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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On Tour with the Metropolitan Ladies Orchestra - part 2

14 March 2020

Every adventure tale
always includes a description
of the delectable food,

or the hospitable accommodations.

Yet years later the memory
of some refreshing journey
on that adventure,

or a day of unexpected balmy weather,
seems as brisk and exciting
as if it all happened yesterday.

And for musicians
the whole experience
is always recalled
with an echo of music.

This is part 2 of my story
about the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra.
Click this link
for part 1

It is now late fall going into winter.
The seven musicians
of the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra
are finished with Chautauqua shows

but are still on the road
fulfilling concert engagements.

Six women have spot of tea and sandwiches at a train station using their steamer trunks as improvised table. One trunk has a stenciled MLO on the end. Along the bottom of the postcard is a caption:
The feeding of the animals.

Of the 15 postcard-sized photos in this collection that I acquired, this photo and one more were the only two that went through the mail. On the back of this photo are the clues that answered two important questions. Who took the photographs? And who wrote the annotations on the other photos.

The postcard was sent from Buchanon, Michigan on Dec 26, 1912 addressed to Miss Nellie Woolman, 628 E. La Salle, So. Bend, Ind.

Miss Woolman
Thanks very much
for the present from
you girls. How did
you guess what
I needed.

We leave via the
Chicago & Alton.  Mon.
Dec 30 at 3-00 P.M.
from the Union Station
Canal & Adams Sts.
So Long,
J. A. Conrad

Will be at Hotel __klow
in Chi Sun. eve.

* * *

The directions point to the Chicago & Alton Railroad, a train service going southwest from Chicago to St. Louis and Kansas City. The obscured hotel name was the Hotel Wicklow, 666 No. State St, about 25 minutes north of Union Station by streetcar. 

The writer was J. Albert Conrad, manager and cornet soloists of the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra. He answered my first question, as it was his camera that took the snapshots of the group and here he is using one amusing view of his six comrades to send a notice out about the group's next travel arrangements. We can only guess what thoughtful gift the girls gave him.

Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra brochure
Source: University of Iowa Libraries

Born in Michigan in 1888, J. Albert Conrad was 24 years old, and unmarried when in 1912 he acted as the manager, cornet player, and male chaperone to his six female colleagues. Conrad's photo is in the Metropolitans brochure as he led the group from its beginning in the 1911 summer season. The bio lacks any personal details, noting only that he had played solos with "leading Chicago bands and in prominent churches," that he had "excellent technique and magnificent tone", and played on the new Holton trumpet model cornet. Crucially it left out his first name, which is a handicap in research. So far I can only find him in the 1920 and 1930 US census under his initials.

In another photo from the brochure of the Metropolitan String Quartet, Conrad is shown playing cello, so he evidently he had broad musical skills. His father was German and his mother was a German-Pennsylvanian so his musicianship had roots in the old country.

_ _ _

What made this simple postcard so useful is that it was sent to the musician who saved all these photos and added annotations to the backs. She was the cellist, Miss Nellie Woolman of South Bend, Indiana. In my story last week she is the one person in the group not identified by name. The snapshots were sent back home for Nellie's family to see, and since obviously they would recognize her, she merely wrote "cellist" to indicate herself. Here in the train station tea party she is second from left. Standing left is Sophie, the percussionist, and seated next to Nellie is a new face, an older woman  with glasses, who looks a bit like Senator Elizabeth Warren, lifts her teacup in a toast. We will meet her later.

* * *

Looking like seven women on a shopping expedition, this next photo actually shows six musicians of the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra with one other woman outside the entrance to some kind of retail store. From right to left they are: Iona Leonore Hart, the pianist and reader; an unknown woman; Gretchen Cox, 1st violin; Elizabeth Harting, 2nd violin; Nellie Woolman, cellist; Sophie, the percussionist; and a new member of the ensemble, the unknown woman with glasses that sat next to Nellie at the train station. All of the women wear heavy coats that reach to their ankles and broad brimmed hats. A note on the back gives their location which explains why they are dressed for the cold.

(T)aken at Hibbing with one of Mr. Cos
_rove’s booking agents.  She w(as)
(a) gay old girl too believe me.

* * *

In Part 1 of my story, the last photos on the train caboose were taken when the group was on their way from Hibbing, Minnesota about to cross the border with Canada into Fort Frances, Ontario. In this annotation "Mr. Cosgrove" was the name of the Canadian presenter who secured numerous dates for a fall tour of the Metropolitans in Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.  On October 12, 1912 the Free Press newspaper of Winnipeg, Manitoba published a review of a performance by the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra.

A Concert was given in Zion Methodist Church last evening by the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra of Chicago. To people who like music in general, without confining their taste to either the popular or the classical kind, the programme given by this little groupe of musicians must have been very enjoyable. The audience, though very small, applauded with enthusiasm. The six young ladies and their manager, J. Albert Conrad, constitute a seven-piece orchestra which is capable of giving an acceptable rendering of classics such as standard overtures, as well as compositions that are of a more "popular" nature. They have all their work very well prepared, and play not only with commendable precision but with a good deal of enthusiasm. In spite of the smallness of the number of instruments, the ensemble is quite pleasing. In one number four of the players resolved themselves into a string quartette, giving a gratifying performance of "The Mill" by Raff, and Schubert's "Marche Militaire." Though their quartette playing is not remarkable for delicacy, their straightforward style is well suited to such compositions.

As soloists the company invariably made a good impression. Miss Gretchen M. Cox, the first violin and director of the orchestra, is remarkable for her masculine firmness of tone and vigor of style. Her technique is quite equal to the difficult "Fantasie Passiopata" by Vieuxtemps, which she played with appropriate fire and energy. That she excels also in the music of the opposite kind, was proved by her delightful renderings of Schumann's "Traumerei." Miss Cox is a very admirable violiniste. Miss Lawson has a sweet soprano voice, and her singing was well received by the audience. Miss Eckhart, who handles the "traps" of the orchestra in a satisfactory manner, made a good impression with her xylophone solo. The cello playing of Miss Woolman was distinguished by smoothness and beauty of tone and by musical feeling. Miss Hart is a good accompanist, and she successfully combined the piano with her monologues, her comic number being especially acceptable. Mr. Conrad played the cornet like a virtuoso, and in the quartette he showed himself a capable performer on the viola.

This was the only extensive review in 1912-13 I could find that identified nearly all seven performers of the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra. The new person was Miss Adele Lawson, whose first name appeared in another review. She was a soprano who had worked with the Metropolitans in the previous 1911-1912 season, and was absent in the 1912 Chautauqua summer season when Miss Langton, the clarinetist, took her place. The percussionist, whose surname was clipped from an earlier photo, was Miss Sophie Eckhart. She was also playing as a substitute, as was Miss Nellie Woolman, the cellist, who found Mr. Cosgrove's agent so bemusing.

The reviewer's slightly snippy tone aside, the concert's music was likely very similar to their summer programs, albeit with Miss Lawson's songs instead of clarinet solos. The arrangements the group played are typical of music reductions and adaptations that musicians have always used for entertaining audiences who prefer familiar tunes over sophisticated academic music. Though we might consider this kind of music a cliche, or even trite, we must remember that audiences of this era listened differently as their ears were not subjected to the constant repetition of recorded music that we hear in our time. Music performed live was really the only music people ever heard. The genres of music were less strict, so a popular song of Stephen Foster might follow an opera excerpt of Giuseppe Verdi. In fact the concert piece Miss Cox played by Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881), a Belgian composer and violin virtuoso, is exceptionally difficult and would require a very skilled violinist to play it well.

But Winnipeg was just the start of a northern adventure
for the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra
to finish the year 1912.

* * *

In most of the 15 photos in this collection the camera is about 10-15 feet away. But in this photo the camera is placed more than 40 feet away in order to get an entire farmhouse in the frame. It's a little house on the prairie with a hay wagon and large barn in the background. The image is a bit grainy but Miss Woolman is seated on the right corner of the porch next to a small girl. Standing behind her is the woman with the glasses. Mr. Conrad is on the stoop wearing a bow tie and winter cap. Behind him is a woman in a white dress with two children, her daughters I think. Gretchen Cox is seated center with Miss Hart next to her petting a black dog.  On the left are a man and woman I don't recognize from the other photos. And on the far left is a very tall man in a billed cap wearing gauntlets whom I believe is the farmer of this place.

(G)liechen  Oct 27
(R)ather 15 miles from Gliechen in
(fro)nt of the Bonnar bungalow.
(t)he whole family & us. They
(ma)de me think of Harry & Lydia.

* * *

Today Gleichen, Alberta has a population of about 325 citizens, but in 1912 there were over 583 residents and the town could boast of an Opera House. On October 26, 1912 the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra of Chicago played a concert there of Orchestral Selections, String Ensembles, Violin, Vocal, Cornet, Xylophone Solos and Readings.  The Best Yet to Appear in Gleichen.

Gleichen AB Call
24 October 1912

The Metropolitans were now over only 775 miles from Winnipeg.

* * *

I have never seen the spare tire in my newest 2018 car. I do know where the spare is stored in my 2006 truck, but in 15 years of ownership I've never bothered to remove it from beneath the truck's bed. But in an automobile from 1912, the spare tire was readily available under the right arm of the driver.

In this wonderful image, eight women are packed into an open top touring car. They grin with delight at the camera. Everyone is in heavy coats and winter hats. The car is parked on a dirt road outside a commercial type wood building. A windpump in the background has lettering on the vane. There are chains on the auto's rear tires.

Miss Woolman is third from right next to the driver. I don't think there is any space in the car for her cello. It's three weeks since the concert in  Gleichen, and the Metropolitans are around 225 miles farther north. (In 1912 the Canadians did drive on the right side of the roads like Americans, but in the early years of automobiles the steering wheel was often affixed on the right. Beginning in 1908 this flipped to left-hand drive on Henry Ford's cars.)  

Scat. Nov. 18
The skating party
Mother & girl and man
that took us.

_ _ _

* * *

After playing at the Gleichen Opera House, the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra followed the rail line north in the great Canadian plains. They played Strathmore, Alberta, population 531, on October 28, followed by a concert in Didsbury, pop. 726, on November 6.  Then Lacombe, pop. 1,029 on November 8th and Alix, pop. 267, on the 9th. These were concerts in churches, assembly halls, or civic "opera houses". The programs were rarely described but likely followed the repertoire the group had developed over the past few months.  On November 21 the Metropolitans reached Edmonton, pop. 24,900, to perform at the most northern venue. Two days later on November 23, they were in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, pop. 12,004. 

Mirror AB Journal
08 November 1912

Towns on the great plains of North America were spread out, often following the pathways mapped out by the railways. In 1912 Alberta, Canada was still a developing province and all of these "small" towns had seen a boom in population since the start of the century. Gleichen jumped from 101 citizens in 1901 to 583 by 1911. Didsbury's growth was nearly 550%, Edmonton increased by 848%, and Saskatoon's population shot up 10,523% in a decade! This wave of eastern Canadians and new immigrants moving to the western towns brought new vigor to the culture on the great plains. And little traveling troupes like the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra served a need these communities had for good entertainment.

* * *

It's rare to see how people traveled in earlier times. In this dark grainy photo, with contrast corrected,  the Metropolitans are lined up on a train platform in front of a pyramid of trunks. The top one is stenciled with METROPOLITAN LADIES ORCHESTRA, NO. 2 THEATRE . Each musician has a valise. Miss Woolman has her cello in a canvas case next to her. Mr. Conrad on the left wears his coat collar turned up and a winter hat. There is no annotation but I think they are somewhere above the lower 48 I think.

Moving south from Saskatchewan, the Metropolitans played their last concert in Canada on December 6 in Emerson, Manitoba the border twin of Pembina, North Dakota. Their return journey to Chicago included one final concert on December 12 in Crystal Falls, Michigan on the Upper Peninsula. From early October to mid-December the seven musicians of the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra had traveled over 3,700 miles and surely played may more times concerts than I could find in the newspaper reports. (My estimates of distance use the Google Maps highway routing, but train routes would be nearly the same.)

* * *
The producer of the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra was named Louis O. Runner. He was an enterprising trombonist and had put together two other ensembles of "lady" musicians, The Chicago Ladies' Orchestra, and The University Girls. The writing style of the time almost always used the adjective "ladies" instead of "women" to label these groups, less common "girls", and never ever, gasp, "female". The trade journal for Chautauqua and Lyceum entertainers, The Lyceumite and Talent, published a group photo of Runner's three ensembles. There are 25 women but L. O. Runner and J. Albert Conrad are the only men in the picture. Several references in newspapers indicate that players sometimes transferred from one ensemble to another. No doubt Mr. Runner kept a map of North America to track his talent, and a thick catalog of musician names.

The Lyceumite and Talent
October 1912
Source: Google Books

* * *

The final three photos in this collection are more intimate portraits of three of the musicians. This one shows Miss Gretchen Cox, violinist, with Miss Ione Hart, pianist, and Miss Nellie Woolman, cellist. It a classic musical trio and the three women look as if they have just taken a break during a rehearsal. Their shy smiles and relaxed posture suggest a good friendship of musicians comfortable with each other. There is no note on this postcard size photo.

* * *

Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra brochure
Source: University of Iowa Libraries

The violinist and leader of the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra was Gretchen Marian Cox. In 1912 she was age 27, born in Wisconsin, and single. After this tour of the Metropolitans, in about 1913 she formed her own group, the Gretchen Cox Concert Company. This was a trio with a different cellist and pianist, which marketed itself to the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits. Unlike the week-long summer festivals of the Chautauquas, Lyceums were generally musical recitals, concerts. and educational lectures scheduled throughout a fall/winter season as a series. They were popular with smaller communities which could not afford the price of booking multiple entertainers at once like the Chautauquas.  A typical sponsor might be a town church or YMCA organization selling tickets for its own benefit.

She was still playing the circuit in the summer of 1917, but with a different concert company, when her picture appeared in the Grove City, Kansas newspaper.

_ _ _

* * *

This next photo was taken at the same time as the last one. The same three women now pose without instruments next to a large fireplace. Gretchen and Nellie look over Ione's shoulder as she studies a music score. The light from a window is enough to illuminate the trio and give the image a warm artistic effect.

* * *

Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra brochure
Source: University of Iowa Libraries

The pianist and reader for the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra, Ione Leonore Hart had previously  played with the group in the 1911-12 season. She was age 23, born in Illinois, and single. Her talent besides being a piano accompanist was giving "readings and pianologues = playing her own accompaniments." A pianologue is an unfamiliar term that I think is similar to what a piano accompanist would do for a silent film, but in this case recite a story or poem as they play descriptive music. It may have involved vocal and comedic artistry too. In the snapshots she appears to be an animated personality that make me believe she was always the center of attention, both on stage and off. In 1915 she married Leroy Link, raised 4 children, and moved from Chicago to Connecticut and then California.

* * *

The last photo in this collection is a single portrait of the cellist, Miss Nellie Woolman. Of all the string instruments the cello is my favorite for its tone, so similar to my own instrument the horn. It was taken in the same room as the preceding photos, and Nellie sits in front of the room's large fireplace. The image is quite small, almost a contact print of the film negative. But it is on a postcard that was mailed on February 3, 1913 to  Miss Emma Woolman, 628 W. La Salle Ave., South Bend, Indiana. Emma was Nellie's older sister and the recipient of most of these photos sent during the past several months.

Nellie Woolman was born in Indiana in 1889. She was now age 23 and like the other musicians, single. Her father was a mason and building contractor in South Bend, Indiana. Nellie was the youngest of five children in her family with an 18 year difference between her oldest brother and herself. Her first instrument was the violin and by the age of 19 Nellie was listed as a violin and music teacher in the South Bend city directory. But as we shall see, the cello became her main instrument.

The large message space on this postcard gives us the best idea of Nellie's voice.

Dear Emma :-                           
                                  How do
you like the artistic pose
Mr. C. took it with his
little pocket kodak the
day he took us three
girls at Quincy.  Wish
he could have gotten
a little of the piano
in—it was right
back of me.  I look rather
detached & it would be
quite impossible for me
to play in that chair.

Got Charles letter today
too—it was interesting
sounded just like him.

I forgot to give you
my new dates in
your letter so here they
Feb. 10 Yorkville  Ill.
                   11 Morroco   Indiana
                   12 Covington      “      
                   13 Logansport    “       
                   14 Churubusco    “       
                   17 Marlette    Mich.     
        18 Evart.           “
        19 Saranac        “
        20 Bronson       “
          22 Carson City “   

* * *

In January 1913 the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra played at least a dozen single engagements in a number of small towns and cities west of Chicago. Mr. Conrad's postcard was a reminder about the start of this tour. One concert was in Davenport, Iowa and the newspaper review included some of the program numbers and praised the musicians by name. Several pieces are unfamiliar to me "Overture Raymond" by Thomas; "La Poloma" by Yrodier. An excerpt of Verdi's "Il Trovatore" was followed by Meacham's march "America Patrol." The three string playerss with Mr. Conrad on viola formed a quartet to play Mozart's "Andante Allegro," which could be the title of nearly everything Mozart wrote.  Mr. Conrad gave a cornet solo, "Grand Russian Fantasia" by Levy, a theme and variations for cornet with lots of virtuosic embellishment and super fast notes. Miss Woolman's rendition of Chopin's "Nocturne" was "beautiful".  Miss Lawson sang two songs "with much feeling and finish." Miss Cox played the Vieuxtemps piece again and was "heartily applauded and gave as encore a simple folk song. As director Miss Cox showed no less skill than in her violin numbers."

_ _ _

It's unclear whether Nellie Woolman's dates for February 1913 are with the Metropolitan's again. I suspect this for a different ensemble, a piano string trio, where Nellie stepped in as a sub for the cellist, Adele Lawson's sister, who was getting married.  It was another route of over 1,000 miles.

As far as I can tell Nellie never played again in the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra. The group did play another two Chautauqua summer seasons in 1913 and 1914, and then briefly in 1919. Most likely L. O. Runner's three ladies' orchestras evolved and dissolved with the fickle change of taste in American culture. After the war many communities found it too difficult to maintain an annual Chautauqua festival and in the 1920s began to scale back on the size of their events. Bookings declined and many performers found the competitive circuit too grueling. And by the 1930s Chautauquas were old fashioned compared to the new entertainment of sound film.

In March 1914 Nellie Woolman was a member of another chamber trio, The Japan Company, with a soprano who also was a pianist. The Muscatine, Iowa newspaper ran a photo of Nellie with the program.

Muscatine IA News Tribune
18 March 1915

In 1915 she joined a six piece costumed troupe called The Bohemian Orchestra for a tour of southern state's Chautauquas. The next year 1916 found her in California living near San Diego playing in The Chicago Ladies Philharmonic Quartet. After 8 months she was back in South Bend. In the 1920 census she lived there with her other sister, Edith and family, listing her occupation as Concert Player (Musician). She was 31 years old and still single. But some people just need time to find the right person.

Sometime between August 1922, when she was included in a South Bend news items as Miss Nellie Woolman, and June 1923, when she was listed as as Mrs. Nell Woolman Walthe playing a cello solo in Wilmington, Delaware, Nellie got married to Albert W. Walther, a draftsman. But as a sensible musician she kept her professional name, and appeared on Wilmington church programs and once as a member of The Women's Symphony Orchestra of Philadelphia. 

But the best part was to find Nell Woolman Walther, cellist, listed in the radio schedule for WFI, Philadelphia. 3:00 P. M. – Program under the auspices of the Delaware County Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution. 

Scranton PA Times
26 march 1923

Considering how far she traveled on the train as a working musician, getting her cello to ride the radio waves at 395 meters and instantly be heard in all parts of North America, must have seemed a marvel to Nellie Woolman.


Sadly I could not find anything about Nellie Woolman Walther after 1927. Her name stops appearing in the newspapers and is not in the next census records. Her husband Albert was listed as a widow in the 1930 census and I suspect Nellie died sometime in that three year period, though I have not found any obituary or state records. If I am correct, she would have been around 40 years old at her death.

This small collection of 15 snapshots from 1912-1913 was a special keepsake. I don't know for sure it was Nellie's, perhaps it was one of her sisters who cropped the photos and pasted them into an album. There were probably more, now lost in time and space. Some of the names are incomplete, I may have them in a the wrong sequence, and there are insufficient clues to properly identify everyone. Was Mr. J. Albert Conrad's first name Josef or Johann? I'll probably never solve that riddle. 

Nonetheless the photos give a sketch of the working life of professional musicians in 1912, especially female musicians employed at a time when women did not enjoy equal opportunity in America. The ladies' bands and women's chamber music groups, like the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra, offered a place for talented female musicians to be heard, even as they were excluded from working in the dominant show business groups of all-male bands and orchestras. It's unlikely I'll ever find a contract that shows what the Metropolitan musicians were paid, but I suspect it was much less than what a similar male group would have received. For a woman of this era to make a career in music required perseverance, dedication, and likely support from their parents too. Yet as Nellie ends up on the radio, that is a testimony to her talent and appeal.

Mr. Conrad's pocket Kodak was an excellent camera. But it's the whisper of Nellie's voice on the back of his photos that inspired me to work out the context of the Metropolitan Ladies's Orchestra. I bet they sounded swell. I hope you can almost hear them too.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone has gone to the dogs,
which is actually a good thing.


Barbara Rogers said...

You've done it again, or rather out-done yourself! This second chapter of the Metropolitan Ladies Orchestra, and then the particular attention to Nellie...what an entertaining post. I'm so glad someone did save these lovely postal photos, and then you found them, and were just the right person to research all the concert information.

Susan said...

Someone should make a movie about this female orchestra. I loved this post.

La Nightingail said...

The two posts have been such fun to follow. As always, you've done a remarkable job tracing your subjects, and I think Barbara's on to something. I'll bet a movie about these ladies, if done right, would be well received. We just watched "A League of Their Own" last night, and a story about these gals kind of fits that sort of category - all the traveling, playing concerts, how they may or may not have gotten along with each other through it all . . . :)

La Nightingail said...

Oops - that was Susan who suggested a movie. :)

Wendy said...

I'm on the same page as Susan. As I read along, I wondered if there had been a movie.


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