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 Atkins Family Band

03 December 2022


 One of the fun games to play
with family photographs
is comparing faces.
Who has father's chin
or mother's eyes?

 
 

 
 
 

The larger the family,
the more similarity or variety
there is to find.
 
But it's a rare photo that reveals
what musical instruments
everyone played.
Who played tuba?
Who was the second clarinet?

 
 
Today I introduce the seven members of the
Atkins Family Band and Orchestra.
 
 

A long time ago, Mr. and Mrs. Atkins and their five children, one girl and four boys, posed for the camera in the studio of Gibson Art Galleries in Chicago, Illinois. The photograph is a standard cabinet card size but turned to a landscape format in order to get all seven of the family and their twelve instruments. Each of the children, from left to right, holds an instrument—clarinet, cornet, piccolo, violin, and slide trombone. Father holds a cornet and mother a violin. On the floor in front of them are a tuba, clarinet, alto horn, tenor horn, and euphonium. The photographer has artfully illuminated them from the right with a side light that gives each face a warm glow. The only minor fault is that the youngest boy on piccolo twitched and his face is a bit blurred.

Conveniently on the back of the photo is a handwritten name and address: 
Professor F. P. Atkins & Family
5732 5th Ave  Chicago


 

 
Professor Atkins was not difficult to find
as he was listed in the 1892 Chicago city directory as:
Frank P. Adkins, music teacher, 5732 5th Ave.

 
1892 Chicago city directory

 
His full name was Franklin Pierce Atkins, born 1854 near Odell, Illinois, and as a young man Frank lived in Streator, IL where he played cornet in a regimental band of the Illinois National Guard and gave music lessons on various instruments. In 1880 he married Catharina (or sometimes Katherine/Catherine) E. Bursk and for a time worked as a flour dealer there. In 1888 the family moved to Chicago where Frank played in various bands, sometimes directing them, and kept a studio for private music students. Evidently his wife, Catherine was also an accomplished musician too.

Together they raised five children, neatly spaced two years apart. The children in order of age and with instrument were Harry W. Atkins, clarinet, born 1883: Emma F. Atkins, cornet, 1885; Willard E. Atkins, violin, 1887; Alfred 'Fred' B. Atkins, trombone, 1889; and Franklin 'Frank' E. Atkins, piccolo, 1891. All this information comes from obituaries, census records, and family trees found on Ancestry.com.
 
I was impressed that Frank and Catherine Atkins gave their children a musical education which was, and is, often the case with children of a professional musician. I've featured several stories on family bands from this era, most recently Master Tommy Purcell, The Little Vernon Brothers, and The Noss Family Band - Practice Makes Perfect. The Atkins family photo resembles the style of these professional entertainers but I couldn't be certain until I found another clue.
 
Catherine Bursk Atkins died in September 1951. In her brief funeral notice was a statement that "she was the widow of Frank P. Atkins, Englewood (Chicago suburb) music teacher and band leader, and toured the Chautauqua circuit with him and five children until 1907 as the Atkins Family Band and Orchestra."
 
Using this clue I was able to find them in newspaper reports of several summer Chautauquas in Illinois and surrounding states like this one from Springfield, IL.
 
 
Springfield Illinois State Register
14 August 1900

The earliest Chautauqua event that I could find which included the Atkins family band was in July 1899 at Spirit Lake, Iowa. This small town is the county seat of Dickinson County which encloses the Iowa Great Lakes, the largest group of natural lakes in the state. Located near the border of Minnesota, it is abut 440 miles west of Chicago. In 1900 Spirit Lake's population was only 1,219 but the surrounding community had over 8,000 people, so it's not surprising that the town would organize a "Chautauqua". These small-town cultural fairs were named after the Chautauqua movement which started in Ohio in 1873. They typically engaged traveling educational speakers and family-oriented entertainers combined with local talent to present a continuous series of lectures and performances which proved to be very popular in the Midwest. Often a small musical ensemble like the Atkins family would be hired to perform concerts during the event which might last a weekend or sometimes as long as a week or more.

Professor Atkins probably found this summertime work through his connections in military and town bands around the region, or maybe through his church as many Chautauqua fairs were associated with Methodist or other Christian denominations. Usually a Chautauqua was set up in large tents in a rural setting like a farm field. A Chautauqua "assembly" might present talks from distinguished naturalists, famous preachers, noted educators, or world travelers along with performances by magicians, storytellers, jugglers, vocal groups, chamber music ensembles, or professional concert bands. The Atkins family called itself an orchestra in order to demonstrate a musical versatility suitable for both indoor and outdoor venues. They may never have received top billing but their music received praise in simple reviews like the one above.
 
Judging from the number of references I found in newspaper archives, from 1899 to 1907 the Atkins Family Band seemed to get engagements each summer at two or four Chautauqua fairs and then returned home to Chicago in September. Their programs were never listed so I can only guess that it consisted of arrangements of traditional hymns, popular songs, and classical pieces arranged by Frank Atkins. In later years, Miss Emma Atkins was listed as a "reader" to add a spoken element to their program. 
 
Their show was never a sophisticated theatrical act so I don't believe the professor and his wife ever held any ambition for their family band to join the vaudeville theater circuit. However the Atkin's family portrait was surely designed to promote their prospects on the Chautauqua circuit. It's quite possible that Frank Atkins used it in a printed brochure that described his family's talented children. Since Franklin (Frank) E. Atkins, the blurry piccoloist, was born in 1891and looks no more than age 6-7 in this photo, I believe it was taken in 1898 at the start of the family's Chautauqua career.
 
 
One of the unfortunate shortcomings about investigating the history of the bygone musicians in my photo collection is that I rarely find any program or review of music that they played. Even more sad is that because my research is confined to census records and old newspaper reports I have no access to letters or interviews that would add a personal character to the subjects in my photos. Despite my efforts to give a context to the Frank and Catherine Atkins' family photo, it still seems too dry and dull. I wish there was some way to give them a voice.
 
And then I discovered a report in the 18 October 1962 edition of the Spokane, Washington Chronicle. The reporter is unknown but they interviewed four of the children in my photo 60+ years after it was taken. It's very brief but we get to hear Emma Atkins Jacobs tell her story herself.
 
Spokane WA Chronicle
18 October 1962
   

Reunion Here Recalls Midwestern Family Band

 
   The lilting "Merry  Widow Waltz" and the rollicking "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" that the Atkins Family Band brought to midwestern turn-of-the-century Chautauquas were recalled here over the weekend at the family's  reunion.
   Ironically, the marriages that led to dissolution of the family band 55 years ago prompted the recent reunion at the home of Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Jacobs, W3617 Alice. The former Emma Atkins, Mrs. Jacobs relinquished her position as pianist and second cornetist in the family band to marry 55 years ago.
   Sharing in the weekend celebration were Mr. and Mrs. Harry W. Atkins of Davenport, Iowa. For many years national secretary of the American Poultry Association, he also retired from the Atkins Family Band to marry 55 years ago.
   Joining the two couples here were Fred Atkins, now retired from the Pullman Co. and living in Covina, Calif., and his wife, and Willard E. Atkins, professor emeritus and former dean of the Department of Economics at the University of New York, and his wife.
   The three brothers and their sister on Sunday counted 207 years of married life since the Atkins family bowed out of the Chautauqua circuit in 1907.
   "The marriages did it," Mrs. Jacobs explained with a laugh. "It was a family venture right from the start and when two of us left, that was it."
   Along with their mother and father, the five Atkins children, one of whom died seven years ago, were billed throughout the Midwest in the 1890s and early 1900s. With the youngest brother making his "debut" on the triangle instrument at the age of four, the family performed at lodge programs, torch-light political rallies and receptions in their hometown of Chicago and appeared in Chautauqua tent shows throughout Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and South Dakota.
   Each of the children and their parents played at least two instruments so they could provide either a brass band or a string orchestra, depending upon the occasion. Wit youngsters doubling on the tuba and clarinet and the flute and alto horn, they presented popular tunes and semiclassical works with equal aplomb.
   The Atkins' children's talent stemmed from a rich musical heritage. Music was the life of their father, Franklin Pierce Atkins. A music teacher and brilliant solo cornetist, he established bands in small farming towns throughout Illinois. He was selected to organize and direct a band that played at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.
   But it was his wife, Catherine, who engineered the Atkins Family Band with herself as violinist, pianist, and flutist, Mrs. Jacob said.
   "Mother was the organizer because she knew that father was essentially the artist and the dreamer," she said.
   Now a grandmother and the author of seven children's books, Mrs. Jacobs looks back on her family's role in the era of Chautauqua meetings and band concerts in the park with the observation that "Our way of life was an education in itself."
 
 

 
CODA
Bandleader and cornetist, Franklin 'Frank' Pierce Atkins died on 17 June 1935 at age 81. His wife and violinist, Catherine E. Bursk Atkins, died 12 September 1951 at age 88. Their eldest child and clarinetist, Harry William Atkins, died in 1967, age 84. Their only daughter and cornetist, Emma F. Atkins Jacobs, died in 1983, age 87. The serious violinist, Alfred 'Fred' B. Atkins died in 1964, age 77. The trombonist, Willard E. Atkins died in 1971, age 82. And the youngest child and piccolo player, Franklin 'Frank' E. Atkins died in 1952 at age 61.

 
 
 
 
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where every family has a smile to share.



3 comments:

Molly's Canopy said...

This is a particularly lovely photo of the musical family and their instruments. And what a treat to find that article with family interviews explaining the inside story of the band. Indeed, you must have been thrilled to find it as a complement to the excellent photo.

Kristin said...

How wonderful to find that interview and bring their own memories and thoughts to your post. A lovely photograph which reminded me of my musical family photo.

Barbara R. said...

I love checking out ears and lobes (attached or not) in people. This mother of the family in the photo is rather strange looking...her knees up near her husband's, but her shoulders back behind her sons...she has a very long lap. Either she was very tall, or something the photographer insisted upon made her look disjointed. I'm sure her music was lovely though!

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