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 }

The Germantown Band in the Snow

09 February 2013

A century ago the town band was a basic element of civic culture in America. In small cities the musicians of a fraternal group, the workers in a factory, or even volunteer firemen might form a band. But in rural communities, a town band had a particularly high value because the only way to hear music was if it was performed by live musicians. Town parades, weddings, funerals, dances, school fetes, and church socials all needed music and these local musicians were the only people who could provide that entertainment talent. The states in the American Midwest boasted a remarkable number of small bands and this photo postcard shows a great example - the Town Band from Germantown, Iowa standing in the remains of a winter's snow.

The musicians were probably all farmers, and though they might raise a subscription to pay a band leader, they were undoubtedly amateurs playing for the joy of music. My guess is that the short clarinetist at the center is the man who called the tunes for this 21 man band. The drum says Germantown Band 1911, so that gives a useful starting year. The postcard, Photo by Struve, was never mailed though it has an address for Mrs. J. C. Miller of Paullina, Iowa. This makes it easier to find on a map as there are over 20 Germantowns scattered around the United States. Paulina in O'Brien County, Iowa is about 7 miles east of Germantown, and in 1910 it was a metropolis with 796 citizens.

Snowfall in Iowa happens even in May so this might be a spring day instead of winter. It doesn't look too cold. The musician's hats are the only suggestion of a uniform and the style seems more suitable for farmers than bankers.

Mr. Struve does not appear in the census records, at least as a professional photographer, and though it's good certainty that these fellows are in Iowa, I wanted a better confirmation. The building behind the band looked like a church, could I find it?

Not only did I find it, but this vintage postcard added the perfect proof of where and when the Germantown Band is standing.

This photo is also by Struve and shows a church and its congregation in Germantown, Iowa on Sunday, June 18, 1911. The snow is gone and the musicians must packing away their instruments, but the church doorway and the stained glass windows match the exterior details behind the band. The church is Saint Johns Lutheran Church, founded in 1878 by German immigrants from Illinois. It is situated at the crossroads of 480th Street and Oak Hill Ave. Google Maps provides a bird's eye view.  Look to the upper left corner for the shadow of the steeple, and be sure to click on the map to zoom in and out.

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In this part of Iowa, geometry is kept simple and they stick to the square. Even the modern irrigation circles that decorate much of the Midwest farmland are skipped over in favor of right angles.
Germantown was part of the great settlement of the prairie brought about by expansion of the railroads in the 1880s. Despite its name, the people in O'Brien County were mainly of German decent but came here from other American centers of German immigrants rather than directly from Germany.  

In 1860 the county population was 8.  By 1910, O'Brien had filled in the squares with 17,262 people. Germantown is included in Caledonia township, and this map, which was drawn in 1973, shows that German family names are still there.

The people of Iowa are great enthusiasts for genealogy and local history. The website provided that map and also this wonderful image of the Paullina, Iowa Military Band which dates from Nov. 4, 1906.

This 25 piece band has more boys than the Germantown band, but it is essentially the same typical small wind band instrumentation with mostly brass, a few clarinets, a piccolo, and a pair of drummers. The Paullina Band musicians are identified and the director, J. A. Cushing, is again a man seated in the center. He resembles the leader in the Germantown band, but that man looks much younger and the photo was taken at least 5 years later. I would think it a good bet that Mr. Struve was also behind the camera in 1906, so only he could tell us.

Extra Sepia points if you can read the valentine message on the bass drum.

O'Brien county is in the northwest corner of Iowa near the border with South Dakota. The next county to the west is Sioux county, and it is there in Orange City, a mere 17.5 miles from Germantown, that you would find the Best Amateur Band in Iowa. This image was cropped from a postcard and though it gives a date for the band of 1892-1902, the postcard is likely a reprint made around 1910-15 of an older photo. The heritage in Orange City was supposedly Dutch and not Deutsch, which may account for the fancier uniforms and French horns. The population in 1910 was about double of Paullina with 1,374.

(If you follow that link, note that you will be reading the second post on this blog. Seems like ancient history, as I no longer worry about conserving internet paper.)

These three bands may have shared musicians who might easily play with several musical groups. But in the 1900s, this corner of Iowa was hardly unique to have bands so close to each other. The German, Dutch, and Scandinavian heritage of these communities certainly contributed to the musical traditions of the people. But I think they were creating a new culture, a very American culture of band music that would prove a major influence on the direction of music education and music performance.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it is a snow day all weekend.


Nigel Aspdin (Derby, UK) said...

My attention was drawn to the uniform pattern of the surveyed plots and roadways. I know that this is very much the norm in the North American continent, but it still fascinates an Englishman, even the Romans had trouble keeping a dead straight line for more than a mile or two.

But I noticed that there are minuscule diversions of longitude direction at some intersections, in some cases corrected at the next intersection. This is only just apparent to the naked eye, and is not an illusion (I have zoomed in on Google Earth).

I am no expert surveyor or mathematician, but there has to be a reason for this, and I don't think the reason is to avoid a physical object. I have a feeling that the original surveyor had a more obscure reason to have to make a marginal correction. I can speculate, for example the need to adjust magnetic variation every so often, or to marry up with a surveyor of a neighbouring section who had started from a different point. I have no idea, but I know an SS man who does, and I am going to ask him to speculate.


Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

I think that I have heard of Germantown before.

I have some old high school band pictures of my uncle and friends when they were students at Drain, Oregon. I am glad that you pointed out how important rural town bands were; today there are so many options.

Your photos and history of town are wonderful. Thank you!

Kathy M.

The Pink Geranium or Jan's Place said...

Very interesting, and wonderful touch of history! I can only guess it was a labor of love for these men to be band members on the side of their full time hard and busy lives then.

Jan from Jans Place

Postcardy said...

You seem to have a band to match any prompt. That snow looks like the remains of a big pile that takes weeks to melt completely.

Karen S. said...

I know from listening to some of the elders around Minnesota how important the bands were in rural communities too! You sure did another bang up marching band post again! You are sending me yet again to google- I'm curious how many Germantowns there are!

Brett Payne said...

[with my GIS cap on] I think Nigel's quite right about the kinks being produced by surveyors having to correct for various deviations periodically. In the days before digital GPS, I imagine it was tricky to coordinate such efforts across great swathes of countryside relying on the sun, the stars and a theodolite, and a valiant effort that they managed to do as well as they did.

[as Photo-Sleuth] Your photograph collection is surpassed only by your ability to put life into them after so many years. Most enjoyable, as always.

Peter said...

Do I get points for just the first four words of the valentine message on the bass drum? I believe it reads "Keep a little love..."
Also this is a fine piece of sleuthing. You did it again!

ScotSue said...

Great photogrpahs and the history of a community to go along with them.

Mike Burnett said...

Bands 2 & 3 look more professional, or possibly just more affluent, than Band 1. And, I think you are right, the guy in the centre with the 'tache looks self-important enough to be the leader. Do you think that the younger man to his right might be his son. They have a similar stance and bearing.

Alan Burnett said...

I never doubted for a moment that you would be able to combine your love of bands and instruments with some manifestation of snow. Great post, as always Mike, but I am certainly looking forward to how you are going to manage with next week's theme!

Little Nell said...

How clever to produce a picture of a band in the snow. Not only on theme but just as interesting as usual. it's funny about the names too, especially O'Brien!

Bob Scotney said...

A fine collection of bands. I wonder how much time you have to spend doing the research for such a comprehensive post like this.
I'm disappointed that I don't know of any local town or village bands near us. We have to go further south in Yorkshire to find the remowned brass bands.

tony said...

♪ ♫ ♩ ♬ As Bob says ,this reminds me of the Brass Bands of West & South Yorkshire.They also were organised around local commerce & industry.I used to think the past was silent, but I can now close my eyes & hear Germantown!♪ ♫ ♩ ♬

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Mike, I just found a book at St. Vinnie's written by Harvey Wiggins Brubaker (self-published) called:

"A Homestead Family Saga in Indian Territory Oaklahoma". (They lived in Cloud Chief OK).

It was published in 1990. At that time Harvey Brubaker was living in LaVerne, CA.

The genealogy begins with a John Brubaker in 1775. If these people are of any relation to you, please let me know.

Kathy M.

Tattered and Lost said...

As I went to my farmer's market this past week a group of musicians were tuning up in the bandstand. I'm sure it was going to be folk music, which is fine, but the thought of hearing a band like one of these makes me smile. It wouldn't have been background music. People would have interacted withe music.


"Keep a little... your heart for me."

Mike Brubaker said...

EXTRA Points to TB. Well done!!
"Keep a little cozy corner in your heart for me"


Damn, my eyes were so tired after reading so many posts, aside from doing all my stuff on the web, that was challenging. I wasn't sure about "cozy" as I couldn't make sense of the next word.
T'was fun!!
Have a good day!!

Wendy said...

The drummer should have said, "My heart beats for you."


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