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Tuesday, June 28, 2016
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home : considered comment : selected past columns June 28, 2016

Our town bands, once the delight of every summer

When I was a boy in this city by the lake, a time so distant that it grows dimmer with each recollection, my downtown amusements consisted of two events: the Western movies on Saturday afternoons at the Char-Bell theater and, on Wednesday summer nights, concerts on the Courthouse square by the Citizens Band.

The band's musicians were a spiffy bunch in their uniforms of white pants, blue coats and military caps. Mostly they played martial music that always uplifted my adolescent spirits and if I was lucky, they concluded the night with the intricate, martial rhythms of "Stars and Stripes Forever" with its thrilling finish.

These concerts attracted large crowds of city and county people, many of whom listened from their parked cars and after each selection sounded their car horns in appreciation.

The late Floyd Christman, a cornetist, wrote about the quality of the band's musicians and performances. The Citizens Band was the last of the popular local municipal bands. Christman said the band broke up in 1935 after a 25-year run.

During that period, the Citizens Band also performed regularly at Mentone and Kewanna and seven times appeared at pre-race ceremonies of the Indianapolis 500. Members once boarded the train and gave concerts in every town along the way to Huntington, later on the way to Hammond.

The town bands for decades were about the only public entertainment offered to local folks. These musicians came before dance bands, radios, juke boxes and television. It was a tradition here, and in countless other small towns, for musicians to get together and entertain their townspeople this way.

Bands like the Citizens existed here for 80 years according to one of its premier directors, Viv Essick, whose namesake, Vivian Wagoner Overmyer of Rochester, is my stepmother.

Viv was a superlative musical artist on the cornet, often was a guest soloist with larger city bands and was an inspiring band director. In 1941, he passed along his memory of Rochester's town bands.

The first one came nearly 150 years ago. A certain Obed Osgood formed it in 1856 as the Rochester Cornet Band and kept it performing until the Civil War began in 1861. The band reorganized in 1865 but political factions soon split it into Republican and Democrat sections that for three years dueled one another with separate concerts.

Then came Pearson's Brass and String Band in 1874. John Pearson, its leader, was considered among the nation's best cornetists and it was he who brought Viv Essick, as a child, into music. The Pearson band was immensely popular and constantly in concert for 10 years until Pearson left for Kansas City.

One of the band's students, Levi Emrick, then led it to even further prominence statewide. Emrick was the first to put the band into uniforms and with the help of a nearby Italian instructor, James Nevota, transformed it into one of Indiana's best, performing in Indianapolis and other state cities. Viv Essick was the band's featured "boy cornetist" and Emrick's young son Paul also was a band member. The son would go on to create Purdue University's legendary marching band and then direct it for 49 years.

Later two bands came along, the Grand Army and the Knights of Pythias, before the first military band appeared in 1883 with my great-uncle Meade Kingery as a drum major. Known as the Third Regiment Band, it played concerts in every major state city until the Spanish-American War of 1898 broke it up.

In the new century, Rochester College had a band for awhile and then about 1910 came both the Citizens and the Manitau bands sponsored by south and north end merchants, respectively. When the Manitau Band's director, the violinist and teacher Lamont Davidson, left town, Manitau players went over to the Citizens Band. It then dominated the local musical scene until Rochester High School began a marching band in 1937, eight years after organizing the school's first band.

Women took part in many of these local musical performances. Essick recalled a few female singers and women playing piccolo and accordion.

After the second World War, local times and lifestyles changed quickly and irrevocably. The community band became a quaint but important memory in the city's history.

Published July 19, 2005

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