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 Swift Rangers

21 February 2014

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roamed.
Where the cowboys sing songs all the day.
Where encouraging words are always preferred.
And radio reception is okay.

These cowboys in neckerchiefs and 10 gallon hats are The Swift Rangers – Fred, Ozzie, Leonard, Ben, Ralph, and John, with Mr. Kamp Charles in front of the microphone. For some cowhands a banjo might be a traditional instrument to serenade the cattle, but very few chuck wagons had room to carry an electric organ and a grand piano out onto the range. Instead these musical buckaroos used radio, playing daily for the Swift Roundup hour on radio station WLS in Chicago. 

In 1931, the WLS station published a commemorative album which devoted a whole page to the band using the same photo. The captions reads:

The Swift Rangers who take part in the Swift Roundup each day over WLS. From left to right they are: Fred, who specializes in "songs of long ago;" "Ozzie," who plans and directs the programs; Leonard, whose specialty is baritone solos, and "Big Ben" with his banjo. Seated, Ralph Waldo Emerson, organist, and John Brown, pianist. This picture was taken in the Swift Studio, Union Stock Yards.

The sponsor was Swift & Company, one of Chicago's oldest meat packing and food processing companies. Their daily noontime program, presented by announcer Kamp Charles with musical accompaniment from the Swift Rangers, delivered the latest farm reports along with home cooking tips and guest speakers from the agriculture industry to WLS radio listeners.

The broadcast came from one of the first radio stations in the nation. It was owned initially by the Sears, Roebuck & Company which decided in 1924 to get into the new media of radio with their own station. They gave it the initials WLS which stood for World's Largest Store. The programs were first produced in a studio on the 11th floor of the Sears Roebuck building in Chicago with an aim to reach midwest farmers and ranchers and promote the giant Sears Roebuck mail order catalog. With a clear channel signal of 50,000 watts and no other stations their frequency to interfere, their Chicago radio programs could be heard nationwide.

Right from the beginning in 1924, the most popular program on WLS was the National Barn Dance, a Saturday night variety show that featured skits, humor, and country music. This down home style of entertainment generated so much excitement that the station moved its live music performances to a new site on the 6th floor of the Sherman House Hotel which could accommodate a larger audience.

Though the station became identified with country music, it also aired classical music concerts, and in 1927 WLS gave the first broadcast of a complete performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

But Sears Roebuck soon determined that there was more money to be made in retail sales than in radio, and in 1928 they sold WLS to the publisher of Prairie Farmer magazine. Just prior to the purchase, a survey of people in rural communities for their favorite radio stations, gave WLS an incredible 50% market shareThe next closest stations, which were also in Chicago, only received 10% or less.

After moving the WLS studio to 1230 West Washington Boulevard in Chicago, the management of the Prairie Farmer retained the station's original rural country character and connected it to their publication's mission of providing farmers aid. The era of the Great Depression which began the following year would have been an entirely different economic and social catastrophe without the magic of radio. Since at the time most Americans lived in rural areas with expensive postal service and limited access to newspapers or libraries, radio was the real start to the modern information age.

On page 11 of the WLS family album the two keyboard players, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Brown were given the spotlight. Emerson had a fair claim to his noteworthy name, as the famous essayist was his grandfather's cousin.

John Brown was the jack-of-all-work musician who played everything from classical music to square dances. He was married to Juanita, one of the Milk Maids who appeared on the Saturday night Barn Dance show.

The Swift Rangers were not the only musicians on staff. There was also the WLS Concert Orchestra of 12 musicians led by Herman Felber, Jr. The WLS weather report came from a small thermometer hung on the back porch.

In the 1920 and 30s, recording technology was not yet up to the quality necessary for broadcasts on these AM frequencies. All the voices, sound effects, and music were produced with live performers in front of a microphone. The limitations of studio space and the electronics of transmitting sound kept the radio orchestras and bands on the small size using instruments that favored the treble and bass.

I could not resist including this page entitled News From Everywhere for the Sepia Saturday mastermind Alan Burnett, whose blog is entitled News From Nowhere.  Our present day world of internet commentary has its roots in the early radio listeners who wrote letters and postcards to the station. The station management encouraged this contact as it gave them a way to judge how far the signal was carrying their programs. WLS heard from people in some pretty strange places. Just like the internet.

Those same listeners considered themselves part of the WLS family, and a few were honored by having their extraordinary photos added to the annual radio album. It seems fair to say that between Mr. J. E. Paxton at 600 lbs. and the 18 children of Mr. & Mrs. G. B. Reeves, the Swift & Company got good value from the Swift Rangers promoting their food products on WLS radio.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more suits and hats.


Wendy said...

The Swift Rangers did not look quite at home in their cowboy garb.

My dad spent many years as an employee of Sears, so I'm sure he would have really enjoyed reading about Sears' involvement with early radio. Of course, knowing how well-read my dad was, he probably already knew this story.

Postcardy said...

It was interesting reading the commemorative album.

La Nightingail said...

Radio was big stuff back in the 'old' days. My Dad's family had the first crystal set on the block & the neighbors came flocking around to have a listen.

Patrica Ball Morrison said...

I wonder if the Barn Dance was a precursor to the Grand Ole Opry I wrote of last week? Or perhaps to Keilor's Prarie Home Companion...a good finish with the News from Everywhere page!

Bob Scotney said...

I was disappointed to see that the Swift Rangers pianist was John Brown - I was hoping it was a young John Wayne.

Karen S. said...

Very interesting stories, and I'm still enjoying that first photo, which brings to mind, the old show Hee-Haw!

ScotSue said...

An entertaining post. It reminded me that "Home, home on the range"
was one of my father's favourite songs, especially sung by Burl Ives.

Kristin said...

I wonder if I ever heard the Swift Rangers in my days of listening to old time radio.

Sean Bentley said...

I had no idea that Ralph Waldo Emerson was an organist as well as a philosopher. ;-)

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

A funny coincidence is that there was a country music group at our local market today, with ukuleles and banjos. It was good fun.

Deb Gould said...

What a great post this is! Loved especially the "Extraordinary" listeners (tall, fat, old, etc.) Sears knew a good thing...

Alan Burnett said...

Another masterclass in blogging Mike. If News From Nowhere is my blog I suppose you could say that News From Everywhere is Sepia Saturday.

Alex Daw said...

Fantastic post. I still love listening to the Prairie Home Companion although it is so far removed from my life as to be quite magical.

Little Nell said...

Alex pre-empted my own thoughts about a Prairie Home Companion, which this immediateley reminded me of. What a lot of snippets are contained within this fascinating post - who, for example, knew that about Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Tattered and Lost said...

I'd never heard of WLS. I can imagine families gathered around listening to this from far away. Makes me think of listening to XERB in the car on the way home from high school football games. A little Wolfman booming in from Mexico.

Joy said...

Fascinating, brings to life radio listening of that era. The Swift Rangers certainly look to have a preference for silk shirts over life on the range.
BTW - thanks for the information about flutes, it gives another interesting clue to the trio.


While I am not personally keen on radio much, unlike in my teenage years, it is indeed a landmark in the 20th century society of North America. As a kid, I remember my father listening to the Met's broadcasts, and something from California, Evelyn White preaching on "The Wings of Faith"...
My parents told me about things they listened to on the radio when they were young; but it seemed to have bored me as I recall nothing of what they said. I was after all a child of the TV generation.
Great post!!


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