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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The Little Band on the Prairie

09 April 2021

The called themselves a Ladies Band, the Russell.Ladies Band, as written in bold letters on their bass drum. The word Ladies, sometimes with or without apostrophe, was a descriptive term that would never be used in 2021 for a musical ensemble like this. Today it might be a women's band, or a girls' band, even an all-female band, but not a ladies' band which now imparts a quaint, if not archaic, connotation of secondary status.  
Technically this group of 12 women is not entirely all female anyway, as there are two men standing at the back, one with a trombone. The Russell.Ladies Band (the period stop, instead of an apostrophe s, after Russell is a punctuation curiosity I'll leave alone) is a typical brass band for the era, male or female, with four cornets, a mellophone, a tenorhorn, two trombones, and two tubas, with snare and bass drum. When I acquired this many years ago I thought they were just another example of an early 20th century small town band in the United States. However there are 23 towns or counties in America with the name Russell. And of course, it's also possible that the name referred to the surname of the band's leader.
The faded postcard photo was cracked and had once been glued onto the coarse black paper of a scrapbook. Fortunately old glue is water soluble and with a little scraping I was able to reveal the name of the photographer stamped on the edge of the un-mailed  postcard. It reads:
Photo by Lawrence and Meeres,
Russell, Rossburn, Binscarth, Birtle, Man.


A more accurate name for this musical ensemble would be the Ladies Band of Russell, Manitoba, with postcode MB if you were wondering. There is a great deal more of North American geography than what we see in the little newspaper weather maps of the United States, which usually show the lower 48 as an isolated continent next to the small island of Alaska and the giant Hawaiian archipelago that seem to be floating offshore below Arizona.
Manitoba, along with the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, is part of a region, the great Canadian Prairies, that many Americans often overlook. Russell, Manitoba, a small community due north of Minot, North Dakota, is on the eastern edge of this vast area known as the North American Great Plains.

This part of Manitoba with its flat grasslands, pockmarked with a surprisingly large number of small lakes, was prime agriculture land when central Canada was developed in the late 1800s. It apparently was good for breeding very large horses.
Winnipeg Tribune
7 July 1913

In July 1913, the Russell Ladies' Band (with apostrophe) performed at the Canadian Industrial Exhibition in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, about 220 miles east of Russell. The exhibition's newspaper advertisement was illustrated with an enormous draft horse being held in check by a man as most industry and agriculture in this era still relied on real horsepower. The nine-day event featured a live stock show, a blue ribbon race, a man in a balloon, a carnival midway, and concerts by the Russell Ladies' Band, the Portage Kilties' Band, and Regimental and City Bands.
Brandon MB Weekly
31 July 1913

Later that month, the Brandon, Manitoba Weekly ran a small report on another local fair where the Russell's Ladies' Band had performed. (again with more apostrophes!) It had just been organized a year and half earlier by Mr. W. J. Calvert who was conductor and manager. It was a self-supporting ensemble of 16 musicians that played for hire at other events and was expected to travel to Regina, Saskatchewan in August. The band owned a complete set of silver plated instruments and had uniforms in maroon and green. "It is a live wire organization and is one of Russell's big boosters."

This second postcard of the Russell Ladies Band is a better photo, but the photographer left no mark. Perhaps is was taken in Regina. Here the women are in uniform, though with the sepia tone image it's hard to know what color the material is. My guess is that their skirts and jackets are of green worsted wool with maroon trim. Standing on the right is the band leader, William J. Calvert, the trombonist in the first photo. Here Mr. Calvert is holding a stout white baton and wears an ornate band master's uniform.

The University of Alberta Library collection at has a copy of this postcard as well as a postcard of Russell's Main Street in 1905. Other than the dirt/mud road surface, the town looks pretty prosperous for a small farming community.
Main Street, Russell, Manitoba 1905

In fact the population of Russell in 1911 was about 562, and currently it has around 1400 residents. It was obviously a community large enough to have schools and people who placed a value on music education.  [As an aside, it's interesting that the Canadian national statistical agency keeps census records on the language spoken by Canadian citizens, including over 70 different aboriginal languages of Canada's indigenous people.]

Most of the 12 women in the second photo are different than those in the first postcard. However, I think the tuba and cornet players standing left in the first one are standing in the second group, though the cornetist has changed to a mellophone. The bass drummer also might be the same young woman. But the instrumentation has changed too. There are now three reed instruments, a clarinet and two saxophones. One can't miss the big baritone sax as it's main purpose in any band is to draw attention to itself. It would have given the Russell.Ladies Band a very dominant bass sound, and it's unusual to see a baritone sax in such a small group. The lighting has enough contrast to show a glimmer of ornate engraving on the bell, so this was an expensive instrument. Perhaps it was purchased after the band earned some success and wanted to distinguish itself by adding an instrument not typical for a woman to play.


There is a second instrument that is very rare to see in brass bands. It's an Echo Cornet held by the woman seated right. This instrument has an extra valve that lets the player instantly change the sound quality from brilliant brass to a muted "echo" for solo effect. The cornet's engraving and its extra coiled muffler are clearly visible, as, I might add, is the wedding band on the woman's left hand. There was a similar echo cornet in my 2020 story about A Scottish Orchestra. It's a solo instrument more often played by British musicians, and given Canada's position within the British Empire, perhaps it's not surprising to see one in a band from Manitoba. It does suggest that the woman was the lead cornetist and a musician of some talent.

Amazingly the Russell, Manitoba Banner newspaper is included in one of the internet archives I use. In October 2013, the paper celebrated Russell's centennial of incorporation with a special edition that included a timeline of the town's history. In 1912, thirty-one years after Russell's town site was laid out, the Russell Ladies Band was formed.
Russell MB Banner
8 October 2013

The original 16 members included: Clara McRostie, Laura McRostie, Carrie McDonagh, Mildred
Richardson, Mrs. Wm. Calvert, Hazel Callin, Mr. J. Rendall, Myrtle Burke, Wm. Calvert (band master), Ethel McDonagh, Emma Lyon, Babe Maher, Minnie Lyon, Hazel Madill and Corah Sherlock. The band leader, William J. Calvert is clear, and the other man in the first photo is surely Mr. J. Rendall. The other names will have to stay unconnected with the faces, but it was a nice surprise to read them in so recent a publication and be able to include them in this story. It's very likely that descendants of the ladies in the band are still in the Russell, Manitoba area. 

Satellite View of Russell, Manitoba
Source: Google Maps


The newspaper archives did not produce many articles on the Russell.Ladies Band. They started in 1912 and were mentioned into 1915, but after that nothing until the 2013 Russell centennial.  Unlike the United States, Canada joined the Great War in 1914 in loyal support of Britain. Thousands of young men volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, including, I expect, many from Manitoba. With so many men away from the farms and small towns, the women of the Russell Ladies Band were likely too occupied with other family obligations and extra responsibilities to keep the band going. But for a few years, they were a "live wire organization."  I wish I could have heard them. 

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where no one sweeps anything under a rug.

I don't know much about farming but I like draft horses. In 1914-18 Canada made many important contributions to the war effort supplying Britain with everything from soldiers and sailors to raw materials and food stuff. But one of the most valuable components was horses. Thousands of heavy draft horses and lighter cavalry horses were assembled from the central provinces like Manitoba and shipped from Canadian ports to France. But unlike the soldiers who survived the war and returned home to Canada, the horses never came back. The illustration of the noble draft horse for the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition reminded me of how livestock, in particular horses, played a critical part in sustaining the war and helping the Allied forces defeat Germany. 

So for extra credit, here is a short 5 minute history
on the War Horses, Canada's Percherons, in the First World War. 


Liz Needle said...

Another interesting post. But they all look so glum. You'd think they would enjoy playing together - or maybe they had just put in a poor performance. Thanks for sharing.

Wendy said...

Naming all the women in the band - now that's something I would not have expected. I also would not have thought any would be married unless her husband was the band leader or manager OR unless she was a widow still wearing her ring.

Barbara Rogers said...

sad to hear of the war horses in the video. But I was happy to learn of the band of Russell's ladies. I can just imagine them playing.

DawnTreader said...

That's an impressive piece of research!!!

La Nightingail said...

I was surprised to see so many large instruments in such a small band. They must have had a very strong sound.

Molly's Canopy said...

I am enjoying your posts about the mainly-female bands, including this one. And I love that this band in particular was considered a "live wire" group. The archival photos are also excellent -- and you're right, it would be wonderful to hear them. That period between Russell and Ladies did catch my eye -- hoping you will follow up on your hint and explain this in the future. I also enjoyed the extra-credit video about the draft horses. Horses fared similarly in the U.S. Civil War, and there are heartrending descriptions of them giving out en masse during the Wilderness Campaign on the way to Cold Harbor. If you have time, I also have an extra credit request: Would love if you could also visit my other musical blog post (in addition to the one I posted for Sepia Sat). I think you'd enjoy it!

Susan (aka Avid Reader) said...

Great photos of these lady bands. I love posts like these.

kathy said...

That video ... the horses are so beautiful, but their fate during the war is so tragic. I did enjoy the band photos and that you found the names of the members. Hope a descendant finds your blog.


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