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 Springfield Technical High School Orchestra

10 May 2013

At one time music was a common element of the curriculum of American schools. Music education was more than just learning an appreciation of the musical arts, but was also considered a pathway to a career in a rewarding trade. Since operating a musical instrument requires as much training as running a machine lathe, it is not unusual to find a photograph like this one of the Technical High School Orchestra of Springfield, Massachusetts.

What is unusual is to find three young women of color seated in this orchestra of 22 young men and women. Most photographs from before 1910 show boys and girls in separate musical ensembles. This began to change in the 1920s when more school groups had a mixture of sexes, but sadly that was not the case with race, as segregation was the norm for almost all schools in the United States until the late 1960s. These three African-American violinists from Massachusetts give us a very rare example of school integration that contradicts our perception of the long era of separate but equal

Springfield Technical High School Orchestra 1916

This picture comes from the Springfield Tech 1916 yearbook The Oriole, which I found on the web, and it shows a smaller school orchestra of 10 boys seated on the same steps. The two older men are the faculty supervisors: John F. Ahearn and Clifton O. Page. The man on the left was faculty advisor for other school groups in the yearbook where he is identified as Mr. Page, so the man on the right, who is the same man standing at the center back row in the first photo must be John F. Ahearn. I think he is wearing the same double breasted suit too.

Springfield Technical High School Orchestra 1930

By 1930 the yearbook changed its name to the more formidable Tech Tigers and the Tech Orchestra of 30 musicians has posed once again on the school steps. Mr. Ahearn is listed as the faulty director but he is not in this photo. But the bass drum is, showing a little wear on the drum head.

Though there are no African-Americans in the orchestra now, the school was not segregated and there were a few black teenagers in photos of other school activities. Since the first photograph is surely after 1916 but before 1930, I would place it around 1918-28 and based on the clothing fashions, probably closer to 1916 than 1930.

Springfield Technical High School Band 1930

In 1930 the Springfield Tech High also had a band and according to the description they are wearing their new uniforms. Note the cymbals and snare drum that hide the word orchestra on that same bass drum. This looks like a band that played mostly in the stands for athletic games, as with only 15 musicians they would not make much of a parade unit.

Springfield Technical High School 1905

This architectural drawing of the Springfield Technical High School is from a book published in 1905 - Springfield present and prospective: the city of homes, by Eugene Clarence Gardner. The school was developed from new ideas in the 1880s of giving working-class children training in manual skills and trades. In the 1890s Springfield decided to expand this into an education in various industrial arts and sciences. In 1905 the construction of the Technical High School was almost finished and the new facilities were designed for about 900 students. There was a forge and foundry, a large woodworking shop, and top floor classrooms for physics and chemistry labs.

Springfield Technical High School Entrance 1930

The school purposefully included educational programs for girls as they anticipated a need for better vocational training for young women. In 1905, several years before women's suffrage, this seems especially progressive. A good description of the history of the Springfield Technical High School can be found at the website Exploring Western Massachusetts which provided these next contemporary photos of the school.

Springfield Technical High School 2010

The Technical High School closed in 1986 and until recently was fenced and shuttered. In 2011 demolition began for the construction of a new city data center on the same site.

Springfield Technical High School 2010

Only a few years after these young musicians posed for their photo with Mr. Ahearn, the golden era of theater orchestras accompanying silent movies would end. Then radio broadcasts and phonograph records would diminish the need for live musicians even more. And in the real world of show business, few women, white or black, would ever find musical work playing next to men for another 60 years.

I don't know if they saved the ornate stone entrance where so many students had posed for their class pictures. But at least one photo of this doorway preserves a moment when music kept a small light burning for equality.

UPDATE:   The Elliot St. facade of the Technical High School has been preserved and incorporated into the new construction. Unfortunately Google Streetview cameras have not driven past the school since 2007.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it's all technical talk this weekend.


Nigel Aspdin (Derby, UK) said...

Its strange that you made the comment about preserving a doorway the very day I wrote to my daughters about almost exactly the same thing here in Derby. I will copy you the email, as it has a photo which will make you smile, and wonder if doorways are worth keeping.

Alex Daw said...

What a fabulous post. That building was so enormous!! I really like the quality of the first photo. It is so clear.

Wendy said...

How exciting it must have been to attend that school which was progressive in so many ways.

Bob Scotney said...

Every time I see a Springfield mentioned I think of The Simpsons even although I know Bart's town is fictional. Great to see that the doorway has been preserved. The only band we had at school was one for the CCF and not very good at that.

Sharon said...

Like Bob, I always think of the Simpsons when Springfield is mentioned (sorry).

A wonderful collection of photos.

Kathy Morales said...

As a band kid myself, I enjoyed seeing the pictures of this band/orchestra through the years. Glad they preserved a part of the old school.

Postcardy said...

I attended a larger high school in the 1960s where there were two bands (Cadet and Varsity) and also an orchestra. There were lots of girls in those, but they didn't allow girls in the dance band then.

Karen S. said...

Another fabulous post, and interesting photos, of such great expressions on their faces! It's always fun to study them and think about what thoughts they had at the moment!

Dakota Boo said...

Great collection of pictures.

barbara and nancy said...

I love seeing the progression of the bands over the years. In the last photo the students looks so much happier. But the drum so much sadder.


Great post!!
For your info:

I also read the building was haunted!!!!

Pics and video of demolition:



current pics of the data center!!!


Brett Payne said...

Just the title of that "separate but equal" doctrine seems like an oxymoron.

The 1930 photograph makes the entrance appear much more impressive, I suppose because it isolates it from the rest of the front of what was a large building. Later photos, especially the ones where the doorway and widows are boarded up, render it almost insignificant. Let's hope the new building restores its grandeur.


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