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 Iron Giant

27 February 2015

It was clearly an important event. Silhouetted against dramatic clouds a winged idol perched atop a high column. Below it flags, banners, and decorative foliage covered scaffolding surrounding an enormous figure of a man. Crowds of men, women, and children stood on several platforms. In front a military band of the Imperial German Army prepared for the downbeat of their bandmaster. The caption reads:
Berlin  Konzert auf dem Königsplatz

Berlin Concert on the King's Square

I recognized Berlin's famous Victory Column, as I had seen it when I visited the city a few years ago. At that time it was surrounded by scaffolding too, getting refurbished. But it was not located in the Königsplatz, which is now called the Platz der Republik, but instead at the Großer Stern (Great Star), a large intersection in Berlin's grand Tiergarten park. 

The giant figure I also recognized, but it was odd that this man should have a statue since he had not actually won a war yet.  And never would either. 


The statue's stern countenance was that of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, (1847 - 1934). His distinctive flattop haircut and walrus mustache made him one of the most recognizable characters of the First World War and a symbolic image for the Imperial German Army. When the war began in 1914, Hindenburg had been retired since 1911. Recalled to service on the Russian offensive, he was the victorious commander at the decisive Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914. Hindenburg's further success on the Eastern Front made him Germany's most celebrated general and in 1916 he was promoted to Chief of the General Staff.

Paul von Hindenburg (1847 - 1934)
Source: Wikipedia

The Great War transformed people, cultures, and governments in countless unexpected ways. Germany's official head of state was Kaiser Wilhelm II, but after two years of a worldwide conflict, Hindenburg had begun to eclipse the Kaiser as a leader through a new cult of personality that transferred the center of power to the military.

This next postcard shows the statue from a different angle and without the decorations. The caption is titled:

Der eiserne Hindenburg zu Berlin

The iron Hindenburg to Berlin

Height: 13 m. (42' 8") –
Height of head: 1.35 m. (4' 5") –
iameter: 3.14 m. (10' 3")  – 
extent: 9 m. (29' 6"). –
Weight: 20,000
kg (44,092 lbs)
Alder wood and
7,000 kg (15,432 lbs)
the interior construction. 
nailing 600 kg (1,322  lbs) gold, silver, and iron nails
provided at prices of 100.5 u. 1M.
It should be noted that the field grey nails appear to be from high-spirited boys held in their father's arms.

This giant statue was carved in Alder, a white hardwood, over an internal framework of iron. And curiously it was deliberately covered with gold, silver, and iron nails! 

Der eiserne Hindenburg was in fact a Nagelmänner or Man of Nails, a type of heroic artform produced as a wartime fundraiser by citizens of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.

* * *

Der Eiserne Heinrich, The Iron Henry
Heinrich der Löwe,
Source: Wikipedia

The idea for these Nail Men came from a medieval Germanic tradition of hammering nails into trees for good luck. In 1915 as the war effort continued, many cities in Austria and Germany started foundations to aid widows and orphans of fallen soldiers. In an effort to energize public patriotism and solicit donations for soldiers benefits, they commissioned artists to make wooden carvings of medieval knights, iron crosses, shields, and famous people. The public was then invited to pay for the privilege of hammering a nail into these wooden monuments. Small donations paid only for a common iron nail while more generous contributions bought a gold nail and a more prominent position on the artwork.

Some Nail Men were historic figures like this one of Heinrich der Löwe (1129-1195) of Brunswick. The gold nails feature as part of his belt, sword and shield.

* * *

Wehrmann im Eisen, Vienna
Source: Wikipedia

The first Nail Man was erected in Vienna in March 1915. It portrays a stalwart medieval knight of iron or Wehrmann im Eisen. Every part of its surface is covered by a nail head.

* * *

This postcard of Der eiserne Hindenburg shows how the scaffolding was removed as more nails were added. The caption adds:

V. Oberkommando 3. 1. 16 genehmigt

Approved for High Command
3 - 1 - 16

Hindenburg was not the only German public figure made into a Nail Man. So was Admiral Tirpitz, Rupprecht, the Crown Prince of Bavaria, and General Otto von Emmich. During the years 1914 to 1917 when the United States was a neutral country, German-American Societies raised money with similar wooden nail works.  

* * *

The card was mailed on July 2, 1917.

Like the first postcard, a military band is in front of the structure giving a concert. Band music played an important part in attracting and entertaining more citizens to give to the cause. Evidently it is summer when this photo was taken as the bandsmen wear short coats and a civilian man in the back has on a straw hat. However the German army helmet, the Pickelhaube, can not have been very cool, and speaking from personal experience, a brass instrument quickly becomes unbearably hot in direct sun.  

This last postcard also dates from 1917. The nailing of Hindenburg seems to be nearly finished as the platforms are now lowered to the hem of his coat. My confusion about this location was due to the Victory Column being moved in 1939 to its present position in the Tiergarten from its original site in the Königsplatz which was the grand space in front of the Reichstag capitol building.

Ironically this relocation to just a short distance away saved it from destruction as the Reichstag was a major target for the Russian army in 1945.

Der eiserne Hindenburg circa 1919
Source: Wikipedia

By the war's end the iron Hindenburg had raised over a million German marks. Unfortunately the soldiers benefit association went bankrupt and all the funds were lost. In 1919 the colossal was dismantled and put into storage in north Berlin where it was eventually broken up for firewood. His head managed to be saved but was later destroyed by bombs during WW2. This photo shows the deconstruction of the statue and reveals how the woodcarvers arranged the wood in layers that allowed it to be hollow.

The irony of this iron giant made of wood is that Paul von Hindenburg went on to serve as president of postwar Germany from 1925 to 1934 during the Weimar Republic. On his death he was succeeded by Adolf Hitler. The similarities between the two cults of personality, one a general and the other a corporal, demonstrate the power of propaganda images.


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more vintage patriotic photos

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

The Iowa I.O.O.F. Orphans Home Orchestra

06 February 2015

Take two guitars and two mandolins

Add a violin, another mandolin, and perhaps a pianist

And you have the Iowa I.O.O.F. Orphans Home Orchestra of Mason City. The seven solemn faced girls in this small ensemble lived at the Iowa Odd Fellows Orphanage and Old Folks Home, an institution that first opened in May 1903 but tragically was destroyed by fire in September of that same year. It was rebuilt in 1906, only a few years before this photo of the girls orchestra was made. Music instruction was an important part of the training provided to the children, with brass band instruments for boys and string instruments for the girls. Mandolin bands were a popular fad in this decade, and such vintage school photos are not uncommon to find. The mandolin is tuned the same as a violin and at this time were typically made in the traditional Italian or Neapolitan pear shape with a round back.

Here is the I.O.O.F. orphan home as it looked in 1911. The main building was on 240 acres which included a working farm to supply its residents with food and work. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is a benevolent fraternal society that got its start in England and was established in America in 1819. It has a motto developed from the order's "Triple Links" logo – the letters F, L and T which stand for Friendship, Love and Truth. From its beginnings the society's mission was to "visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan." 

Musical groups like the girls orchestra were especially important when fund raising for an institution. The girls performed at several regional and state conventions of the Odd Fellows and its  women's branch called the Rebekahs. The following newspaper report appeared in the Nashua IA Reporter on June 1, 1911 and gives a good description of the home.

Nashua Iowa Reporter
June 1, 1911
Mesdames J.H. Hildebrand and L. P. Hanson returned Thursday afternoon of last week from Marble Rock, where they had been attending a convention of the Rebekahs of the northern district of Iowa. Among the best things of the convention were several selections by the girls' orchestra from the Odd Fellow's Home at Mason City and an address by the matron of the home, Grace Lewis. 
This home is a beautiful place, also a home in the true sense of the word and one which all Odd Fellows and Rebekahs can be proud of. It has sheltered 150 aged brothers and sisters and orphaned children in the eight years it has been running. There are at present in the home 48 children , 21 old people, 2 totally blind, 2 lame, two utterly helpless, eight who are over 80 years of age, one 94 years, two couple who have been married 60 years, and one little 20 months old girl who had just lost her dear mother and was brought to this home to be cared for.  The order is taking care of the unfortunate ... (unclear)

The postcard of the I.O.O.F. Orphan Home was sent to Miss Ruby Harper, Hansell, Iowa. The message reads:

March 26, 1911 – This is me & me only.

Below it is a circled word –  Missent

Did Ruby not receive this card? Who wrote it? Ruby G. Harper was the daughter of a farmer in Franklin County, Iowa and was age 15 when this was posted. 

Back in January 2011 I wrote a story on the Orphans Home Band of Mason City, Iowa. Not long after that story I acquired another postcard of the Iowa I.O.O.F. Orphan Home Band that is identical to one in that post but has extra value with a postmark of February 17, 1909. The Odd Fellows triple link F-L-T logo is on the bass drum. The photographer Washburn, is the same one that took the photo of the girls orchestra.

These boys had the good fortune to be identified on one of the other postcards in that story by a girl named Hazel Jones who also lived at the orphanage. Though the girls orchestra are not named, I like to believe that she may one of them.

The boys band postcard was addressed to Miss Vetta Morse, Ranelagh, Ontario, Canada which is near London, Ontario between Buffalo, NY and Detroit. The message reads:

Feb 17, 09    Dear Ones All – Will send
a card to let you know that I
think of you people quite a little
and am going to write a letter
just as soon as I feel like it.
Got Uncle's while in the hospital,
came home a week ago Sunday
and am feeling fine. better than
I have for months. Was out doors
across the street yesterday PM. for
the first time am getting stronger
each day but can't stand as
much as I used to. Remember me
to Edna when you see her. All are
(w)ell as usual. Weather pleasant
(a)nd a blizzard Sunday. Lots of love Nells 

The postcard of the Mason City, I.O.O.F. Orphans Home was also produced in a sepia tone version. This enlargement of the portico steps comes from a postcard mailed in January of 1911. On the left are some adults, perhaps some of the elder residents. There are boys in the center, and girls in white frocks on the steps below.

The orphanage was closed in 1966 and this building was demolished in 1994. However the Odd Fellows continue to support good works around the country and still maintain a nursing care center on this same location in Mason City.

If you look closely at the foreground of the orphanage steps there is a garden fountain which has a statue of children holding an umbrella. It seem seems a very fitting symbol for a protective home for orphans and the elderly. I hope that it was preserved. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
click the link for more groups of girls.

   28 January 2018  

After I wrote this post in 2015
I've since acquired two more postcards
of the I.O.O.F. Orphans Home Orchestra of Mason City, IA.
The first shows a larger ensemble of 9 girls
on mandolins, guitars, violin, snare drum,
and a very large triangle.

The violinist and the guitarist to her left
are pictured in the first postcard,
though the guitarist now wears spectacles.
The girl standing center may also be in the first photo. 

This second postcard of the The I.O.O.F. Orchestra of Mason City
has eleven musicians, three of whom are young men
with band instruments – cornet, tuba, and clarinet.
Two girls have violins and one a cello.
The girl seated left has a rolled up music folder,
the sign of a pianist.
And the girl standing right holds only a book
and may be either a drummer or another pianist.

What makes this postcard special
is that it was sent by
the photographer, Mr. R. A. Washburn,
to Mrs Clara Lockling of Modale, IA
 on June 13, 1914.

Sent pictures
today by mail.
Thanks for
the order.
R. A. Washburn
Mason City, Ia


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