in front of their farmhouse or corner store, I think a portrait of a musical family posed with their instruments has a special quality that reveals much more about the subjects than what the camera sees. This is a story about one of those family bands that has an extra special quality. 

I'd like to introduce you to the Thomas family of Hartford, Connecticut,

Father is on double bass, and stands next to his wife with two daughters in front.
The youngest girl holds a pair of drumsticks, while her older sister has a violin..

Next to them are three more girls, a brass trio on tuba, cornet, and slide trombone.

Placed carefully on the floor in front of them are a tenor horn, a snare drum, and another violin and cornet.
The mother and her five daughters are dressed in long dark dresses with the puffy sleeves
that were fashionable in the 1890s. As you can see, the special quality
of these seven musicians, is that they are an African-American family band.

The location for this cabinet card comes from the photographer's mark, J. Nyser of  2 Ford Street, Hartford, Conn. The time frame is supported by the  fancy scalloped edges which were a characteristic of photos produced in the 1890s. But the best clue for identification is written clearly on the back.

The Thomas Family Concert Co.
290 Pearl St.

In 1921 a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. destroyed 99% of the United States Census records for 1890. This catastrophe incinerated the records of 62,979,766 people living in the US on June 2, 1890, except for just 6,160 names that were recovered from the fire. The tragic consequences for genealogists and historians is that today there is a 20 year hole between 1880 and 1900, a time period large enough to hide a generation of human activity. Finding information about someone in an American photograph from the 1890s always presents a very difficult challenge.

That is why I am pleased to say that I was able to discover the Thomas family in other archival records. 

The first step seemed easy enough. Who lived in Hartford, CT at 290 Pearl St.?

The answer was conveniently found in Geer's 1897 Hartford City Directory.
Under the surname Thomas was Milton H. foreman. 56 Com. h. 290 Pearl.

1897 Hartford CT city directory

In 1896, Milton H. Thomas was also listed at the address 290 Pearl St., but in the previous city directories for 1894, 1893, and 1892 his home address was 210 Windsor St. During those years, his occupation was listed as ostler (stable hand), driver, and then foreman. Significantly, the directories from 1890 and earlier did not have his name.

<< The directory also listed a Philip Thomas who kept a restaurant and home at 290 Pearl. I suspect he was a uncle or distant cousin, as I did not find his name attached to earlier records for any of Milton's siblings. >>

* * *

As an aside to my story, I must show you the listing for another well known resident of Hartford, CT, found just between Tuzzilo, Twaddell, Twaddle,  , Twardoks, Twarz, and Tweed.

Twain Mark, Samuel L. Clemens, author "Inno-
cents Abroad," etc. h. 351 Farmington

1897 Hartford CT city directory

The master storyteller, Samuel Clemens, must have chuckled to read his listing every year when the directory was updated. His home is preserved as a national landmark and is only 1.3 miles east of Pearl St.

* * *

One of the curious but useful features of early city directories was a section titled Migrations, which offered several pages of an alphabetized list of those people who had left a city during the previous year. For 1899, Geer's Hartford city directory listed  Thomas  Milton H., Fishkill, N. Y.

1899 Hartford CT city directory

Fishkill, a small village north of New York City along a tiny tributary to the Hudson river, is about 80 miles west of Hartford. In the following year, Milton H. Thomas, age 45, was still living there to be enumerated in 1900 census, along with his wife, Sarah F. Thomas, age 42; daughters, Grace M. Thomas, age 21; Rachel A. Thomas, age 18; Suzie V. Thomas, age 8; and son, Milton H. Thomas, age 2. The youngest children had been born in Connecticut, while the other members of the family were born in New York. Helpfully everyone's birth month and year were a line item on this census. Milton H. Thomas Sr. recorded his occupation as R.R. Laborer, and his two oldest daughters listed theirs as Day Laborer.

1900 US Census, Fishkill, NY

But the most useful data is on the row for Sarah. She and Milton, ages 42 and 45 respectively, had been married for 26 years. Getting wed at age 16 was certainly not uncommon in this earlier century, and the result for Sarah, recorded in the next two boxes, was that she was the mother of 8 children of whom only 6 were living. That meant that there were certainly at least four more Thomas children on the missing 1890 census. Quite enough for a good size band.

The next step was to see if the Thomas's were in the 1880 census. Out of 682 residents of the village, there was Milton H. Thomas, age 36, Laborer; wife, Sarah, age 25; and three daughters, Sarah L., age 5; Mary E., age 3; and Grace M., age 1.

1880 US Census, Fishkill, NY

Putting the two records together, we can now account for enough daughters to give names to the Thomas Family Band. Deciding on the oldest girl is difficult as they are all close in age, but I think the cornet player is Sarah L. Thomas, the eldest daughter ; the tuba is Mary E. Thomas; the trombone is Grace M. Thomas; the violin is Rachel A. Thomas; and the youngest, dressed in white with the drumsticks, is Suzie V. Thomas.

The Thomas Family Concert Co., circa 1898, Hartford, CT

Based on the 290 Pearl St. address for Milton Thomas in the city directories, it seems safe to say that the photograph was taken between 1895 and 1899. But I think we can narrow it down even more. Suzie, the youngest girl, was born in October 1891 and in this photo she appears to be close to 5 or 6 years old. Milton H. Thomas Jr., the son who is not in the photo, was born in September 1897. Looking closely, I would venture to say Mrs. Thomas does not appear pregnant, so I think it was taken in the previous years, 1896 or even 1895. That would make the approximate ages for the five sisters as follows: Sarah L. - age 21; Mary E. - 19; Grace M. - 18; Rachel A. - 14, and Suzie V. - age 5.

I rarely get to make estimates like this, so readers are welcome to offer any alternate labeling for the Thomas family.

* * *

The various records for Milton Thomas, a black man who lived in Hartford, Ct with his family from 1892 to 1897, and in Fishkill, NY before and after that period, seem clear enough to make a good identification of the members of the Thomas family in this photograph.

But how do we interpret the note on the back? The Thomas Family Concert Co. strongly suggests a professional musical ensemble. With their multiple brass and string instruments, Milton's family definitely have the same polished look that is found in photos of similar groups of family musicians. This type of photograph was reproduced in large numbers to promote the concert tours of a theatrical company and sell as souvenirs of the show. The striking difference with the Thomas family of course, is that this is an African American family. It is difficult to imagine how they managed in the 1890s to find theaters that would book a concert of a black musical troupe that was predominately female.

Nonetheless that is what The Thomas Family Concert Company implies.

Fort Dodge IA Times
February 18, 1892

Historic newspaper archives offer a wealth of detail on daily life, that is missing in the dry statistics of directories and census books. I found the earliest reference to a performance by a Thomas family in a newspaper published a long ways from Hartford in Monticello, Iowa in July 1889.  It reports only that "a traveling troupe known as the
Thomas family gave a concert at the
Methodist church last night."

Two similar short notices appeared in a newspaper in Davenport, IA in November 1891. But the first mention of the Thomas Family Concert Co. came in a February 1892 notice in the Fort Dodge , IA Times, where they "gave a good show at the school house" in nearby Barnum, IA.

Thomas is a very common English/Welsh surname, and there is no mention of the group's race, so this is not a positive link. But there was an immigration of African Americans to Iowa  in the 1880s, especially in the Fort Dodge area, where they found employment in the coal mines and railroad yards. It is intriguing that the last notice in this clipping says, "Banjo Joe held forth at the school house last Saturday night to a full house. He is a 'Joe' on the banjo."

* * *

There were no more newspaper reports of concerts by a Thomas Family until 1897, and this time from Minnesota. The Worthington, MN Advance offered a review and a kind of quote from Mr. Thomas.

Worthington, MN Advance
November 18, 1897

The Thomas family gave a concert at the Congregational church Saturday night to a small audience. The entertainment was fair. Of them the Pipestone Star says: "The members of the Thomas Familiy Concert Co. are certainly enjoying their tour through this section. The family travels in three large covered wagons which are fitted up as near like home as possible. The two larger wagons are nicely heated by stoves, and the family lives right in these houses on wheels, and Mr. Thomas saqys they enjoy it greatly – especially when the weather is good" 

* *

I readily admit that it's a long stretch to conjecture that these reports are of the same Thomas family of Hartford, CT,  as Worthington, MN is in southwest Minnesota, about 140 miles northwest from Fort Dodge, IA. Again there is no mention of race or even gender, both characteristics of the Thomas family in my photo that seem remarkable enough that they would have included that description in a newspaper report. However, like the report from 1889, this newspaper also mentions a church. Could that provide a meaningful connection for the Thomas family? 

* * *

Richmond, VA Planet
December 11, 1897

Newspaper research uncovered one more report from Virginia of a traveling Thomas family in 1897. The  newspaper's Virginia location might seem more incredible than Minnesota except that it clearly ties into African American culture. The Richmond, VA Planet was a weekly journal established in 1883 for a nationwide African American readership. Its editor for many decades was John Mitchell, Jr. (1863 – 1929) who was a black businessman, newspaper editor, civil rights activist, and politician from Richmond. 

Because Mitchell's journal focused on issues important to African Americans, it regularly ran reports from cities outside of Virginia. One of these was entitled Bridgeport Jottings and carried the news from Bridgeport, CT. On December 11, 1897 the last item said, "The Thomas family of Hartford is still stopping at Rev. R J H. Taylors' The amount raised by the members of the Bethel A.M.E. Church was $124.21."  

The church was a parish of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, which featured in my story earlier this year on the Rev. Charles E. Stewart and his A&M College Band of Greensboro, NC.

* * *

Richmond, VA Planet weekly newspaper

The address in Hartford for Milton Thomas is practically in the center of downtown Hartford. Pearl St. is quite short, running along only 4 blocks, and roughly parallel to Bushnell Park which is where the Connecticut State House is located. The distance from 290 Pearl St. to the capitol building is less than 4/10ths of a mile, which Google Maps considers a brisk 8 minute walk. 

The Pearl St. block that the Thomas family knew is today mostly a large parking lot. But in 1900 it was very different, as we can see on the wonderfully detailed Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for this area of Hartford, CT.  In the center I've marked 290 Pearl St., captioned on the map as 3 tenements, brick built. Across the street is a fire station, (which is still there, though rebuilt), and next to it is a church –  the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. When Milton and the girls looked to the other direction from the church they saw the Y.M.C.A. buildings which included an auditorium that was undoubtedly used for music concerts.

You will also note that I've marked Mr. Nyser's photography studio which was just around the corner at No. 2 Ford St. The bottom right corner shows part of the Park River which once divided this section of downtown Hartford from Bushnell Park. This riverlet was frequently subject to flooding as it fed into the Connecticut River, and in 1940 it was completely covered over. Many present day residents of Hartford probably don't know of its existence. 

Sanford Fire Insurance Map
1900 Hartford, CT, plat 9

The 1897 Hartford city directory provides a description and illustration of the African Methodist Episcopal Church that the Thomas family knew.  The 34' by 60' building was erected in 1857 at a cost of $6,000. It had seats for 445 people and a congregation of 130. The pastor was Rev. J. Sulla Cooper.

African Methodist Episcopal Zions Church
1897 Hartford CT city directory

The archives of the Connecticut Historical Society provided this next photo of the Zions A.M.E. church taken in 1897. A caption on the back identifies the building on the right as the fire house for the hook & ladder company. The photographer is not identified but it's quite possible Mr. Nyser made it, given that his photo shop was only a block away,

A. M. E. Zions Church, circa 1897
Source: Connecticut Historical Society

African American churches, and especially the A.M.E. church, played a major role throughout the turbulent 19th century in shaping and sustaining black culture in the United States. I believe that Milton and Sarah Thomas were members of Hartford's Zion A.M.E. church and used their family band as a kind of musical missionary group to black churches in other parts of the country. That they we able to do this in the 1890s is truly remarkable.

The evidence here is very sketchy at best, and I recognize that the newspaper reports may be about a completely different Thomas Family Concert Co. But I think it makes sense that a black family band would find performance opportunities in black churches, and that they would tour in states where white people were not flagrantly racist and had supported the Union side of the Civil War. 

 * * *

There were more records for Milton H. Thomas, that helped in his identification. For all the faults of labeling people  by race, (and religion too!) the initial B in these early census documents made finding his family much easier that if he had been white. I learned that his father, Alexander Thomas, and his grandfather, Joseph Thomas, had called Fishkill, NY home for many years, going back to the 1840 census. This meant that Milton came from the heritage of free blacks, which I imagine gave him a different perspective in aiding the emancipated former slaves that were developing new communities in Iowa and Minnesota.

By the 1910 census, Milton and Sarah (Fanny) were again living in Connecticut, but now in New Haven, with only their son Henry, age 12. Milton was employed as Fireman, Steam Railroad, which was basically work as a coal stoker for train engines. In the 1920 census at age 65, he was alone in New Haven and now a widower living as a lodger in a boarding house. His occupation was Laborer, Rubber Factory.

Born in 1855, Milton was too young to have participated in the Civil War, and too old in 1917 for World War One. Yet the state of Connecticut required him to answer question to determine if he had any skills that could contribute to the war effort. Instead of the limited detail found on the 1917 US draft registration cards, this document discloses some very personal information that is unlike any questionnaire I've ever seen .

Like all proper government paperwork, the affidavit starts with full name and address:
Milton Henry Thomas of 107 Foote St., New Haven, CT.

  • Present trade, occupation?- Fireman.
  • Age?- 63 years.
  • Height?- 4 ft 11 in.
  • Weight?- 183 lbs.
  • Married?- Yes.
  • Dependents?- One
  • Serious physical disability?- Kidney trouble.
  • Can you Ride a horse?- Yes
  • Handle a team?- Yes
  • Drive an automobile?- No
  • Ride a motorcycle?- No
  • Understand telegraphy?-  No 
  • Operate a wireless?- No
  • Experience with steam engine?- Little
  • Electrical machinery?- No
  • Handle a boat, power or sail?- No
  • Coastal navigation?- No
  • High Speed Marine Gasoline Engines?- No
  • Are you a good swimmer?- No

* * *

Finding string bass players was obviously not a high priority for the Connecticut National Guard. But learning Milton's height and weight helps confirm my identification. The wooden body of a double bass is a bit under 44 inches long. Adding 5 inches for the peg, the height to the end of the scroll is nearly 76 inches. Combine that with portliness and I judge Milton Henry Thomas to be a very good fit for the man in my photograph.

For all his reported lack of skills, I think Milton knew much more than he let on that would have been useful to the military. Raising so many daughters (and a son too) required superior organizational abilities, not to mention a generous amount of patience, even if he never really took them on a concert tour of Minnesota in three covered wagons.

I'm also sure that Sarah Thomas shared in that musical home schooling and taught her children to have poise and confidence when performing in public. Learning to read music brings discipline and order to a young person, but as I always tell my own students, it is the fun that is most important. I expect the Thomas Family Concert Co. enjoyed a joyful household that was always filled with music.

 * * *

Now for the coda.

This very surprised infant sits in the lap of his father, while his mother offers a gentle hand of support, and his faithful Saint Bernard drools on the sheepskin rug of Mr. John C. Nyser, photographer of Hartford, CT.  

I don't know the address of the proud young parents, nor their baby's name, nor the size and weight of their dog. But there is something that I recognized that links these two examples of Mr. Nyser's work. Can you spot it?

Hartford, CT corner of Ford and Pearl Streets, circa 1916
Source: Connecticut History Illustrated

John C. Nyser of No. 2 Ford Street, was one of 15 photographers in Hartford. Nearly all kept studios within a few blocks of Pearl St. Thanks to the archives of Connecticut History Illustrated, I can show you the corner of Ford and Pearl Streets, circa 1916, where John Nyser kept his shop. It's the little shack with PHOTOGRAPHS in big letters on the side.

* * *

I confess that I actually bought this second photo because of the dog, but the bonus came when I compared the backdrop in both photos. Look at the pointy arches on the left and the column's capital on the right. I think they are pretty close to identical. It certainly places the Anonymous family in the same 1890s decade, and perhaps even the same year as the Thomas family.

In my imagination, I see this young family of Hartford pushing a perambulator down Pearl St. They pause as their dog takes a interest in the fire house. Mother smiles as baby responds to the sound of a band floating from across the street. The child listens to the thrum of a deep bass fiddle and tuba. He laughs at the melodious violin and shudders to the squawk of the trombone. The cornet's fanfare encourages father to resume their walk towards Mr. Nyser's shop on Ford St. Their steps align with the rhythmic rattle of a drum. It's a wonderful day to have music in your life.  

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more shaggy dog stories.

The Citizens Band

18 September 2015

Every band needs the rhythm of a snare drum; 

with alto horns and tenor trombones for the harmony;
clarinets for the melody;
and a piccolo E-flat clarinet for the descant line;

tubas and sousaphones to handle the bass;
and cornets to carry the tune;

and a bass drum with cymbals to keep a steady beat.

A Citizens Band of 21 unnamed musicians
posed on the steps of an unmarked building,
in an unknown town, on May 29, 1915,
as noted by an anonymous photographer on the bass drum.
It was the Saturday before Decoration Day,
now known as Memorial Day.
Dressed in white trousers, shirts, and floppy hats,
the bandsmen seem ready to start the summer season
with a concert in the park.

But where are they?

Hidden in the lettering
on a bench behind the band is a small clue.


So they are not entirely lost,
at least they are a West Virginia Citi
zens Band.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every story unfolds in black & white.

UPDATE: 20 SEP 2015

Thanks to a very helpful link from anyjazz in the comments,
I think there is a possible identity for the band. 

Bluefield WV Daily Telegraph
February 21, 1915

The clue he found was a report in the Bluefield West Virginia Daily Telegraph from February 21, 1915 of the Graham Citizens Concert Band, which was to give a concert at the Gem Theater of Graham in order to raise funds for the band. 

Town bands from this era often shortened or lengthened their name, so it is always a challenge to try searching with different phrase styles like concert band, citizens band, or cornet band. The band of Graham probably took the formal name of Citizens Concert Band to indicate that they were local amateur musicians who performed concerts, rather than a professional touring ensemble of the vaudeville circuit.  

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The interesting part is that Graham is actually in Virginia, not West Virginia. And it is not called Graham anymore but Bluefield, Virginia. If the band on this postcard is really the Graham Citizens Band, they are part of an older story that is more about the division of North and South rather than east and west. The state of West Virginia dates to 1861 when it rejected the Virginia State legislature's vote to secede from the union. The line that divided the Union and Confederate states also splits the small community of Bluefield into two parts. Bluefield is the larger town, and in 1910 it had a population of about 11,000 while Graham had only 2,000 citizens.  

Graham VA Citizens Concert Band
Bluefield WV Daily Telegraph
March 28, 1915
In the spring of 1915, the Bluefield, WV newspaper published a long feature of several pages on the history of Graham, its sister city across the railroad tracks. There were photos and stories on all the prominent Graham businessmen and civic leaders. There were photos of factories, churches, and stores, and one large photo (though coarse grained in reproduction) of the Graham Citizens Concert Band. It shows 17 musicians dressed in dark military style uniforms, with the band's name clearly marked on the bass drum. In the top right corner is an inset of the band leader, whose name was Prof. Skaggs. The faces are too unclear to make any useful comparison with my band postcard, except standing on the right end of the line is a young drummer. Could he be the same boy who struck the gallant pose in May, 1915?  It's a possibility.

Bluefield WV Daily Telegraph
August 25, 1915
According to another history of Tazewell County, VA, the Graham Citizens Concert Band was formed in 1912 and quickly demonstrated musical talent that got them engaged for concerts throughout Virginia and West Virginia too. They played for political rallies, fraternal societies, and school events. They had their own rehearsal space and raised enough money to buy new instruments valued at $1,400. In August of 1915 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph reported that they had ordered new uniforms in a gray color. Professor Skaggs was writing a new piece of music dedicated to the Graham Grays.

Bluefield WV Daily Telegraph
December 24, 1915

Evidently the uniforms were pretty sharp, as a report from December 24, 1915 announced the wedding of a Graham bandsman, Wade Crockett, who played bass horn. Earlier that year, he met his mighty good looking bride when she was attracted to his new uniform.

I've been unable to find any musical event for May 29, 1915 in the Bluefield WV newspaper. However there was the Graham high school commencement on May 28. And the band also played on Saturdays for Graham's Gem Theater. In the summer of 1915, the newspaper reported that the band numbered 20 musicians, which, when the band leader is added, equals the same number of bandsmen as in the postcard photo. Of course this is only circumstantial and coincidental evidence, but I think the possibility of a match will improve if I can find a match for the building behind the band. It's hard to remove or disguise stone columns, so they may still be standing.    

And what about the white trousers, white shirts, white hats? Bluefield and Graham are towns built from the industry of coal mining and railroad traffic. Maybe by the end of the summer, those bright whites had turned into the Graham Grays!

Thanks for that clue, anyjazz. Even if not 100% certain, it makes for a better photo story,


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