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 Kempsmith Mfg Co. Band

29 July 2011


Once upon a time, it seems every village, town, and city in America had a band. And often more than just one band. There were military bands, municipal bands, fraternal lodge bands, church bands, school bands, ladies bands, orphanage bands, and bands like this one - the factory band. Lined up in neat order on a workshop bench is the Kempsmith Band, the company band for the Kempsmith Mfg. Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Very similar to the brass band tradition in Britain, many industrial companies in the 19th and early 20th century started musical groups to foster employee teamwork and company pride. Some were associated with unions but most were used for the local promotion of the company name.

This 8"x10" format photo is undated and unmarked but the unique name on the bass drum was enough to narrow the search. There is no town with this name in the U.S., but in Milwaukee there is a manufacturer of industrial machinery named Kempsmith, established in 1888 by Frank Kempsmith. Milwaukee has long been a center for high skills industry, especially with automotive, machine tool, and engine manufacturers, and these men are likely trained as metalworking machinists.

The company specialized in metal tooling machinery used by various industries, like the milling machine pictured here from a 1922 ad. Basically making very large and heavy things that could hurt you if you didn't follow the directions. In 1916 they had a payroll of 450 workers. The current company makes tool and die machinery for the paper product industry.


The front row of  the Kempsmith band shows a clear difference between a horn (seated 3rd L) and  two mellophones next to it. There are also several upright low brass, with two different sized tubas, a euphonium, and an alto horn. They don't seem to have a conductor, so perhaps they were led by the first trumpet. The style of uniforms and haircuts suggest 1920's, perhaps as late as 1935, but certainly some years before WW II. 

I could not find an actual reference citation for this band, but I did find an article from 1907 in the business section of the Bismark North Dakota Tribune

With a title Doubling in Brass, it describes how many businesses were recruiting men with extra musical skills to augment their company bands.
"Here is an advertisement from a place up the state calling for machinists, lathe, bench, and planer hands, who must be musicians and play cornet, trombone or B bass.."
it says.

Another Milwaukee machine manufacturer also maintained a company band, and their musicians played every Tuesday for the other employees. In the days before radio, when music was handcrafted and consumed slowly in moderation, a company band must have been a real source of worker pride. All the company activities like picnic socials, baseball games, holiday parades, all needed music and what better way to give back to the staff and community than to have a company band.
What kind of music did they play? And when did the powerful forces of canned recorded music force the demise of factory bands like this?

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
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15 comments:

Postcardy said...

I am impressed by how many brass instruments there are and that you can identify. It is interesting that some companies recruited employees that could play in their bands.

Tattered and Lost said...

I'm so fascinated by the concept of company bands. These days I imagine it's just get a group together and go to a karaoke bar. Definitely better in the old days.

Karen S. said...

Just so long as people keep making music I'm happy!

Little Nell said...

I can see how the idea of the band fostering teamwork would be popular. Music draws people together.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Wow, this was super interesting! It seems as if in today's parades that most of the school bands ride on flatbeds instead of walking. I'm afraid that less and less children are learning music these days too.

Thanks so much for your visit, and have a wonderful SS!

Kathy M.

Bob Scotney said...

The brass bands in England have been famous for years. You can't help being stirred by the music they play.
At first glance the Kempsmith uniforms reminded me of the Salvation Army.How many companies these days would recruit machinists whohad to be musicians?

Howard said...

Wonderful. I think in days past more people played musical instruments. They had no internet or TV to distract them. My company recently tried to start a choir, there was little interest and it quickly disbanded.

Alan Burnett said...

Perfectly researched piece. It is always fascinating to compare the development in America of such company bands with the almost parallel development in Britain of company brass bands.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

I am fascinated by the different instruments, I've really learnt something today!

TICKLEBEAR said...

well, nowadays, companies focus more on sporting events for various causes but having a band is something right out of nostalgia, a gone era. i remember hearing a band playing in a large gazebo on the side of the Mount-Royal, Montreal's "Central Park"... this is a now long lost memory, but i believe i heard recently that the gazebo would be repaired. does it mean music will return? it would be lovely.

and you're right: that machine sure looks dangerous. you wouldn't see me anywhere near, as i tend to be a total clutz!!
:D~
HUGZ

Doctor FTSE said...

I loved your posts, and I love brass bands. A stirring and majestic sound. But not all Brits would agree. The great British orchestral conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, was once asked if he thought there was a place for brass bands. He answered "Of course there is! Outside! And miles away!"
The same maestro was once asked by an upcoming younger conductor for advice. "Yes," replied Sir Thomas, "Never encourage the brass."

Christine H. said...

I love the idea of a factory band. I know a number of city departments and firms that have their own rock bands, but not official like these, but still shows that people like to make music.

tony said...

The Brass Bands in England Continue [ironically outliving the factories that started them] I always Find there music very emotional & sad...reflecting the decline of the Industry around them.Have you seen the movie Brassed Off ?

Cameron said...

Are those two right-handed piston horns in the front row? The player on the left seems to have the more standard left-handed horn.

Mike Brubaker said...

Those are 2 piston valved mellophones on the front row. They came in several keys, but I think the one on the right is in high F (compared to the horn) and the center one is in Eb. The horn on the left is likely in F despite the looped crook. This type of horn put the valves below the body of the instrument.

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