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 Lake Park Cornet Band

22 September 2017

It's the first thing you notice.
His tall bearskin hat
nearly as fuzzy
as his whiskers.
He's the drum major,
and even without his hat
he is still a hand taller
than the other bandsmen.

They're outdoors in a typical brass band formation
lined up with low brass on one side
and high brass including
a little treble E-flat clarinet
on the other.

The bandsmen wear a simple uniform jacket
with Civil War type forage caps.
About half have mustaches
while the rest are clean-shaven.
Only the drum major has a beard.

One musician is too young
to be thinking of tonsorial fashions.
A few steps in front of the drum major
stands a boy dressed
in velveteen short pants and cadet cap.

He is perhaps age five or six.
Tucked under his left arm is, I believe, a cornet.

Just behind him is the bass drum
turned to show the band's name
stenciled on the drum head.

Lake Park Cornet Band

Befitting their name
the band of 15 men and 1 boy
are posed against a body of water
seen in the misty background.
The town lake perhaps?

It's an early cabinet card with a faded albumen print.
Like all the scanned images on my blog,
I've improved the contrast and enriched the sepia tone
through the magic of photo software.

The photographer's backstamp shows
a flying cherub holding
an artist's palette and brushes in one hand
and a wooden bellows camera in the other.

W. O. Bergerson
Albert Lea

The town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, is near Minnesota's southern border with Iowa and situated at the crossroads of Interstates 35 and 90. Settled in 1858, it was named after Albert Miller Lea, a US Army engineer and topographer who in 1835 surveyed southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. But after the Civil War, the town flourished because it became the intersection of the S. M. and M. & St. L. railroads (Southern Minnesota and Minneapolis and St. Louis Railways). In the 1878 Minnesota Gazetteer Albert Lea was described as having a population of 2,300 inhabitants. It boasted of a flour mill, planing mill, foundry, 3 steam-powered grain elevators, 7 churches, a graded school with four teachers, two banks, 5 hotels, an opera house, three different telegraph agencies, and two newspapers. It claimed to export considerable wheat, cattle, and hogs. Mail was delivered 6 times a day.

It also had a photographer, William O. Bergerson, who paid extra to get his name printed in bold.

1878 Minnesota Gazetteer
Source: Google Books

Even though Bergerson's photo shows the location of his studio, it's always nice to get corroboration with a full name. Clearly in 1878 Albert Lea, MN had good connections to the Midwest's larger urban centers which made it a fairly prosperous place to live. Certainly an ideal community for an ambitious photographer and a brass band.

By good fortune one of Albert Lea's two newspapers has been digitized on with hundreds of searchable copies from 1870 through 1900. A search for "cornet band " produced a number of references to its own town bands, but none of them were named the "Lake Park Cornet Band." But more concerning was that Wm. O. Bergerson, photographer, also did not appear in the Albert Lea newspapers.

* *

In fact there is a Lake Park, Minnesota, but it's up near Fargo, North Dakota, over 300 miles to the north northwest of Albert Lea. Though some town brass bands did occasionally travel to nearby towns,  it seems very unlikely that this small band would venture so far south. Perhaps there was another reason.

Perhaps the band did not move, but the photographer did.

In the 1880s the publishing houses of Chicago made a lot of money putting out regional gazettes and biographical encyclopedias. One such compendium printed in 1889 came with a title so long it wouldn't fit on the book spine.

Illustrated Album of Biography of the Famous Valley of the Red River
of the North and the Park Regions of Minnesota and North Dakota
published by Alden, Ogle, & Co. Chicago 1889
Source: Google Books

The Illustrated Album
of the Famous Valley of the Red River
of the North and the Park Regions
including the most Fertile and Widely Known Portions
of Minnesota and North Dakota.
Containing Biographical Sketches
of Hundreds
of Prominent Old Settlers
and Representative
with a Review of their Life Work
their Identity with the Growth and Development
of these Famous Regions
Reminiscences of Personal History and Pioneer Life
and other Interesting and Valuable Matter
which should be Preserved in History

published by Alden, Ogle, & Co. Chicago 1889

* *

On page 590 of the 845 page book was a biographical sketch of William O. Bergerson, a resident of the village of Lake Park, Becker County, Minnesota where he is engaged in the photographer's art. It continues with a detailed summary of his Norwegian parents and grandfather who emigrated to America in 1845, settling first in Decorah, Iowa before moving north in 1865 to Albert Lea, MN. In 1875, at about the age of 20, William O. Bergerson went to Chicago for a year.where he trained as photographer. On his return he opened a studio in Albert Lea, but in 1879 moved to Lake Park. There he opened the first permanent gallery in the village with all the modern improvements in apparatus and fixtures. He has a large class of customers and turns out some of the best work to be secured in that part of the State. 

Mr Bergerson was married in 1881 to Miss Nettie Clawson, a native of Albert Lea Minnesota and the daughter of Peter Anna Clawson, Mr and Mrs Bergerson have been blessed with two children Amelia and Jessie. Mr Bergerson is independent in political matters reserving the right to vote for the best man regardless of party lines He has held the offices of justice of the peace, town clerk, and has been a member of the village council. Mr Bergerson is a man of the strictest honor and integrity, and is highly esteemed by all who know him. He is one of the substantial business men of the village and is actively interested in all local matters 

In June 1880 the village of Lake Park had a population of 529, not even a quarter the size of Albert Lea. Yet they were a pretty healthy lot as the 1880 census asked the enumerator to record the general health of each individual. Out of 529 residents, only 2 were listed as sick, and the station agent had a broken leg.

The twelve pages of its census records are filled with people of Norwegian and Swedish decent, either first or second generation, with a smaller number of people from Canada, Ireland, and Germany along with a few from Eastern and Midwestern states. On page 3 is W. O. Bergerson, age 27, boarding at a farmer's house, single, occupation: Potographer. (sic). Given the population, it's not difficult to imagine that young Mr. Bergerson eventually took portrait photos of every man, woman, and child in the entire village.

1880 US Census - Lake Park, MN

So if in 1880, William O. Bergerson was still settling in at Lake Park, he probably was using up his old stock of cabinet cards imprinted for Albert Lea clients. With the dates from his biography, which he surely wrote up himself and paid the Alden, Ogle, & Co. a fee for its entry, it seems reasonable that the photo of the Lake Park Cornet Band was taken around 1879-1881.

Brass bands like the Lake Park Cornet Band played an important part in American small town culture, especially in the vast plains of the Midwest. It could be achingly lonely out on the prairie where farms were typically miles apart and it was a day's wagon ride into the local village. Music became an important link for developing a social bond of neighbors, either as a players or as listeners. Every community event required a concert of live music. Church socials, school dances, and patriotic celebrations needed music. I think this photo was taken on one of those occasions, on a summer day when the whole village of Lake Park turned out to hear their Cornet Band perform. A day of remembrance like  the 4th of July or Memorial Day.

There's a very small clue pinned to the coat of the hirsute drum major, a small medal with an upturned 5 pointed star. The symbol for the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization for Union Army veterans of the Civil War.

Grand Army of the Republic Medal
Source: Wikipedia

In 1880 the end of the war was only 15 years in the past. The centennial of the United States was only 4 years earlier, as was the Battle of Little Big Horn, where General Custer and Chief Sitting Bull became symbols for the struggle of the American Native Peoples. And Lake Park is actually only a short distance from the White Earth Indian Reservation, the largest Indian reservation in Minnesota established in 1867 for the Ojibwe native people. It was a time when even small villages out on the prairie paid close attention to the affairs of the world, and commemorated the memory of difficult times. The music of the Lake Park Cornet Band made those celebration days special.

* * *

The state of Minnesota proudly promotes its many lakes, 10,000 by the state nickname. The official number is 11,842 for lakes 10 acres or more. But if smaller lakes 2.5 acres or more are included the count reaches 21,871. Around Lake Park my simplistic estimate using Google Maps is over a hundred bodies of water within a roughly 5 mile radius. This Google Street View shows Becker County Hwy 9 which runs northeast between Lake Park's two principal lakes, Duck Lake and LaBelle Lake. The gentle grassy slopes in the near distance look like a good place to hold a band concert.

* *

* *

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone can play I Spy.


Mollys Canopy said...

Thanks for another bit of outstanding musical and historical research. I imagine there were many of these bands of GAR members in various locations who brought their musical talents to local celebrations and commemorations. First time I am seeing this GAR medal, and I am now wondering if my Union Army great-great grandfather, who was in the GAR, may have received one.

Little Nell said...

The tiny cornet player is almost as sweet as the cherub on the back! I’m amazed that the town had seven churches! What a holy bunch they were.

Kristin said...

I have found newspapers to be so helpful in my research. I'm glad more of the smaller ones are now available online.

La Nightingail said...

I love the sound of a band - whether they play marches, show tunes, or pop. Always a welcome sound to me and how lucky I am to have a daughter who plays in one and get to hear it often! :)

Barbara Rogers said...

Even though people didn't smile for photos, the low brass section seems to be especially grudging in their looking toward the camera. Glad to know the photographer was successful, and it's always nice to have the newspaper trail too.

tony said...

Blimey! the drum major cuts an impressive figure!
His Military life imposes itself on both this photo and ,I guess,the band too!

Helen Killeen Bauch McHargue said...

Wonderful research. Amazing that a photographer could make a living in such a small town.
In Albert Lea, the mail was delivered six times a day? What a title on that book!


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