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
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O Canada!

18 April 2015

Creating a family portrait, especially of a large family, has always been a fine art for a photographer. Arranging subjects into triangles follows the classical traditions of portrait painters. Here we see a mother seated with her wide eyed newborn as her older son stands close. He holds a violin and looks to be about age 7 or 8. 

On the other side of the photo is another triangle with a father and his four other children. Three small boys, who appear about ages 3, 4, and 5, perch on a papier-mâché stump, the universal 19th century photo studio prop. One child has a role of music in his lap. Next to them stands the tallest brother, perhaps age 11 or 12, who holds a blackwood flute. Their father sits relaxed in an arm chair with a clarinet in his expert grasp. Everyone gazes indirectly to the right of the camera. 

It is a charming well balanced portrait of a family proud of their musical accomplishments. Their clothing and high button shoes place them in the 1880-90s, posing for a style of photo that was quite common for this era.

Except for one small difference. This is a family of color posing for a Canadian photographer.

The father's features are clearly African in origin, but his wife's complexion is paler and her ethnicity is less clear. We can not rule out that she might even be of Ameri-Indian descent, or what is called in Canada a member of the First Nations.

Before the American Civil War, many black people sought freedom from American slavery by escaping to Canada. After emancipation that migration continued in the second half of the century and included black immigrants from the British West Indies. 

Canadian census records present a dilemma for genealogy research. Prior to 1901 race was not included as a census category in Canada. Whereas American census records are helpful in using race to make a positive identification, especially with regard to common surnames, early Canadian documents lack this refinement. Even after 1901, it was called Racial or Tribal origin which included entries for Irish, Scotch, as well as Indian. On the other hand, Religion was very carefully noted in Canada. Roman Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, etc. or even Pagan for native Indians was listed.

This happy family left no other clues as to their identity. They are not dressed for the theatrical stage, so I do not believe they are professional entertainers. It is only a rare example of a 19th century family of color, parents of six handsome and talented children.

What is more remarkable is on the back of the cabinet card.

The photographer was S. J. Dixon, whose Electric Light Photo Gallery was located on the corner of King and Yonge Streets in Toronto, Ontario. This address, which is in the the heart of downtown Toronto, was important to distinguish it as Not connected with any other Gallery of the same name.

The other photographer's name was James Dixon, whose studio was also on Yonge St. a block away. As far as I know he was no relation to S. J. Dixon or Samuel John Dixon who was a member of the Photographers' Association of America, and was a prize winning photo artist. His studio was listed in the Toronto city directory in every year from 1878 to 1896.

Though he was evidently an accomplished and even artistic photographer, Dixon is best remembered in Canada, and the United States too, for his other special skill.

Samuel J. Dixon was a funambulist.
A tightrope walker.

 * * *

Raleigh, NC News and Observer
September 08, 1890

In September 1890, S. J. Dixon made the news for completing a feat few men would ever attempt. Using a 22 ft. 6 in. balancing pole that weighed 30 pounds, Dixon walked 923 feet along a rope cable strung between Ontario and New York high above the roaring rapids of the Niagara River Gorge. The site was just between the older Suspension Bridge and the new Cantilever Railway Bridge. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and over 8,000 people watched his performance with dread and amazement.

At the center of the cable,  he lay down on his back, crossing his feet and folding his arms. Being an intrepid photographer, he had his picture taken.

The image is the right half of a Stereo view photo made by George Barker of Niagara Falls, NY. No doubt he, like Dixon, was also a member of the Photographers' Association of America. It was while traveling to their convention in Philadelphia earlier that year, that Dixon noticed the cables along the great Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge connecting Canada to the US. He told his fellow colleagues that he could easily cross the gorge by walking on a cable like that. Apparently he had acquired this equilibrium ability in his youth, and decided that he should demonstrate it at the most famous tourist attraction in North America. After just a few weeks practice on a rope cable 60 feet in the air at a Toronto park, Dixon went to Niagara Falls, Ontario to make good on his claim.

 From a report in the Winnipeg Free Press of September 12, 1890:

The professor's own graphic words to the World last night were:

Now I had reached the testing point. I nerved myself as well as I could. I kept saying to myself: "Steady now, Jack ; steady now.  You're going to do it all right, but steady." And here I noticed that the guys which were to steady the centre part of the rope were not working and that the cable was swaying in the wind. This of course somewhat unnerved me, but I soon steadied myself, being determined to succeed. The danger of this part of the journey,the great height above the water,the swaying of the rope and the full knowledge of my personal risk kept my wits at the highest tension. I had to change my point of vision every moment or two. If I looked steadily at the rope for more than three seconds I would imagine the rope, like the rushing water, was moving in the same direction and my senses would begin to reel; but the moment I changed my point of vision and would look one time at the bridge, another at my hand and another at the balancing pole, thus varying the centre of observation, I was enabled to resist the illusion.

So impressed was I with the gravity of the situation that I occupied fully five minutes in crossing the 200 feet of the centre of the river. The wire was swaying at such a rate that I had to exercise the greatest care; but when I was over the centre and felt that the greatest danger was passed my spirits rose steadily and I had no difficulty in sitting and kneeling on the rope. When I was fairly over the bank the hardest part of the walking occurred, as the guy ropes at this part were utterly useless and the cable shook in the wind more than the aspen, I got safely through and was heartily congratulated by those on the American side. The first thing I did was to take a small infusion of eau de vie, with a little soda mixed therein.

Dixon was not the first person to concoct such a terrifying stunt. The French tightrope walker and acrobat, Charles Blondin (born Jean François Gravelet, 1824 – 1897) made the first crossing of the Niagara gorge in 1859. He made numerous walks even once carrying his manager over on a chair that was strapped to his back. The bridge had only been completed in 1855 by  John Augustus Roebling, the same engineer who built many of America's great suspension bridges including the Brooklyn Bridge. This structure had a railroad tracks on the top (built to accommodate three different gauges) and a wagon/pedestrian roadway beneath. It was made primarily with wooden trusses which deteriorated in Niagara's fierce weather and necessitated replacement with iron beams in 1880.  

Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge c. 1876
Source: Wikipedia

No one was ever foolhardy and wealthy enough (until modern times) to rig a wire across the whole of the great Niagara Falls, though it was always a popular setting for other kinds of daredevilry involving barrels and small boats. Instead the shorter span alongside the Suspension Bridge provided a perfect viewpoint for watching tightrope walkers and one that could be reserved for an audience that bought tickets. After the Great Blondin made his name synonymous with tightrope walking, other equilibrists competed for a share of Niagara fame. In 1860 the Great Farini, a.k.a. Willie Hunt (1838-1929), a Canadian (though he was born in New York) made several crossings. However his real fame in the circus world came from inventing the apparatus for the human cannon ball stunt.

Harrisburg, PA Telegraph
July 10, 1876

In July 1876, the American centennial year, a young woman announced that she would walk across the Niagara rapids on a manila rope cable 2¼ inches in diameter. Her name was Maria Spelterini and she was supposedly Italian and claimed to have started rope walking at the age of three.

Her first attempt, starting from the New York side, was exceptional for its speed as she finished in only eight minutes. Not content with providing just one thrill, she hopped back on and recrossed to the American side. On July 26, 1876 the Somerset, PA Herald reported that:

The lady was attired with green buskins, tights the color nature gives the Caucasian race, a tunic of scarlet, and shining green bodice. Her head was covered only by its luxuriant growth of flowing brown hair. Bands at either side of the river played inspiring music, but every eye was fixed upon the form of the daring woman who was now passing up the ascent to the further shore. A few more seconds of intense interest, at least to those who were lookers-on, and she stood upon the shining shore of Her Majesty's dominion. The accomplishment of her passage was the signal for applause from both banks and the bridge. 

Then they waited, probably ten minutes. At the expiration of that time the Signorina again appeared, balance-pole in hand, and stepping lightly upon the rope began the return journey. Steadily she came back across the long line, stopping at the centre to rest upon one knee, then again stepping forward with measured and steady tread. When within a few rods if the final destination she stood immovable for a moment while an enterprising photographer secured her presentment. Then she traversed the remaining distance until safe again on terra firm, and thus the exhibition of the day closed.

The Signorina Spelterina is twenty-three years of age, dark, with an essentially Italian cast of countenance. square built, and probably turning one hundred and fifty pounds. Her features are quite regular, her expression intelligent, her manner engaging. From the time she was three years old she has continually practiced upon the tight rope and slack wire.

Here is that picture of her return journey
looking south towards the old Suspension Bridge and Niagara Falls .
In 1876 the Cantilever Bridge in Dixon's photo had not yet been built.

Thousands of people turned out, despite temperatures near 105° F, but very few paid 25¢ for a place in the fenced areas on either end of the rope or on the bridge. Over the next few days  Mlle. Spelterini tried adding acrobatic tricks to her performance like walking with fruit baskets on her feet; with a sack over her head; even backwards. But though the crowds still came to watch, they would not buy tickets for a better view. And it is most unlikely that she received any royalties from the photographer Charles Bierstadt who published thousands of stereo view cards of her exploits.

This past September my wife and I visited Niagara Falls on a tour of New York. This is the view I saw of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge which replaced the old Cantilever Bridge in 1897. Just to the right the river makes a bend into the infamous Niagara whirlpool. Today one can ride a gondola cable car across this part of the river, but people really see only a fraction of the torrent that Blondin, Spelterini, and Dixon experienced. The water that travels twenty miles from Lake Erie down the roaring Niagara river has been diverted so many times for hydroelectric power that the depth and breath of the rapids, not to mention the famous falls, is now greatly reduced.


Niagara River Gorge
September 2014

News about Mlle. Spelterini's astonishing feat  traveled fast on the telegraph wires and made the newspapers from California to Texas. Her reputation as the only woman to take the Niagara challenge undoubtedly allowed her agents to charge more for her future wire-walking appearances. Her Wikipedia entry notes her recovery from a fall at an 1877 performance in Argentina. But after that she seems to have disappeared from the circus life.

In my research I did stumble onto one very brief report in the July 25, 1876 edition of the Philadelphia Times that said Maria Spelterini was actually not Italian but Irish, and that her real name was Sarah McGinnis.

Cairo, IL Bulletin
August 10, 1876

By 1890 Samuel J. Dixon was the seventh person to make a successful attempt to walk a tightrope across the Niagara River. The previous daredevil was Stephen Peer who made several crossings in June 1887. Tragically, after having imbibed a bit too much during the celebrations afterwards, Peer  attempted to climb onto the rope at night and fell to his death.

Somehow Peer's rope cable was saved for three years and Dixon chose to use it for his walk in 1890.  

He used a much smaller wire cable the following year in 1891.

Chicago Daily Tribune
July 18, 1891

Dixon got more advance promotion and hoped to sell more tickets so this time he crossed from Canada and then returned back on the wire, something he had not done the previous year. He also added some gymnastic stunts with a hoop. Of course a camera was arranged to catch him in the most dramatic pose.

* *

Samuel J. Dixon was 39 years of age. He had a wife, Sarah, age 39, and two daughters, Ella, 14.and Elanor, 13. His mother, age 60, also lived in their home in Toronto. He had a successful photography studio in Canada and evidently one in New York City on the corner of Broadway and 34th according to the backstamp on some of his other photographs.

What compelled him to take up such a dangerous idea as to walk a tight wire stretched across the Niagara Gorge? The newspaper descriptions of his demeanor suggest he had a fearless but calm disposition. He was not considered reckless or impulsive by the people who knew him. Perhaps there was a drive for fame and money.

We can never know because later that year on the 2nd of  October 1891, Samuel J. Dixon drowned while swimming in a small lake north of Toronto. He was awaiting friends to go on a hunting trip and ventured out into a lake by himself where presumably he took a cramp.

His widow seems to have run the photo studio for a few more years, as it was still listed in the 1896 Toronto city directory.  Beyond that his legacy as a funambulist seems to have eclipsed his career in photography.

The happy musical family may have sat for S. J. Dixon or perhaps one of his assistants, but the events of his life and the date of death do help to date their photo to around 1890. Do you think they might have traveled to see him perform high above the Niagara rapids?  

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where good balance is always appreciated

Easter on the Eastern Front

10 April 2015

Their beer barrel may say Fröhliche Ostern - Happy Easter, but the glum expressions on the faces of these German bandsmen convey little joy. The musicians wear the field uniforms of a regimental band in Kaiser Wilhelm's army of 1914-1918. Their Pickelhauben have a fabric cover to hide the gleam of the gold spike and helmet plate. The trumpeter sitting on the barrel has the number 260 stenciled on his helmet cover.

The bandleader stands at the back center holding his baton. A medal ribbon, perhaps an Iron Cross, is tucked into his tunic. The cymbal player and snare drummer recline casually on either side of the bass drummer but there is no cheer in their eyes.

The place and year is recorded on the second barrel – Bemern, a website database of former German geographical names in East Prussia, did not offer an exact match. There was a Benern, a Bernen, and even a Remmen, all places now located in Poland and once part of the German Empire in Prussia, but spellings are never consistent in war.

However the number 260 on the one bandsman's helmet may indicate Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 260 of the 78th Reserve Division of the Imperial German Army. This unit first saw action on the Eastern Front in the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes. In May 1915, it engaged the Russian army in Lithuania and Courland, and later fought in the Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive and in Daugavpils where the Russian line collapsed. After Russia withdrew from the war, the division transfered to the Western Front and joined in the battle over Verdun.

Certainly the log house behind the band with its dovetail corners is not a building style typical of Flanders on the Western Front. The band has 15 musicians which is about 10 fewer than their standard complement. Two clarinets, a high E-flat and a B-flat fill out the usual brass band instruments.   

The postcard was produced by Wilhelm Riege, Photographer of Lüneburg, which is in Lower Saxony just southeast of Hamburg. The message is in a hand script that I am unable to read. Did they just play a concert for Easter morning services?

* * *

Perhaps the bandsmen were not so much weary of war, but only hungry waiting for their Feldküche or Field Kitchen. An army marches on its stomach and with its band too. During the war of 1914-1918, soldiers on all sides usually collected their meals from a horse drawn cart like this. German army units were supplied with a very efficient Feldküche designed with a double-walled, round tank holding 200 liters of food. The inner kettle was made of nickel while the outer kettle was copper. The cavity between the two cauldrons was filled with glycerine so that cooked food could not burn. The wagon also included a coffee pot which held 90 liters. Both boilers were heated by a wood-fired oven. Later models added a single-wall rotisserie and a warming compartment, so that theoretically several dishes could be prepared simultaneously.

The horse drawn military field kitchen was still in use when the German army of the Third Reich invaded Poland in 1939. It has even been produced as a plastic 1/35 scale model (base not included). A Feldküche could feed between 125 and 250 soldiers, who gave it the nickname Gulaschkanone or Goulash Cannon as the food cart's chimney resembled an artillery piece. This next image shows the wagon tilted with the kettle and various compartment lids open for cleaning and reloading.


The postcard has a caption that reads: Bayr. Landw. Inf. Regt. No. 4, Feldküche, März 1915 or the Royal Bavarian Landwehr Infantry Regiment No. 4, Field Kitchen March 1915. This regiment was part of the 1st Bavarian Landwehr Division which served on the southern flank of the Western Front primarily in Lorraine. I would say they were proud of their two horses. Did they have a beer wagon too?

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

Ladies in Hats

03 April 2015

What catches your attention first in this woman's photograph? Her violin or her hat? Maybe it is her clear eyed gaze at the camera? Perhaps the patterned embroidery on her dress? Did you spot her wedding ring? For me it was the hat. In my photo collection there are dozens of photographs of individual female violinists and band musicians. With the exception of women wearing uniform band caps, this photograph is the only lady in a hat. It makes her special.

The photographer was The Baker Studio of Vermillion, South Dakota. I have been unable to find any records for this photographer, but the woman's pose in front of a painted stairway is typical of the 1890s. Her puffed shoulders are very similar to fashion styles I've seen on other dated photos from 1891-1895. South Dakota became a state in November 1889 so the photo is certainly after that year. Vermillion is almost, but not quite, on the Missouri River in the southeast corner of the state near Sioux City, Iowa, so it was a community easily accessible to traveling photographers by either rail or riverboat.

I imagine her dress might actually be red or scarlet and not the somber black shown in her sepia toned photograph. Her hat has a texture that looks like velvet to me with a satin bow rather than a feather. Her long dress hides what I expect were sensible shoes. Does the hat indicate a traveler? Was she a professional musician who toured the "opera houses" of America's wild west? I'm afraid there are not enough clues to learn her identity. But it is a fine photo from a place that not many years before was a wilderness on the Great American Prairie. 

I keep a special category on my blog labeled hats, and there are now 101 posts with that tag, which makes it by far the largest topic on this supposedly musical blog. Recently I acquired some non-musician cabinet photographs of elegant ladies in hats from this same decade. This woman has a splendid hat with feathers, jewels, and bows. It accentuates the curve of the high collar and puffed shoulder of her winter weight coat. I looks like a wool fabric to me but perhaps it is a type of fur. Unfortunately she posed for a photographer that left no mark so we can never know where she is from. Perhaps I should add spectacles as a tag, as she looks very professional with her Pince-nez glasses (see comments).

Bloomington, IL Pantagraph
Sept 10, 1896

This young woman was also photographed by an unknown photographer. Her light colored winter jacket is surely made of lamb or sheep skin. Her hat has several feathers artfully arranged on a brimmed white hat. Her right hand holds a pair of fine leather gloves. Is she also dressed for travel?

Chicago, IL Daily Tribune
September 23, 1897

This last duo of young ladies seem dressed for spring rather than fall. They wear differently styled hats, one with a bristle and rosette, and the other a straw hat with a feather and bow. The girl on the left also has Pince-nez spectacles. The photographer is Park of Lambertville, New Jersey, just up the river from Trenton.

Chicago, IL Inter Ocean
October 6, 1895

Open any newspaper of this last decade of the 19th century to the women's section and you will discover more varieties in feminine hats than any fashion accessory found in today's modern clothing. I am constantly amazed at how a hat could indicate class, trade, prosperity, season, region, ethnicity, and nationality, as well as taste too. The millinery code is no longer part of common cultural conversation, so don't expect me to explain it. But these women certainly understood it.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone believes in recycling.

The P&O Band of Canton, Illinois

28 March 2015

The 34 musicians of the P & O Band have shiny golden instruments, including the band leader's gold baton. But these bandsmen probably handled cast iron more often than brass. They are factory workers from Canton, Illinois, members of a company whose trademark two letters separated by ampersand were once familiar to every farmer. This was the band of the Parlin & Orendorff Plow Company, once considered the largest and oldest plow and farm implement manufacturer in the world. 

Source: Farm Implement News 1904 Buyer's Guide
The factory was established in 1842 and proudly stated that it had the most complete and comprehensive series of Riding and Walking Plows, Cultivators, Harrows, Drills, Stalk Cutters, Corn and Cotton Planters, Potato Diggers, etc. made by any one factory in the country. There were between 1,500 and 2,000 workers at the Parlin & Orendorff Co. which made it Canton's largest employer. The factory's products were used on every size farm and with every type of agriculture.

Source: Farm Implements, Vol 26, Jan. 31, 1912

The P & O Band was the pride of the city as well as the company. According to this article from the January 31, 1912 edition of Farm Implements, Vol. 2, published in Minneapolis - St. Paul, the P & O workers established their first band in February 1851 as the Canton Brass Band. With the outbreak of war in 1861, it served as the regimental band for the 55th Illinois Volunteers. In the years later it became the musical representative for both the company and the town at many county, state, and even world fairs. In Canton it played concerts on every Saturday  throughout the summer. This 1912 article used the same photo of the band as the colorized postcard and identifies the band director with the gold baton as Frederick D. Walker, who it says received his musical training at the Boston Conservatory of Music.

The postcard was sent on July 30, 1914 to Master James Siffle of Pekin, IL from Claude.

Source: The Harvester World, Vol. 11
November 1920

In May 1919, the International Harvester Company, a kind of General Motors of agricultural equipment, bought out the Parlin & Orendorff factory and product line. The P&O brand name continued for a time on International Harvester machines and its factory workers still enjoyed a regular lunch time concert by their band as described in this article from a 1920 edition of The Harvester World. The company band was admired as a symbol of the plow workers pride and solidarity with their community and their farm equipment products.  The band continued under the IHC name until 1985 according to this webpage on the Canton Band history

My interest in this postcard of the P & O Band was due to a cast iron seat made by the Parlin & Orendorff Co. that I have in my workshop. The plywood stand is my own design and I have made several stools like this using other iron implement seats, often erroneously called "tractor seats". My choice of color is perhaps not the correct P & O hue, but it is a very stable and solid stool.

In this advertisement for the latest 1908 P&O Riding Cultivator, the seat is shown hanging precariously on the left side. The name Jewel Hammock implies a embellished level of precision and comfort that only a non-farm worker might believe. According to my dad who knew far more about farming than I ever will, on a full day in the field these seats are best experienced with a gunny sack of hay to pad the tailbone.

* * *

I very occasionally collect interesting non-musical photos and this one seemed appropriate for a story about farm implements. It shows a monstrous harvester machine being drawn through a wheat field by 33 horses, all carefully arranged according to color. The photo is actually a pair of images from a circa 1902 stereo view card produced by Underwood & Underwood Publishers of Arlington, NJ. The card has the must wonderful title:

(54)-6226 Evolution of the sickle and flail —
33 horse harvester
at Walla Walla, Washington

The back of the card has a very detailed summary  of the geography and 1902 agriculture of the mellifluously named Walla Walla, Washington, and includes this description of the multitasking machine in the photo:

A "combined harvester" like this here at work includes in one machine a header, thresher, separator, fanning-mill, and sacker; it will cut from 60 to 125 acres and thresh from 1700 to 3000 bushels in a day. Sometimes a traction engine is used in place of horse-power.

The stereo view card's title is repeated in 6 languages including, Swedish and Russian.

* * *

I do not think any book on physics could explain the term horsepower any better than this photo.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more stories of farm machinery.



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