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St. Paul’s Great Western Band was huge in the ’60s (the 1860s)

During the late nineteenth century, amateur brass bands were very popular in America.

The Great Western Band, St. Paul, 1868. Pictured are, left to right, M. Esch, Joe Olrenshaw, H. Haub, C. Trowbridge, R. Schroer, William Bircher, H. Macklett, George Seibert, H. Herr, and Theodore Henninger.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Great Western Band of St. Paul, formed in 1860, was one of the earliest and most popular brass bands in Minnesota through the late nineteenth century. This group of amateur musicians helped to bring a measure of sophistication to early St. Paul as it played for a variety of civic and private events. The band was busy during the 1870s and 1880s, but toward the end of the century, it faded from view. A new version formed in 1977, and over the next ten years, St. Paul residents enjoyed some of the same band music that the city’s early residents had enjoyed a century earlier.

During the late nineteenth century, amateur brass bands were very popular in America. In 1856, the Munger brothers, Russell and Roger, started the Old Gents’ Band, the first military band in Minnesota. The Old Gents’ Band merged with the Pioneer Guards Band, and from this, the Great Western Band of St. Paul (GWB) was formed in 1860. Russell C. Munger (1837–1901), co-owner of the Munger Brothers Music Store in downtown St. Paul, was well qualified to lead the band due to his musical abilities. Munger led it for seven years, after which George Seibert (1836–1897), a band member, became the leader.

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The music of brass bands enhanced many of St. Paul’s public events. In the fall of 1860, the GWB played at political campaign rallies. When Civil War soldiers returned home in 1864 and 1865, the GWB played on the St. Paul docks as the soldiers disembarked and marched to the official reception at the Capitol. The band played at the reception for General Ulysses S. Grant’s visit in 1865. It marched in the parade celebrating the completion of the Northern Pacific railroad in 1883. After Grant’s death in 1885, it led the funeral procession of dignitaries that marched in Grant’s honor from Seven Corners to the Capitol.

During the summer, the band played weekly or biweekly at some of St. Paul’s popular parks, including Union, Central, Rice, Summit, and Como. It met the steamships that brought dignitaries and prospective residents to St. Paul, and it provided onboard entertainment for excursion boats. Beginning with the 1863 State Agricultural Society Fair, held at Fort Snelling, it played at many state and local fairs, including the agricultural fair at the White Earth Indian Reservation in 1879.

In the private sector, the GWB played for dances, skating parties, church suppers, and funeral processions. It provided music at athletic events organized by groups such as the Twin Cities Turners, a gymnastics club. Groundswell organizations invited the GWB to provide entertainment for its gatherings. In 1869, these included the Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Minnesota and the North Star Grange, which hired the band for its Fourth of July picnic.

Compared to similar brass bands of the time, GWB was considered by the Minneapolis Tribune to be the best “…west of Chicago.” To meet the demand, Seibert asked Frank Danz Sr. to start a similar band, the Great Western Band of Minneapolis, in 1880. Sharing music and uniforms, the two bands performed together or separately as needed.

As other types of musical groups became more prevalent by the late 1890s, the band’s popularity decreased. Many years later, Paul Maybery, a University of Minnesota graduate student who discovered them while researching the music of nineteenth-century Midwestern brass bands, revived the group. He organized a brass quintet to play period music at the Minnesota Historical Society’s 1977 annual meeting. The popularity of this performance inspired the group to expand and take the name “New Great Western Band of St. Paul.” For almost ten years, it played at Twin Cities locations and revived the music of the original band. One of its last performances was at a celebration of Historic Lowertown in 1988. To end at a historic venue was fitting for a band whose namesake was an important part of St. Paul’s early history.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.