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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The Lehr Family Orchestra

25 September 2010

This is one of the first photographs in my collection - Lehr's Family Orchestra, found in an antique shop in Union Bridge, Maryland. This was several years ago, and I had no real interest in collecting then, but this photo postcard caught my attention for its quaint good fun. And for $2, I couldn't resist buying it, so it ended up on the bulletin board of my music studio. Some years later the collecting sickness took over and I began to find other vintage photographs of musicians. This happened at the same time as my interest in genealogy and history research became  more developed. So this photo was became my first exploration into the vast archives available on the world wide web. What could I learn with the little information available in this photo? Quite a lot, actually.

The photo is from the early 1930's and the Lehr's are rehearsing at home for their traveling show. Family bands had always been a popular entertainment in the 19th century and good business for the families that had talent and numerous progeny. But by the 1920's and 30's the opportunities for success in these kinds of concerts was rapidly declining. Vaudeville had left the big city theaters and begun a decline into a cheaper tawdry entertainment we now associate with burlesque. The traveling circuit was growing smaller and the season shorter, and the competition from Hollywood and radio, meant a diminishing audience. The Great Depression did not help either.

Here the Lehr family is on stage, showing mom and dad with 8 children. This second photo came from a York, Pennsylvania source which suggested a location in Maryland or Pennsylvania. With so many different newspapers and state archives to chose from, location can really determine success in research. So this led to a discovery in the August 13, 1938 edition of the Daily News of Frederick, MD.
Amazingly, it is the same photograph and it describes the family and the program, which features the two youngest brothers - John Philip Sousa Lehr and Victor Herbert Lehr. This wonderful article gave the final clues to find the full family history.  

John A. Jr and Mabel Meisenhelder Lehr lived in North York, PA with 8 children. On the 1930 census John scratched out his occupation as machinist and listed musician/orchestra instead. He played saxophone and Mabel played the piano. This musical family band played churches and civic gathering around the Gettysburg and York County, PA, and Frederick, MD area from 1926 to 1941. The Lehr siblings are in order:

  • Hazel M. - b. 1910  - trombone
  • Standford I.M. Lehr- b.1912 - violin
  • David Samuel Lehr - 1914- clarinet
  • Catherine Mabel Lehr - 1916- saxophone
  • Theodore John Lehr - 1919 - drums
  • Virginia June Lehr - 1921- saxophone
  • John Philip Sousa Lehr - 1929 - drums and conductor
  • Victor Herbert Lehr - 1932 drums and vocal
A review of the 1938 concert appeared a few days later and described Victor Herbert as only just past his third year. A common exaggeration used by family musicians since musical bands began. In the Frederick Times of July 6, 1936 we find a photograph of young Victor at the drums. Judging by the age of the girls the first photo is clearly earlier, perhaps 1920's, and I think it shows John Philip at the drums instead of Victor.

One can only imagine the noise of the Lehr household. And such aspiration to name the youngest children after the two most popular American composers of the early 20th century. The report that John Philip Sousa Lehr won a prize at the Chicago Fair in 1933 and that Victor Herbert Lehr was taking instruction from the great band leader Frank Goldman in New York suggests the family did some traveling beyond York. Ambition for the youngest talent was also a common family band tradition.

But after 1941 the trail goes cold, and I find no clues to suggest that any member of the Lehr family orchestra ever went on to great musical fame. But I feel certain that they each found a passion for music that ultimately became the real reward.


Blake Stough said...

I was pleased that a reader of my blog directed me to yours, as I was trying to identify the subjects of a postcard from my grandparents collection. It turns out it was the Lehr Family Orchestra, who are actually distant cousins of mine. I'm the follow-up story I'm writing, I'll gladly direct people to this page for addition information.

As I have many more musical-themed postcards to write about, perhaps I'll find your information again.

Here is a link to the original story I posted:

jgallaghercm said...

I believe that this John Lehr was my Great Uncle in that my paternal Grandmother was Anna Laura Lehr. My dad used to talk about the Lehr Family Orchestra that he knew of from family visits in the 20s-30s. I am interested in learning more of the family.

Victor Fields said...

Theodore "Ted" Lehr, 97 is alive and well and living in Country Meadows Retirement Community in South York. I met him today after playing a concert. He was the drummer, and played xylophone and marimba with the orchestra. I believe he is the only surviving Lehr family member left!


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