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 }

Cornets and Apples

13 February 2015

I didn't know her name. There was no identification, no date. Her photograph could only fit into that broad category of Anonymous Cornet Player.

But I was sure she was more than just another pretty face. Her beautiful costume of 18th century style military coat, embellished with elaborate embroidery and lace, and topped by her smart tri-corner hat were the hallmarks of a professional musician of the vaudeville stage. Her brass instrument gleams from polish that highlights its ornate engraving. Another sign of a sophisticated professional musician.

My photo collection has many musician's portraits like this. Each one a testimony to the personal pride that people once took in their musical accomplishments. And sadly most of these musicians are namelessly floating in a timeline of only approximate date and place. This young woman was an unknown too.

Until this week.

Her name is Nettie.

 - - -

The full photograph is an unusually tall studio print with soft focus edges. The photographer left a doubled signature of Gross – Chicago in the lower left background fog behind her skirt. His full name was
J. Ellsworth Gross and he ran a prominent photography studio in Chicago in the 1900s.

His obituary in the Chicago Tribune of July 6, 1933 described him as turning to photography after he was injured in an elevator accident that fell three floors. His photographs of Chicago newsboys and street urchins won him worldwide recognition in 1905 and a gold medal prize in a London exhibition. Gross made a specialty of producing theatrical, commercial, and children's photos but was forced into bankruptcy in 1911 when he claimed that opera and theatrical stars failed to pay their bills. 

So when this young lady posed for his camera, she expected to get a high quality photograph. I hope she paid him. This was not the product of a common drugstore photographer. 

- - -

It was probably a drugstore photographer that made this next postcard photo which I acquired recently. It shows a ladies band seated on a stage decorated with flags, garlands, and a long table of apples. There is no caption. It's an unusual interior photo of a band of 27 female musicians holding the brass and woodwind instruments typical of a concert wind ensemble. There are also a lot of apples.

But what really caught my eye was a woman's hat.

The postcard was sent to Mrs. L. J. Everett of 413 E. 7th St., Concordia, Cloud Co. Kansas. Unfortunately the postmark is too faint to read a date but Mrs. Everett's niece left us some clues in her message.

Dear Auntie
Uncle Henry was
here over night. left
in the evening for Ill.
This is a picture of the
Ladies band that played
at the National Horticultural
Congress here last fall.

On the back wall behind the band is a mural illuminated by electric lights and captioned with a banner.
In large letters it reads:

 Bloom Sunday in the Grand Valley

Better Fruit
January 1911

The National Horticultural Congress was an event hosted by the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was a type of agricultural fair popular with the farming people of America's heartland. A similar exhibition called the National Corn Exposition was held in 1909 by Council Bluffs' rival just across the Missouri River in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1911 the Better Fruit journal, a nationwide farmers magazine, printed a report on the National Horticultural Congress that was held in November of 1910. The fairground buildings were filled with crates and crates of the best apples that western fruit growers could harvest that year. But fruit could only provide a theme and not much entertainment. For that the organizers need some colorful musicians to pull in the public.

The reporter led with a description of the fine decoration, done in an Old English design, that was applied to the auditorium. At the farther end of the room above the stage was hung a large painting illustrating a "Bloom Sunday in the Grand Valley" of Colorado.

The National Horticultural Congress spared neither effort nor expense ... They secured the best horticultural talent available for lectures and demonstrations. Their music has been furnished by the highest priced band in the country. This year the American Ladies' Band furnished this part of the entertainment.

Helen May Butler (1867 - 1957)

The American Ladies' Band was a musical ensemble led by someone we have met before on this blog. She was Helen May Butler (1867 - 1957), the preeminent female bandleader in 1910. She was featured in two of my posts from January 2013 titled – A Young Lady from Nebraska and  Helen May Butler and her All-American Girls. It was her hat and tall figure that I recognized at the back of the Horticultural show stage. The lead image in my second story on Helen May Butler, showed her with her band and dressed in the same white coat and feathered tricorn hat. I've cropped that image and added a small inset image from the Iowa postcard so we can more easily see her.

Adding to the evidence of when and where her band were performing in November 1910, was a small notice in the November 12, 1910 edition of The Billboard, America's show business magazine. It reads:

At Liberty After November 19th
Helen May Butler
and her Ladies' Band

30 or less
Council Bluffs, Iowa November 9th – 19th.

The Billboard
November 12, 1910

Be sure to click the image to enlarge it and read about the aerial balloon flyers; Giant Racing Coasters; novelty French Poodle Dog; Chiquita – "Smallest representative of her Sex"; and my favorite – the Dissolving Erk-O-Scope.

But my real delight came when I compared the woman sitting first chair cornet in the American Ladies Band with my portrait of the unknown cornet player. It was the same young woman!

She had a busy season in 1910 as her band played all over the mid-west
from Illinois to Oklahoma to Kansas.
Her name was Nettie Reiter.  

- - -

Butler's lady musicians had toured America for many years performing at theaters, amusement parks, Chautauqua events, and county and state fairs. However by 1909, her marriage to her business manager husband was over and she had retired to the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska.

But the lure of show biz money was strong, so Helen May Butler engaged a new promoter, Col. O. E. Skiff, and formed a new group called the American Ladies' Grand Concert Band. She continued as the band's conductor or directress as she was often called, and in the months before the Council Bluffs National Horticultural Congress her band had already played for several fairs and amusement parks. Of course every event needed advanced publicity, and the image of a pretty girl as a cornet soloist was a sure fire way to grab a reader's attention in the newspapers.  

Salina KS Evening Journal
October 26, 1910

The following report on the Kansas State Fair appeared in the Topeka Daily State Journal on September 8, 1910.

This band, consisting of 45 pieces and accompanied by four grand concert singers under the leadership of Miss Helen May Butler, is recognized as the leading ladies' band in America. The organization is well balanced, every member being an artist of ability.

Among the members of the band Miss Nettie Reiter, cornet soloist, stands out with particular prominence. Of her work the Quincy Daily Journal recently said: "The number most enthusiastically received last night was the cornet solo by Miss Nettie Reiter. Her rendition of Rossini's difficult 'Inflammatus Stabat Mater' was without a flaw, and her execution of the difficult notes made a distinct hit with the audience.

"Miss Reiter is said to hold more medals than any other woman musician. She played two sessions at the winter garden in Berlin and is the highest salaried cornet player in America."

A charge of 25 cents will be made at the gates Sunday afternoon, but no extra fee will be imposed for vehicles.

The uniforms of the American Ladies' Grand Concert Band were described as red hats, white coats, and blue skirts. Nettie was featured as both cornet soloist and assistant conductor. At the Kansas State Fair, the band played four times a day at 10:30; 1:00; 4:30; and 7:15. The band's programs presented an incredible variety of marches, waltzes, and overtures, as well as pieces for solo wind  instruments. The bass clarinetist also had a fine soprano voice and sang sacred and patriotic songs. One evening their concert brought an audience estimated at nearly 5,000.

Nettie Reiter's full name was Lora Antonetta Reiter and on this tour she was 33 years of age. She was born in Missouri in 1877 to a family of  8 children. Her father was born in Prussia and in the 1900 census listed his occupation as owner of a music store. She and her three brothers and four sisters were all talented musicians and at least two sisters on saxophone and trombone also played with Nettie in the American Ladies Concert Band.

Nettie's promotion as the highest salaried cornet player in America may have been advertising hyperbole, but there was no question that by 1910 she was a very seasoned performer who had toured with several ladies bands and orchestras since before 1900. Just prior to being hired by Helen May Butler, Reiter had been the solo cornet of the Navassar Ladies Band which was a large wind band of 30-40 musicians that undoubtedly was formed as a competitor to Butler's earlier ladies band.

Nettie and Helen May Butler both continued to perform on America's bandstands for a few more years. Even before the Great War, band music was attracting a smaller audience and less money. By 1917 Helen May sold her remaining band uniforms and with a new husband settled in Cincinnati, OH which ironically was  home to The Billboard magazine.

So far I can only find Nettie's name connected to touring ladies bands as late as 1912-13. At some point before the war, she returned to her home in Kansas City, MO becoming a seamstress and teaching music lessons. According to the information provided at her entry at Find A Grave she remained a professional musician all her life, but seems to have never married. Lora Antonetta Reiter died in Kansas City on March 24, 1961.

Nettie Reiter's story offers an example of a female musical artist who achieved fame and success in an era when women were systematically excluded from many professional fields. She also represents a time in American culture when concert band music was at its height of popularity. The sound of her solo cornet was admired not because she was a woman, but because it equaled or exceeded the quality of male performers on her instrument. It took hard work to achieve that level of skill in 1910.

Now her photograph moves into my collection's special category of  Identified Musicians. I hope you are as pleased to meet her as I am.   Happy Valentine's Day, Nettie.  

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone gets an ear-full of good stories and photographs


La Nightingail said...

I loved this story. How fortunate you found that second postcard photograph of the Ladies' Band which led to the identification of Nettie. Great sleuthing to discover who she was and what her life was like. I'm glad she continued with her music throughout that life. If you're a true musical artist you never lose the desire to play or sing your whole life through!

Wendy said...

She was quite the beauty too. I'm glad you were diligent in finding out about her life. Without a husband or children to remember her, she could be totally forgotten. Her story is a good one, and I'm glad you turned the spotlight on her.

Postcardy said...

Fantastic post. I love the postcard, but it wouldn't mean so much without all the other information you uncovered. Chiquita was another highlight for me.

Melissa Alysania said...

WOW! What an incredible trail that led you to find out her name. Finding the same picture in an ad must've been a real thrill.

L. D. said...

I was intrigued with the lady's coat as my kids had band uniforms with that same decoration of the loop and button. The traveling band must have made some money while traveling or they could keep this many people playing in the bad. You did some great discovery work with the first woman and her cornet.

Anonymous said...

How I would have loved to have heard that band. But all those women and their touring. I wonder about the turnover of the players with getting married, having children etc. Perhaps in America there was a big enough pool of women brass instrument players to make it easy to replace retiring members.

Deb Gould said...

I'm with you on the Erk-O-Scope; gracious, what a name! But I'm so impressed with the fact that you uncovered Nettie -- so great!

Joan said...

Nettie was an imposing woman and musician, plus the story was amazing -- a story told with love of photos, music and the mystery. Tantalizing.

Dara said...

A great post, with some expert sleuthing!

Little Nell said...

As ever a wonderful piece of detective work. A lovely and talented young lady and a great story.

Jo Featherston said...

You are a super sleuth on your musicians from past times !

Tattered and Lost said...

Super sleuth indeed! This must have been grand putting all of this together. The excitement of the hunt.

Now, I'd like to talk to those folks who make "real rides" because I'd like the dirt on those who make fake rides.


  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP