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
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

A Show Boat Band

11 September 2011

A short fiction spun from 
the image left on an old glass plate negative c.1895

"Gentlemen, over here, if you please," called the photographer as he waved from the bluff. "I've just got to go back to my buggy to fetch another plate and then we'll proceed with the exposure."

The bandsmen began to make their way down the gangplank and onto the river sand. It was still early and the mist from the river was just rising. Their uniforms had picked up a bit of it too. Off in the distance, the Ohio embankment was just a line of gray haze.

"Why we going up there Mr. Jim?" asked the young drummer.

"Cause we're going to see if an educated chicken can count to ten, ninny," said the man. He looked at the boy's wide eyes and laughed. "The Major wants to get some photographs to print up for the next towns we play downriver. It won't take a minute and then we'll march into town, play some tunes, and see if we can pull in more folk for today's shows."

"Last night weren't so good was it? Don't think we sold half the rock candy we did last Friday."

"No, Emmett, it was a might poor crowd. Even the old rubes that showed up to gawk at the girls was half asleep by the second act." They followed the other men, some still half asleep and fumbling with their buttons, trying not to stumble on the gravel path. Atop the levee they sat down on some logs next to a chandler's yard full of bales, boxes, and timber.

Jim opened up his case and took out his cornet as the other musicians busied themselves putting their instruments together. Several started to warm up their lips and horns in the damp morning air. "Hey, Mr. Jimmy, what we goan ta play first? I doan have many good reeds left an I doan wanna waste em if we play just de marches," said the clarionetist. 


Syracuse NY Sun Herald
31 January 1904

"Well, Sal, I don't know. How bout we start with that Port Jefferson march and then the new concert polka we picked up in Cincinnati. Maybe add some old waltz tunes for the ladies, if any show up. Don't worry, I won't add the Zampa Overture this morning. Chances are we won't see many people on a Monday," said Jim. He looked over the small group and sighed. They sure were a jumble of odd fish. An Italian left over from a traveling band that went bust in St. Louis; a couple of Germans and a Czech looking for a change from factory work; an Irish boy from New York who played a nice tenor cor and could sing and dance too. The usual assortment of fellows with passable musical skills working the summer season on a show boat. The best players played for the shows, the others helped set up the lights and stage and sometimes helped rig the boat. 


Though calling it a boat was a stretch. This floating opera house couldn't swim in the water any better than this log. For that they needed the Nancy B., the smaller steam tugboat moored off the stern, to do the pushing and pulling. She also gave them the power for the electric lights too. The Great Empire City Floating Theater was 175 feet long and 45 feet wide, and could fit near 800 people inside on a good night. But the season was nearly at an end now and crowds were leaner than they had been in May.

He watched as a man sporting a fine top hat picked his way up the embankment. "Morning, Major Price," said Jim. "Bit of a chill today. Might have to fire up the boiler to heat the hall tonight, don't want the girls catching cold."

"You may be right, Jim," said Price. "All that rain this last week, we need some kind of hook to fill the ticket box over the next couple of days." He looked over the band and frowned. "You boys take good care of these new shakos. I don't want to see any plumes flying away downriver." The Major kept a tight rein over his troupe of actors and musicians. He'd run shows all along the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Mississippi, and the Missouri. Playing little towns for a day and big cities for a week, it was a bit like a military campaign. He'd brought the photographer in this morning to take photos for his agents to use when they went on ahead to paper the next port. His budget for printing was slim, but this little fellow was eager and made a fair offer for several dozen prints. He sure hoped he knew what he was doing. 


"Major, how long do you think we'll stay on the south side of the river?" asked Jim. Most of the boys were from up north and didn't take well to some of the southern sensibilities. A few years back, the Eugene Robinson Show came up from Memphis and got in a heap of trouble trying to fly the Stars and Bars up in Iowa. Couple of towns got so riled up, they forced the showboat to take it down and put up the red, white and blue. And he'd heard that one old black man even sued the owner for $10,000 when they wouldn't sell him a reserved seat. Old wounds were still painful when you poked them with a sharp stick. Tonight they'd probably get lots of requests to play Dixie.

Mansfield OH News
05 August 1904

The Major looked out at the river. "I'm thinking we'll do a show tonight and then move a bit up river. On the other side." He gave Jim a wink and a nod. "There's a G.A.R. encampment that ought to bring in some old vets and their families. We can do some of the patriotic plays and then add some light comedy. Too bad we lost that juggler to the circus last week. We could use more variety. But you boys play some today and then get to practicing that new show. Needs an overture or two to fill out the time."


Jim smiled and blew a few soft notes into his horn. It felt good to have the Major's trust on the music. He'd ordered some new band books from Chicago last month and the boys could do a read-through later today. "How's the new pilot doing on the Nancy B., Major?"

The Major shook his head. "Not too good. He didn't seem to know as much about shoals on this part of the river as he claimed. First he kept too close until he thought he saw a snag and then he'd run her way out to center. Upset my morning coffee snaking around like that. Sure wish we had Capt. Mrs. Leathers for this season"

Altoona PA Mirror
30 March 1895
The Major was referring to Mrs. Blanche Leathers who had piloted another showboat Price had run for a few years. She was as much an attraction as any of the acts in the show. People came to see the lady pilot more than the troupe of performers. All proper and prim around patrons, she could bellow orders like any navvy man and she sure could read a river. But she ended up missing her husband who was running another big steamboat out of New Orleans, so she cut loose to join him on the southern routes.

"Gus, watch where you spit that chaw!" Jim shouted. "That bass drum don't need any more spots." The big German smiled through a mustache stained a bit darker than his natural hair color. He didn't know much music but he had a good ear for keeping the band on the beat. Mostly he did all the heavy lifting for the barge crew. Jim turned around and growled, "Emmett would you kindly cut out that racket?"

"Yes, Mr. Jim," said the boy and put his drumsticks back into his belt. The photographer waved at them again and motioned over towards his tripod.

"Gentlemen, if you could all sit round here and that ways I'll get the Empire City into the background." He quickly ducked under the camera's cloth cape. "Now those in the front just look towards me, and the rest set your gaze off that a ways."

"Why's he doing that Mr. Jim?" whispered the boy.

"Talking to the chicken inside, I guess. Hush and keep quiet now."

"All very good. Hold your position if you please. Hold. And hold ... and thank you very much." He pulled the negative tray out and tucked it under his coat.

Just then came a heavy blast from the tugboat whistle. Dockhands along the pier began to yell. The mate standing atop the Empire City began flailing the ship's bell. Emmett pointed into the haze. "There's a steamboat headed right for the Empire City!" he shouted.

"Blast my eyes," said Major Price. "She's moving way too fast to stop. She's going to hit us! What's that idiot pilot think he's doing?" They couldn't get a clear sight of the pilothouse in the mist but they could hear its bell clattering now too. The whistle on the Nancy B. howled in return. Some of the deckmates had leapt into the river. Several of the actors were rushing from their cabins along the second deck and racing to the stern. 


Then they saw a remarkable sight. Down at the water's edge was Gus. He had hold of an oar from one the lighters used to restock provisions and supplies for the theater barge. The boat was empty but Gus waded into the water and using the oar, gave it a great shove into the river. They watched it skim across the water to bob just ahead of the Empire City's bow.

By this time the steamboat pilot had awaken to the impending calamity and put its screws into reverse, churning the water into a great froth and swinging to the left. It was slowing but not enough to stop. The men froze waiting for the moment of collision. Suddenly the air exploded with a terrible noise of torn metal and splintered wood. Taking the force of the impact. the lighter burst into pieces. The Empire City rolled up against the pier straining the dock lines. But the steamboat had expended its energy and lay beached on the riverbank, rocking in the waves. 

The bandsmen and Major Price quickly scrambled down to the dock. Jim pulled Gus up to the gangplank, his britches soaked and his coat torn. He grinned as they all shook his hand and slapped him on the back. Major Price grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "Gus, that was the most dang fool thing I ever did see. How in tarnation did you know how to do that?"

"In Lübeck, I work as Feuerwehrmann - what you call fireman? Docks see many fires. Little boat make bumper for ships." He smiled. "Is good, Yes?"

"Good?" exclaimed Major Price, "You bet good. You saved the Empire City Floating Theater."

"Maybe good enough for an extra bonus in his packet this week?" asked Jim.

The Major pursed his lips and gave Jim a hard look. "Yes, I suppose that would be a fair ring for keeping us afloat." He paused and laughed. "By golly that was a fearsome feat. You'll see a $5 gold piece in your pay this week, though I still ought to take 15 cents out of your wages for that shako plume."

"Major, look there," said Jim pointing up to the bluff, "this town's got more folk then we thought." A swarm of people spilled over the levee to get a closer view of the accident.

The little photographer scuttled down to them. "Ma-Ma-Major Price," he stammered breathlessly, "I am so sorry. The noise startled my horse and caused my equipment to overturn. I'm afraid this negative is spoiled now and won't turn out well at all."

Major Price chuckled, "Little feller, you go write this up for your newspaper. This kind of free advertising is worth more than a thousand photos. We'll have a full house tonight and every night for a month if you can believe it. Come on Jimmy, let's get the band playing before this fine turnout loses interest." 

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more enthusiasts for vintage photographs.


Thanks to Liz (see comments) for the excellent link to the
from which I have added the extra photos of riverboats that perfectly illustrate my story. 
My choice of names for the characters and the two boats in my story is entirely invented.
However the other events were real and are part of a description
of the life of a showboat band. 


Brett Payne said...

More please :-) Now that's the kind of photograph and back story that I like!

Alan Burnett said...

I am running out of superlatives to use about your blog and your Sepia Saturday posts. You weave so many different threads into this wonderful post - the very best Saville Row suit of a post.

Little Nell said...

I can only agree wholeheartedly with Alan and Brett. This is a wonderful story to explain the picture. As for Mrs Leathers....what a woman!!

Postcardy said...

Fascinating story!

Liz Stratton said...

Love it! The articles referenced a few steamboats and I couldn't help but go look for images on the Cincinnati Public Library's steamboat Wiki page.

Natchez images (there were several):

Nancy B:

Entertaining post!

Christine H. said...

As I clicked on your link today I wondered: What treat does Mike have in store for us today? But you have really outdone yourself this time.

Howard said...

Mike, you surpass yourself. You need to write a book.

Bob Scotney said...

A superb post with words and photos to match. I think you excel yourself every week.

Karen S. said...

Amazing post, and I still can't get over that great plate glass photo...simply interesting to the max!


i sure enjoyed your story telling!! looking at that first picture, i think of the movie "THE PIANO":
if i remember correctly.


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