ElginHistory.com - Elgin: Days Gone By - E. C. Alft
ElginHistory.com Home Page
Elgin: Days Gone By - Table of Contents

Chapter 14


The E.N.W.F.M.B.

The '80s and '90s of the last century were a golden age of military band music in the United States. Every aspiring town had an amateur band. A few bands in the larger cities employed professionals, but there were frequent changes in members and directors.

From 1887 through 1892, the Elgin National Watch Factory Military Band under the leadership of Professor Joseph Hecker combined proficiency with continuity of personnel. The result was, according to one musical journal, "the most perfect instrumentation of any band west of New York while its membership includes many fine soloists."

Hecker, German-born, had been a regimental bandmaster in England before emigrating to Canada and the United States. A composer as well as a director, be is said to have originated the arrangement of symphonies for band performance. Hecker was called to Elgin in 1886 by the watch company to build up an existing military band to give promotional concerts.

The company assumed an indebtedness of more than $2,000 owed by the old band. Musicians who appreciated a steady job were recruited from throughout the country. The band members worked ten-hour days at the factory and were paid their daily wages while on tour. They owned their own fatigues and most of the instruments. The company supplied the dress uniforms and the musical library. For a two-year period, one man was employed practically full time copying music. Hecker claimed that the band could play all fall and winter without repeating a selection.

Some of the selections were by Hecker. His "Southern Memories" was written on the eve of departure for an engagement. Members copied their parts from the original manuscript on board the train and played it without a rehearsal. It became one of his most popular compositions.

Although it also provided the music for the First Regiment, Illinois National Guard, the unit was designed primarily for concerts rather than marching. The Elgin National Watch Factory Military Band was unusual because reeds and strings outnumbered the brass instruments. Of the 42 pieces at one concert in 1890, for example, there were 11 clarinets and four saxophones, and only three trombones, three cornets, and one trumpet. In addition, there were three string basses.

The band traveled extensively, especially in the Midwest. Their engagements included Republican national party conventions at Chicago in 1888 and Minneapolis in 1892, the St. Louis Exposition and the St. Paul Winter Carnival in 1887, the Knights of Pythias convention at Cincinnati, where they won a first prize of $500 in 1888, and the Sioux City Corn Palace in 1888 and 1890. Plaudits for these concerts were reprinted with pride in Elgin newspapers.

"The tone, harmony and expression of playing," said a review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "captured the audience, and every piece was greeted with applause."

The Sioux City Tribune noted that, "The repertoire is very extensive, ranging from the heaviest and most difficult compositions to arrangements of popular airs and bright catchy little gavottes, so highly appreciated by the popular ear."

And the Fort Worth Gazette rhapsodized: "To hear Hecker is to be inspired; to hear the soft and sweet harmonies brought forth by the Elgins under Hecker's lead, is to be lifted up-to be made happy."

A fire at the Spring Palace in Fort Worth, Texas, broke out on May 30, 1890, soon after the Elgin performers finished a concert. About half of their instruments, 55 recently purchased uniforms, and much of their baggage and manuscript music was destroyed.

When Joseph Hecker resigned his directorship in September, 1892, the company withdrew its support, and most of the professionals left the city. Although Hecker assembled a band to play at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and other local military bands were organized later, the glory days had passed.

Hawaiian Guitars

The music wasn't on the same level with today's Elgin Symphony Orchestra, but in the 1930s the wire strings and steel bars of the Hawaiian Guitar Band brought a measure of renown to our fair city. Ancel E. "Pat" Patton, a watch factory employee who taught fretted instruments in the evenings, was responsible for its local popularity. He organized the Elgin Hawaiian Guitar Club in 1928 to give his pupils the benefit of ensemble as well as individual work. About a dozen of his students began participating in public performances in the Masonic Temple parlors. This nucleus would grow into a band of more than a hundred, ranging in age from seven to more than 70 years. A smaller unit, the Fireside Quintet, played for ice cream socials, lodges, and civic club festivities.

Elgin guitarists first attracted attention at the national convention of the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists held in Chicago in 1933, when they placed second. The group kept trying and in 1936 won first place in Minneapolis.

The following year the band earned best rating at Detroit, and in 1938 took its third national title in competition at St. Joseph, Missouri. Their finest moments came in 1939 at Providence, Rhode Island. Elgin's 90 piece entry won the national full-band title for the fourth consecutive year, captured first rating in the small band contest for 40 piece units, won the mandolin band competition and ranked third and fourth in the new division for electric instruments.

The first uniforms, navy blue and white with an overseas cap, were homemade. Trips to the A.G.B.M. & G. conventions were financed by annual concerts. At first these were held one night each year, but were later extended to three to accommodate the growing audiences. Band members appeared at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and once led the parade around Soldier Field at the Music Festival sponsored by the Chicago Tribune.

The band broke up when men began leaving for service in World War 11, and the last public concert was held in 1942. Many of the younger members still live in Elgin and have fond memories of the days they played the quavering chords of "Echoes of the South", "Wolverine Overture", "Off to Hawaii", and "Aloha".

Pianos and Organs

Have you heard or seen a Seybold organ or piano? Judging by the requests for information about these Elgin-made instruments, many are still in use.William Seybold invented a four-chamber reed box which gave the ordinary organ a quality of tone resembling that of a pipe organ. He died not long after moving his operation from Chicago to Elgin late in 1903, but the Seybold Reed Pipe Organ Company was continued under local ownership.

Fred Ackemann was the general manager and his brother-in-law, William Bultmann, was the factory superintendent. The original plant was located at Dexter Avenue and the old mill race along the river. At first, only the action was made, but all the machinery necessary for making the cases had been secured by 1905.
Proper drying of the lumber was of critical importance. The wood was first air dried, then placed in kilns where the heat was carefully graduated from 80 to 150 degrees. Chestnut, poplar, and elm were the woods chiefly used.

Pianos were added to the line in 1908 and soon became the main output. By 1913 the firm was producing about 2,000 pianos annually. Many of these were player pianos.

The popularity of the mechanical keyboard led the Seybold Piano and Organ Company into an ill-fated merger with the Engelhardt Company of St. Jobnsville, New York, which made the player attachments. The combine lost money as the player piano novelty faded before the steady competition of the phonograph. The war in Europe erased much of the foreign market. The Engelhardt-Seybold Company declared bankruptcy in 1915, and more than 60 local employees lost their jobs.

The following year, however, the vacant plant was acquired by the E. P. Johnson Company, which had been producing pianos in Ottawa. This firm made uprights, players, and grands. The Seybold name was continued for one of the models. Other brands were the E. P. John son and P.C. Weaver. Most of the market was in the Chicago area, chiefly to mail order houses. Although output ended with the onslaught of the Depression, and the factory building was razed in the Civic Center land clearance, thousands of Elgin pianos and organs are still making music.

Two Artists

One of the purposes of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., is to counteract the impression that all exceptional artists have been men. Elgin should need no reminder; this city was the home of two eminent women painters: Anna Lynch (1865-1946) and Jane Peterson (1878-1965). Both were listed in Who's Who in America.

Lynch was the granddaughter of Irish immigrants who arrived in Elgin in the 1840s. She attended local public schools and was an early graduate of St. Mary's Academy. Following classes at Chicago's Art Institute, she studied in Paris, 1902-04, where she frequented the Louvre. "Such times in the class rooms!" she recalled of her stay abroad. "Elated if the criticism of the professor is favorable, cast down if be mutilated one's best efforts."

Women artists were considered to be wandering out of their proper pasture. "One man of international fame, who criticised in a class of women, mostly Americans, and who was most polite and charming to them, asked an American man one day after he got outside,'What are all those girls doing here? Why don't they go home and get married?"'

Lynch returned to the family home at 54 South Crystal Street and to a studio in Chicago. During her lifetime she painted more than 400 portraits in oil and miniatures.

The miniatures, on which her reputation is based, averaged about 3 by 2 V2 inches in size and were painted on ivory. Her work was exhibited in many of the leading galleries in the United States, and numerous commissions enabled her to be self-supporting.

Peterson was the daughter of a watch factory worker. Not long after graduating from Elgin High School in 1894, she borrowed money to go to New York to study art. Enrolled at the Pratt Institute, she subsisted on bread and milk in a $6-a-month rented room. By 1901 Peterson was able to finance an extended period of study and work in London, Madrid, and Paris. She returned to this country and a life of exhibitions, prizes, and awards. Her talent was versatile. She painted still lifes, landscapes, city scenes and portraits in both oils and watercolor, but she is best known for her flower paintings and authored a book on this genre in 1947.

In 1925 Peterson married Moritz Bernard Philipp, a wealthy attorney and a major stockholder in the Eastman Kodak Corporation. The Elgin girl who had borrowed money to begin her education now had a skylighted studio at the top of a house on Fifth Avenue and another studio at a country home in Ipswich, Massachusetts.Peterson is gaining increased recognition as an early American impressionist. "The Pier at Rocky Neck, Gloucester" is one of her works that attracted wide attention when it was reproduced in color on the cover of the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1980.


Born in Elgin of Norwegian immigrant parents, Trygve A. Rovelstad (1903-1990) studied under famed sculptor
Lorado Taft and later served as an assistant, 1922-1925. Mayor Earle R. Kelley in 1929 suggested a fund drive to erect a statue of the town's founder, James T. Gifford. Encouraged by this interest, Rovelstad began working on the project after a period of study at the Louvre.

Tryg's conception of a fitting monument expanded to a bronze four-figure group 12 feet high called the Pioneer Memorial. It consisted of a scout or huntsman, carrying a longrifle and breaking the trail; a pioneer father looking ahead to new horizons; a mother with a baby at her breast; and a youth bearing a staff in one band and a scroll in the other, symbolic of strength and knowledge. Below these portraits would be a granite base eight feet high.

The City Council approved the plan without appropriating any money, and designated Davidson Park, a small triangular plot at Villa and Chapel Streets adjacent to the location of Gifford's cabin, as the site. Undaunted by the task of raising the funds needed to complete his vision during the Depression years, Tryg secured a relief grant to employ ten laborers to landscape the park and lay the monument's foundation. Then government aid was withdrawn, and further appeals to this source were rejected. Tryg continued working clay in one of the three fire stations the city had to abandon because of insufficient revenue to maintain all its fire fighting companies.

With the approach of Elgin's centennial celebration in 1935, the sculptor modeled a commemorative half dollar to raise funds for the Memorial. The statue is depicted on the coin's reverse; the front shows the profile of a pioneer scout. The initials TR can be found under his beard. Petitions were circulated and signed by more than 4,000 residents asking Congress to approve the minting and sale of 25,000 coins at $1.50 each. Meeting with resistance from both the Treasury and the White House, Congress did not authorize the Elgin Centennial Half Dollar until 1936, a year after the event it was supposed to commemorate.

It was expected that sales would net the local committee $15,000 after distribution costs, but $1.50 was a considerable sum during the Depression, and 5,000 unsold coins had to be returned to the mint to be melted down. The proceeds allowed work on the monument to continue until 1938, when the city reopened Fire Station No. 5 and requested the sculptor to leave.

Efforts to obtain an appropriation from the state legislature proved futile. The project was interrupted by the Second World War. Tryg went to work for the War Department as a heraldic artist and medalist, and the models went into storage. Among the Army decorations he designed are the Combat Infantryman's Badge and the Bronze Star. After the war he designed a huge manuscript book honoring the Americans who died in defense of Britain. It was presented to St. Paul's Cathedral, London, by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wrote two inscriptions for it.

He returned to Elgin in 1949, built a new studio to house the Memorial models, and continued to work on them in his spare time. In 1957 be formed the Pioneer Memorial Foundation in an effort to raise private funds, but there was little public response.

Trygve Rovelstad could execute other projects-a bronze statue of a state senator for the capitol building. in Springfield, and a number of medallions-and dream of others, such as a 300-foot"I Will" statue whose head would be twice the size of the Great Sphinx of Egypt, to be placed in Lake Michigan off the Chicago shore, but the Pioneer remained his unfinished obsession.

Numismatists occasionally pass through town and inquire about the monument on the coin, but only the foundation can be seen. Ironically, because of the small number circulated, the value of the Elgin commemorative has escalated. Depending on condition, prices may range from about $200 to more than $1,000. On September 27, 1985, a rare satin proof of Elgin Commemorative sold for $5,500 at the Mid-American Rare Coin Auction in San Diego, California.


Chapters -


© 1992-2001 by E. C. Alft and ElginHistory.com. All rights reserved.