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 Birdseye View of a Girls Orchestra

13 January 2017

They say two is company, three's a crowd.
And that applies to double bass players
when there are only two instruments to share.
On the other hand,
bass drummers
often do the job of two
by doubling up on cymbals,
with half a pair fixed onto the top of the drum.

Cellists usually come in pairs,
though some like to hide
behind snare drummers.
Violinists always seem to come in gangs.

An orchestra should have
a generous number of strings
but really needs only one oboe.
(back row, second from left)
Having two trombones is okay,
but five clarinets is a bit excessive.

Three cornets
and a melophone
is about right.
Although a single flutist is apt to get lost
in the sound of such a large group.

And with 41 musicians,
all young ladies,
this is definitely a very large orchestra.

The Orchestra
of the Iowa State Industrial School for Girls
Mitchellville, IA

Reichard the Druggist (photographer)

Each girl wears a nearly identical dress, with hair done up in a similar style and held with a large bow. But there are few real smiles on their faces. Several have what I would describe as scowls, even though the sun is not in their eyes. Their unhappy demeanor is not typical of a school orchestra, because this was not a typical school. The Iowa State Industrial School for Girls was a place of incarceration, a reformatory for "wayward", "unfortunate", and "incorrigible" girls. This state institution was established in 1889 as a spinoff from the Iowa reformatory for boys. Girls, ages 10 to 18, who had run foul of the law, and often were without one or both parents, were made wards of the state and sent to this school for correctional education and vocational training. Mitchellville, IA is a small town near Des Moines, just below the center of the state, and in 1900 it had a population of 768. About 220 were young female inmates at the State Industrial School for Girls.  

In 1899 the girls at the school protested over what they considered bad conditions by going on a destructive rampage of school property, mainly shattering glass and china. At the time a new superintendent had just joined the school. His name was F. P. Fitzgerald, a man who had already earned respect for his work managing the State Industrial School for Boys in Eldora, IA. After the rioters were placed under control, Fitzgerald noticed that the girls had protected the pianos in the buildings from damage by wrapping them in quilts and mattresses. As an educator who was also a trained musician and composer, he recognized this desire for music and cleverly set about developing a music program for his young charges. He arranged to purchase music and instruments, and hire a female music teacher. Within a year, the girls orchestra at the Mitchellville Industrial School, with F. P. Fitzgerald conducting, were performing concerts for the public. The discontent and agitation within the institution diminished and the girls began to appreciate Fitzgerald's management.

The postcard was sent
from Farrar, in Polk County, Iowa
on Aug. 21, 1908 to
Mr. Chas Bailey

Dear Brother, I thought
I would write and let you
know what a great mistake
you made and how far you
are behind the times.
O.S. is of the past not
yet but soon.  if you
have any tears pleas(sic) shed
a few for me as mine
are all gone.
Your Loving Sister

Please send them by
return mail.
Mandie Bailey
8 20 08

I've been unable to determine if Mandie Bailey was an inmate at the school, much less that she was a member of the girls orchestra. But her sad enigmatic note, playing on her brother's sympathy, seems the sort that an unfortunate girl might write.

All correspondence at the school was limited for outgoing mail and subject to censorship. The girls, some of whom were illiterate, had regular classes in basic education and also instruction at trades suitable for women like cooking and sewing. In 1907 there were 241 inmates, of which 17 were African-American. At eighteen a girl was deemed an adult and released, but Superintendent Fitzgerald argued, unsuccessfully, that some girls should be allowed to extend their "stay" in order to complete their education.

His music program proved very popular and no notable protest events occurred after it was begun. The orchestra soon had over 40 musicians and a second lower level orchestra was started. The girls played for school dances (though without boys), and even gave run-out concerts for public events.  F. P. Fitzgerald considered himself a composer, and published critiques in Iowa newspapers on the importance of American music in preference to European music. In May 1905, the girls orchestra and choir performed a cantata, written and composed by F. P. Fitzgerald, entitled "The Frolic of the Fairies". That was followed in 1907 by his opera called "The Sorceress" which had "forty-five solos, choruses, and scenic music."  

Some time around 1908-09, a photographer,
perhaps Mr. Reichard the druggist,
tied a camera to a balloon
and took a picture of the school
from an unusual perspective.

Birdseye View
State Industrial School for Girls
Mitchellville, IA

From the altitude of a pigeon, the school is situated on level prairie farmland with only a scattering of trees. The large buildings set around a center quad look very scholastic, even handsome. The grounds show none of the usual prison accoutrements like walls or fences. It's a real photo postcard that surely was admired as a wonder of photography when it first went on display at the Mitchellville drugstore. My guess is that a camera was fixed onto a simple hydrogen balloon, though a kite might be another possibility, with the shutter set off by a long string.  It was still too early in the 20th century to be attached to an airplane.

The postcard was mailed
on SEP 22, 1909 to
Mrs I  D Beeman
Conrad, Ia.

If we move in closer to the buildings,
could we see where the photo
of the girls orchestra was taken? 

These building are too plain.
More like dormitories or classrooms.

This one looks too ornate,
and the windows are not the same.

Again this one is too plain
and the little house on the left
is made of wooden clapboard not brick.

Let's look at the windows of the building behind the orchestra.

I think they are leaded stained glass windows
placed close together in a group of three. 

That's not a typical fenestration style
for a security institution like this.
So I went on the hunt for more history
on the Mitchellville Industrial School for Girls

I found it on a 1914 Iowa state map.

Detail 1914 Map of Mitchellville, Iowa

The survey map shows the grounds of the State of Iowa Girl's Industrial School in Mitchellville with each building labeled. In order of my cutouts, Dormitory No. 1 and behind the Laundry Hospital Storage; the Office and Supt. Residence; and the Dormitory No. 2. But at the northeast corner, not visible in the aerial photo, is a Chapel, a building probably large enough for 240 young girls and designed to inspire moral virtues with stained glass light. It was also likely a building suitable for an orchestra to give concerts. That's where I think the orchestra posed. On the map I've marked a red dot for that view and a blue arrow for the balloon camera.

In 1909, Superintendent F. P. Fitzgerald was falsely accused of taken liberties with his female charges. In our time it might be characterized as mildly inappropriate touching and the allegations were never proven. Nonetheless Fitzgerald resigned and left Mitchellville to run his son's confectionery shop in Idaho. In July 1909 he was replaced by a woman, Miss Hattie Garrison. She was a decidedly different school administrator. 

Only a few months into managing a difficult bunch of girls, Miss Garrison was confronted with riots and accusations of abuse. In March 1910 Twenty-five girls "escaped" from the school and walked over 16 miles to the big city of Des Moines. After they were returned by police, a near riot ensued. Eight girls were arrested and sent to county jail for a few days. They showed no remorse.

Instead they reported on whippings with a rubber hose that they received from Miss Garrison. They complained of her severe restriction on privileges and activities, one of which was a drastic reduction of the orchestra and an elimination of dancing. Miss Garrison believed that music and dancing led the girls to improper behavior after they were released. She also didn't care for popular music like ragtime and permitted the girls to play only church hymns and songs.

The story made the pages of several Iowa newspapers. A conflict arose between Superintendent Garrison and the chairman of the state control board. The governor became entangled. Words were said, witnesses called, sparks flew, dirt was flung, and lawyers got involved. It was not pretty. 

Miss Garrison was exonerated but by April 1911 she resigned from what was clearly a demanding and thankless job. She was replaced by another woman. The girls orchestra never regained it's potential for reform.

In March 1910, the Des Moines Register printed a letter from an anonymous ex-inmate entitled Mitchellville From the Girls' Side. The writer takes strong exception to Miss Garrison's argument that learning music might lead girls "into the gay life". She concludes by saying she took piano and vocal lessons while at the school and is now married with a baby. "Music never led me astray." 

Des Moines Register
22 March 1910

These were not ordinary children. They were troubled young girls. The victims of poverty and abuse, broken homes, poor neighborhoods, and isolated rural communities. Many had limited or no education. A number of girls undoubtedly came from immigrant families with few resources to help them in mid-west America. These girls knew what a "hard scrabble life" meant. The time they served inside a reform school was difficult and not without heartbreak.

But music made it better.

* * *

Today the Girls Industrial School property in Mitchellville is the site of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. It is a minimum/medium security facility with a staff of 190. It can house 510 female inmates. Surrounded by heavy barbed wire fences, from Google Maps satellite view it doesn't resemble the 1909 birds-eye view in any way. As far as I can tell the old buildings including the chapel are long gone. 

I doubt that this 2017 generation of Iowa female inmates
has as lovely an orchestra as the one in 1908. 

Iowa Correctional Institution for Women
Mitchellville, Iowa

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is always on the look out.


Anne Young said...

Fascinating history you found by looking closer. A pity the musical program did not survive.

Wendy said...

I think this would make a good movie.

Barbara Rogers said...

What a great story in which music played an integral part, but its value was not appreciated for its contribution. Thanks again for finding some great details about musicians and how their music changed lives.

tony said...

I wonder what the collective noun for violinists would be?
.......and the double bass players are all the more impressive as they had no 'Roadies' in those days and would have had to carry them themselves everywhere!

ScotSue said...

As ever a wonderful piece of research in exploring the story behind the photographs. I hope at least some of the girls discovered a love of music from their experiences in the home, and how it can raise the spirits.

La Nightingail said...

That's quite a good-sized all girls' school orchestra! I wanted to play the violin in our grade school orchestra, but by the time I applied, the only thing they had left was a cello. I lived 5 blocks from the school and my Mom didn't drive, so I had to carry that cello to and from home. That lasted for just under two weeks, I gave the cello back, and joined the all-school chorus instead! :)

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

The letter from the former "inmate" is a fascinating look back
at the times. The idea that a woman would not look out for
other women is strange. Wonderful research and another
gripping story. Thank you.


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