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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
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Louisbourg Heritage Society

The Louisburg Brass Band 1913-1924

The Louisburg Brass Band was born on the eve of World War I into a town that had lost some of the enthusiasm of earlier years. The Marconi Receiving Station, built in West Louisburg in 1912/1913, introduced a note of growth to the times. But in spite of this new addition to the community, the excitement of the turn of the century was waning. The Cochrane Lake mine failed and the looked-for railway between Louisburg and St. Peter's was not constructed. Louisburg's dream of becoming a major Atlantic port never materialized. Still, there was a settled and relaxed prosperity in the community, and there was regular work at the coal pier. When war came Louisburg responded patriotically, at home and at the Front, and experienced, along with hundreds of other Canadian communities, the trauma of losing young men in action. But the end of the War marked the end of economic stability. In 1919, after almost 25 years of year-round operation, the Dominion Coal Company pier became a seasonal employer.

The Band is Organized Again

In March 1914, Duncan Lamont and Wesley Townsend, representing the Band, approached the Town Council for financial help to buy new instruments and meet expenses. The, Council was supportive and directed the Band to let the Town Clerk know the amount needed.1

Band members were meeting twice weekly for practice and at one of these practices decided that $100 would cover their immediate needs.2 This was communicated to the Council and reviewed at the April meeting. Councillor Wylie Stacey, a bandsman, diplomatically suggested that the matter lay over until a future date. Councillor Fletcher Townsend, another member of the Band, agreed with Stacey. But after some discussion, on a motion by Councillor E. M. Dickson seconded by Councillor Jeremiah Smith, an amount of $100 was placed in the 1914 estimates for use by the Band.3 This is the first and only record of the Band approaching the Council for assistance. And unlike the situation of the earlier Citizens' Band, there is no evidence of there ever being any conflict with Council.

The first Band concert was held in St. Bartholomew's parish hall on Thursday, April 30. The performance was well attended, enthusiastically reviewed and drew in $75, a very respectable amount for 1914.4

There is no record of the complete membership of the Band at this time. Duncan Lamont and Wesley Townsend were obviously members since they approached the Council for help. Melvin S. Huntington also joined the Band for the first time noting his attendance at practice in his diary for 1914. And, based on the evidence of a photograph taken on May 24, 1919, it is almost certain that former band members Fletcher Townsend, Guy B. Hiltz and Walter Jewell renewed their commitment at an early gate. Wylie Stacey w as involved, for his son, Charles, remembers seeing him in his band uniform.5 And it is probable that the Arthur and Frank Keefe, and Archie Hare, from the Citizens' Band, were also members.6

Just as there is no exact idea of the initial membership of the Band, there is no specific reference to the formal structure of the Band Association. If there was a president, secretary and treasurer there is no record yet discovered.

While the immediate cause for the revival of the Band is not on record either, it may have been connected with the last-minute attempt, in the fall of 1913, to organize a Bicentennial Celebration for the founding of 18th-century Louisbourg. The Sydney Daily Post for September 6, 1913 reported the arrival in Cape Breton of the author Beckles Willson who was planning to spend some time in Louisburg with Reverend T. F. Draper.7 In the interview, Willson chastised the Town of Louisburg and the residents of the Island for failing to have an appropriate celebration to mark the 200th anniversary of the taking of possession of Cape Breton by the French on September 2, 1713.

This comment sent minor shock waves through certain segments of the Cape Breton community. There was a hurried meeting held in Mayor Gunn's office, in Sydney, followed by invitations to Prime Minister Borden, Premier Murray and Sir Georges Garneau, the Chairman of the National Battlefields Commission, for celebrations planned for Louisburg on September 20. After these meetings were held and commitments made in the press, the Mayor of Louisburg, W. E. McAlpine, was consulted by the organizing committee for the event. McAlpine agreed in principle with the proposal for a celebration and promised to bring the matter before the Louisburg Council. But it was obviously too late to do anything substantial and none of the hastily-invited guests were able to attend on such short notice. Nor does it seem that the Louisburg Council felt it was able to undertake a last-minute celebration.

To salvage a potentially embarrassing situation, a number of the Sydney citizens' committee, led by J. S. McLennan, organized a branch of the Canadian Club in Sydney on September 19th to assist in the promotion of the Anniversary. The full extent of the Bicentennial Celebration, was an inaugural address to the newly formed Canadian Club delivered by McLennan, before a gathering of 200 people in the County Courthouse the next day.8

While Louisburg was unable to respond to the event in any tangible way, it is possible that the "Bicentennial" did give rise to some activity in the Town. There is no specific evidence but Councillors Wylie Stacey and Fletcher Townsend may have taken the opportunity to rally the former members of the Citizens' Band in the event that activities would be held in Louisburg.

Most certainly, the revival of the Band was made possible by the presence in the community of a bandmaster and instructor, Allison Kelland. Kelland, who had come to Louisburg to work at the Marconi Station, filled this role from the fall of 1913. When he left Louisburg in December 1914 to return to his home in Newfoundland, Melvin Huntington wrote that he, " . . proved himself a capable instructor (of the Band ) and will be greatly missed by its members".9

It is not known how soon a replacement was found. However, the frequent band practices, held in the Town Hall on Aberdeen Street, and the intensified involvement of the Band in community events, suggests the gap was filled almost immediately.10 The new bandmaster and instructor was probably John A. MacDonald, the bandmaster in a May 24, 1919 photograph of the Band. MacDonald had a familiarity with music and the band instruments, was capable of organizing and motivating the band members and possessed the strong personality needed to ensure a disciplined approach to practice. He was an engineer with the Sydney & Louisburg Railway and had moved to Louisburg from Port Morien where he learned how to play brass instruments in one of the early Salvation Army bands. According to his daughter, Mrs. Jean Scott, all the members of the MacDonald, family played musical instruments and a brother, James F. MacDonald, was in a Glace Bay Band.11

In addition to the possible Bicentennial enthusiasm and the availability of a capable instructor, the resurrection of the Brass Band in Louisburg can also be viewed as a predictable response to the times. During the later 19th and early 20th centuries, as music historian Nancy Vogan suggests, there was a ". . . conscious attempt to develop a sense of patriotism in the entire population."12 The disturbing rumblings in Europe throughout 1913 and early 1914 could only encourage these sentiments an d promote the growth of organizations that appealed to public spirit.

9. Louisburg between 1914 and 1918, looking east along Main Street from Aberdeen. A detachment of the 94th Victoria Regiment is marching in the direction of the Marconi Receiving Station, led by a piper.

The Band during the War Years

The Louisburg columnist to the Sydney Record wrote on August 7, 1914 that, "The news of the declaration of war between Germany and England was received calmly in this town. There was none of that enthusiasm that is reported to have been apparent in some C ape Breton towns. The prospect ahead of the people if this war continues for any length of time as to means of procuring the necessaries of life and the paralyzing of commerce and trade, which will follow, is no great thing to enthuse over."

In spite of this initial unenthusiastic reaction to the news of war, Louisburg responded quickly to the call to arms. Many of its young men volunteered for overseas service and seven lost their lives in Europe.13

The war years were an active time for community bands. A good band could play an important role in rallying the pride and patriotism needed to ensure support for the war effort. When the City Band gave an open air concert on the verandah of the Sydney Hot el in 1915, it was noted that,". . . as the greater part of their programme was composed of patriotic and martial airs, the concert was a popular one."14 Providing public support to a band became a point of pride for the leaders of the larger C ape Breton community with the fund raising drive for the Regimental Band of the 185th Overseas Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders). The 185th was mobilized at Broughton, in 1916, attracting recruits from all over Cape Breton.15 With a goal of $ 2,500.00, the fund raising began on May 10, 1916 and continued, with regular updates and strong encouragement, in the Sydney Daily Post, until May 27. Donations came in from Dominion, Gabarus, Glace Bay, Inverness, the Louisburg Marconi Station, Mira Gut, North Sydney, Port Morien, Sydney, Sydney Mines and Wycocomagh. When the drive closed there had been $2383.90 donated to outfit the Regimental Band.16

1O. The Regimental Band of the 185th Overseas Battalion ( Cape Breton Highlanders) with instruments obtained as the result of the fund raising drive of May 1916.

The Louisburg Band was part of these patriotic times. It played it's first role in the War when, on a cold November 7, 1914, it turned out at the Sydney & Louisburg railway station to send off Abe Wilcox who had enlisted for overseas service. This first celebration of rallying to the flag would be remembered, no doubt, when news reached the town in October 1916 that Sergeant Abraham Wilcox had been killed in action.17

Two weeks after seeing Wilcox off, the Band escorted 21 men of the 94th Regiment Militiafrom the Marconi Wireless Station, in West Louisburg, to the S&L train station where they embarked for Halifax and the Front.18 Melvin Huntington describes the eve nt on November 16 when the volunteers were formally escorted to the train by sixteen of their comrades with rifles and fixed bayonets. He notes that, "The soldiers were met at Jerrets Bridge by the Louisburg Band which with the assistance of Alex Bowes, piper, played them to the railway station where they were given a rousing send-off by the citizens." Captain McKeigan, the officer commanding at the Marconi Station, thanked the Band and Bowes, for furnishing the music for the occasion.19

To complete the year, the Band was at the S&L station, on December 14, for Clifton Townsend who left for Fredericton, New Brunswick, to join the 24th Field Battery. With these three events the Louisburg Brass Band established for itself an important, though unofficial, ceremonial role in the community which would continue throughout the war.

In 1915, the Band continued actively supporting the War Effort by raising $54.35 for the Patriotic Fund.20 It was also prominent at recruiting meetings in August, September and December.21

An important contribution made by the Band throughout the War was the assistance given to the Louisburg Red Cross Auxiliary, which was organized in March with Mrs. Freeman O'Neil as the first president.22 In October, there was a rally in St. Bartholomew's Hall in which the Band participated. The purpose of the rally was to conclude a special drive to raise money for British Red Cross Society. The total raised in Louisburg was $424.35.23

At the same time as it responded to the demands of patriotism, the Band addressed other community needs. As part of its rehearsal in the evening of Friday, September 17, it played a short public programme near the school house.24 Later in September, October and November there were dances and a concert.25 Before the October concert the Band paraded through the streets of the Town. Sponsoring dances and concerts was the main way in which the Band raised money. At these events, in addition to the band music, there was often other entertainment. Dances could have one or more local fiddlers providing the dance music, while concerts would involve singing and recitals. At the 11 October concert Huntington sang a solo - Mother Macree.26

In early 1916, a major recruiting drive began for the newly-formed 185th Overseas Battalion (Cape Breton Highlanders). Prior to this time, local men wishing to enlist had to join regiments on mainland Nova Scotia or some other province. On February 23, Lt . Henry C. Verner of the 85th Overseas Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders), arrived in town to open a recruiting office.27 Verner's home was in Louisburg and at the start of the War he had been an officer in the 94th Victoria Regiment Militia. Having him return to Louisburg was part of a consciously developed recruiting system in which officers were sent to their home districts to encourage enlistments.28 On March 6, there was a recruiting meeting held in the Masonic Hall at which Lieutenant Colonel F. P. Day, the Commanding Officer of the 185th Battalion, spoke. The Band was present and supplied music appropriate to the martial enthusiasm of the event.

The recruiting strategy was a success in Louisburg. When the Band turned out, on March 31, along with piper Alexander Bowes, to see Frank Comeau off for Broughton, there was also an escort of thirty recruits for the 185th, commanded by Lt. Verner. On April 5 these recruits, now 40 strong, formed up near the Pier Crossing, at what is now Main Street and Huntington Avenue, and marched to the S&L station where they boarded the train for Broughton. The parade was led by the Brass Band and piper Bowes.29

The Band continued supporting the Red Cross war effort by playing at a concert in June30 and, at a Red Cross sponsored lecture in St. Bartholomew's parish hall on July 17. The speaker, Major John Pringle, talked about his experiences as an army chaplain. The Band also took part in the Red Cross meeting in October.31

A particularly happy occasion that fall was the return home of Lt. George Skinner.32 Skinner was the first local soldier to return from the Front and the citizens, along with the Band, turned out at his home on Milton Street to express their thanks. It was an evening of music, speeches by town dignitaries and many questions about what was happening across the ocean and whether there was any news of friends and relatives.33

1916 was also a Provincial election year. On June 5, the Band marched to the S&L station where it greeted the Conservative candidates and played several selections during the course of the evening in the Masonic Hall. Then on June 7, it played at a Liberal rally and on the 17th attended a Liberal meeting and Smoker in Peters' Hall. The Liberal government of Premier Murray was returned that year.

Even with all this activity the Band did not forget other civic duties in 1916. It was present at the Leap Year Ball held in the Masonic Hall on February 1, and in April it took part in the Methodist tea and fancy sale.34 Then on the May 24 holiday, the Band paraded through the streets during the afternoon and held a concert in the evening. Melvin Huntington writes in his diary that he took part in the band concert but also sang a solo, "Love's Old Sweet Song," and, as an encore, "Hearts of Oak ". Later in the summer there was one outdoor Concert in front of Peters' store on Main Street at which the Band entertained for over an hour.35 And on the afternoon of September 30 the Band turned out to send off Arthur Keefe, a friend and band member of many years, who was moving with his family to Glace Bay.

In 1917, the Band attended a tea and fancy sale and a dance in the Masonic Hall.36 There was street parade practice on two occasions,37 a concert on the veranda of Mrs. Millie O'Toole's house, and another concert at the Crowdis Hotel .38 There was also a dance in the Masonic Hall in honour of Miss Annie F. Kerr, a resident and teacher, who was leaving for the west,39 and a farewell party and dance for the Marconi staff and censors who were dismissed or transferred when wartime security was imposed on the Wireless Station in West Louisburg.40

Involvement with the Red Cross continued with a pie social in April, a tea and fancy sale in June and a Junior Red Cross card party and dance in October.41

October 8, 1917 was an emotional occasion for the entire community when it welcomed home Wilfred McAlpine who had been wounded at Vimy Ridge on April 9. Over seventy years later it is difficult to appreciate the depth of pride in the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge and its impact our sense of Canadian nationhood. But McAlpine, and thousands of others like him across the country, served as a point of contact for the community in this significant event. The Band played for about an hour in front of the McAlpine residence on Main Street. There were speeches by Warden Levatte, Major Freeman O'Neil and Mayor W.E. McAlpine, his father.

The year ended with a Federal election in December. The Band was called on to play at a Liberal meeting on December 3, addressed by W. F. Carroll and G. W. Kyte. It also played at a Unionist meeting for R. H. Butts and J. C. Douglas on December 13th. As m ight be expected, with the Vimy victory behind it, the Unionist Borden government won the day.

The Band's social commitment continued into 1918 with a round of dances in the Masonic Hall. On one occasion the Pipe Band held a box social and dance which the Brass Band attended.42 There was a concert in February and a parade and concert on July 1.43 Support for the war effort had not diminished, for on July 8 there was a Red Cross Rally in St. Bartholomew's parish hall with both the Brass Band and Pipe Band in attendance. On August 4, the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the War, there was a public meeting in front of Major O'Neil's ( the Lewis/Corbin house ) on Main and Upper Warren. There were speeches, band music and a resolution was unanimously adopted, "expressing a determination to continue in the great struggle."

In spite of the enthusiastic show of support there was, no doubt, a profound sense of relief when, on Monday, November 11, news of the Armistice reached Louisburg. Melvin Huntington writes enthusiastically in his diary that the "Whistle in town and steamers in the harbour blew at 8:45 announcing that the armistice between Germany and the allies had been signed. Thus ending the War. One hour later assembled in the various churches for a short service of praise. General holiday all places of business closed. At 1 PM parade of citizens headed by Brass and Pipe Band marched through town. After which an open air meeting was held in front of Major O'Neils where speeches were made."

1919 - The Eventful Year

On February 9, 1919, Melvin Huntington writes that he attended the first general practice of the Band with the seven lady members present. The lady members had been receiving instruction apart from the regular practice of the Band - probably from John A. MacDonald. The first public parade of the combined male and female Band took place on May 20.

Six of the lady band members were photographed on May 24, 1919. They were: Mary MacCormack, Bel Verner, Tina MacDonald, Florie Ley, Viola Burke, and Erna MacLean. Mary MacDonald, the seventh member and Tina's sister, did not remain long since she found playing the cornet gave her a headache.

The Louisburg Brass Band seems to have been the only band on Cape Breton Island to have lady members. Several things had prepared them for this involvement. An important factor was the War. Because of the requirement to undertake a more wide-ranging role in the community, with so many men overseas, women became recognized as effective participants in life outside the home. It was now possible to participate in public activities that would not have been considered suitable several years earlier. Another point of great importance, I suspect, is that some of the lady band members came to the Band armed with experience in music which had not been available to an earlier generation in Louisburg. Some of this training was supplied by Miss McQuarrie who gave music lessons at the Pepperrell House, owned by Erna MacLean's father. McQuarrie started a singing school in the Calvin Presbyterian Church in 1904 where she gave vocal music courses every Monday evening.44 Mr. Millidge Morrison, of St. Peters, ha d also come to Louisburg to begin classes in vocal and instrumental music. The arrivals of Miss McQuarrie and Mr. Morrison were timely for it was recognized that, "A competent Music teacher is badly needed in this town. . ."45

Melvin Huntington was also an indirect source of encouragement. For a number of years he represented the Miller Music Company of Halifax and sold pianos and organs to a number of households in Louisburg. He also employed Erna Maclean and Jessie MacCormick as clerks in his store and, no doubt, encouraged their participation in the Band.

The most important community-based event in Louisburg in 1919 took place on May 24 when the Town officially welcomed the Louisburg Veterans home. It was a beautiful spring day with clear skies when the citizens of Louisburg gathered at the Sydney & Louisburg train station. From the station, they were led by the Brass Band and Pipe Band along Main Street to Riverdale and then back to the terrace in front of George Lewis' house for a civic reception. Mayor W. E. McAlpine welcomed the Veterans and presented them with a framed certificate of recognition. There was a lunch provided by the Red Cross Society in St. Bartholomew's parish hall and music by both bands.46

The photograph taken that day, in front of George Lewis' house, is the first pictorial record of the revived and integrated Band. Unfortunately they did not have uniforms for this important occasion. Uniforms had been ordered in April from the Crown Tailo ring Company, but had not arrived in time for the celebration.47

11. May 24, 1919. The official welcome home for the Louisburg Veterans. The event took place on Geroge D. Lewis' front lawn. The Veterans are seated to the right. The band is playing in front of the large central window.

12. The Louisburg Brass Band on May 24, 1919. This was the first official appearance of the combined Band. Unfortunately, the uniforms, ordered in April, had not arrived. Front Row, l-r: Danny Ferguson, Harold Covey. 2nd Row, l - r: Mary MacCormack, Bel V erner, Tina MacDonald, Florie Ley, Viola Burke, Erna MacLean. Back row, l - r: Melvin S. Huntington, Guy B. Hiltz, John A. MacDonald (band leader), Duncan Lamont, Unidentified, Walter Jewell, Arthur MacQueen, Wesley Townsend, Fletcher Townsend, Harold Mac Queen.

The only news that cast a pall on the events of the day was the notice, given a week earlier by the Dominion Coal Company, that the coal pier operation in Louisburg would be closing for an indefinite period.48 There was a meeting of citizens in the Town Hall to protest against the decision and a committee was set up to consult with the Company management.49 When the committee, along with a representative of the union local, met with Coal Company officials it was to no avail. Shipping ceased officially on Friday 23 May. This was a signal for the 20's. The coal pier would be operated seasonally from this time on.

The Band left Louisburg for the first time in 1919. On the 12th of July it departed on the 7:00 AM train for the community of Birch Grove to participate in the Orange Day Picnic. Arriving at Morien Junction, the Band led the procession through Birch Grove to the Picnic Grounds. Melvin Huntington told a story of one such parade in which the Louisburg Band was formed up behind King William's white horse. As the Band struck up its first march the horse, instead of leading the way, decided to back up into the parade.49a

On July 19th, back in Louisburg, the Brass and Pipe Bands paraded through the streets and provided the music at a bonfire at Slattery's Head that evening.

But the Band was on the move again in August. The Sydney Daily Post for July 19 carried a notice for Kamp Kill Kare on Sangaree Island in the Mira River indicating that there was to be a Masonic picnic with the Louisburg Ladies Band in attendance. No doubt the novelty of seeing a ladies band would attract a crowd. The advertisement was misleading since, on August 4, both male and female musicians left Louisburg on the early train for the Mira Gut station to play for the Port Morien Free Masons' Picnic. Arriving at Mira Gut the Band and the picnickers boarded the steamer and proceeded up the Mira River to Sangaree Island for the day. The newspaper reported that, "The members enjoyed a fine time and praise the liberality with which the Morien crowd rewarded their service."50 It was outings such as this that provided the Band with the money to meet operating costs and purchase uniforms.

On August 14, in the afternoon, the Band left Louisburg once more. This time it departed for Port Morien to play at a Garden Party given by the Orange Lodge. After the party there were refreshments and dancing until a late hour at the Orange Hall. Sixteen band members travelled to Port Morien and all stayed over that night, returning to Louisburg the next morning.

The last major event of the year took place on September 17 when the Band went to Glace Bay to parade in the Great War Veterans' Association (GWVA) Peace Day celebrations.51 The Glace Bay celebrations followed the Sydney Peace Day parade in whi ch the Colours of the 185th Battalion were delivered to the Cape Breton community, represented by Warden H. C. V. Levatte. In the Sydney Parade there were 50 floats and a number of bands including the CMBA Band from Sydney Mines, the Sydney Mines Town Ban d, the Citizens' Band from Sydney and a pipers band.52 The celebrations were equally elaborate in Glace Bay and very successful. The day began with a three mile road race, followed by the parade beginning at the GWVA Hall on Union Street, a baseball game, horse races and a Garden Party to cap off a celebration that attracted 5,000 people. The parade included the Mayors and Councils of Glace Bay and Louisburg and a large number of floats and decorated cars. The parents and sisters of John Bernard Croak, V.C. rode in one of the cars with Mrs. Croak wearing her deceased son's decoration. The Louisburg Band marched in the parade and attended thy horse races at Black Diamond Trotting Park that afternoon where it played between heats.53

Back in Louisburg, the Band held a Hallowe'en dance, another dance on 28 November and ended the season with a concert in the Masonic Hall on December 11. This concert featured Glace Bay talent, and was important to the Town because the people from Glace Bay had come to Louisburg to assist organizing a local branch of the Great War Veterans' Association.

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