Band History

Background and Beginnings

The Fond du Lac Military Band, numbering twenty-four musicians, was organized on May 27, 1898 with H. G. Bowen as Musical Director and Business Manager. It is quite likely that the new group represented a re-organization or continuation of the earlier brass bands which had existed in the city since the mid-1800’s. Newspaper articles from the 1870’s and 80’s reported variously on the activities of the Hutchins Brass Band (later called the Fond du Lac Band), the Northwestern Band of Fond du Lac, The Republican Band, and the Washington Band; it is not entirely clear which of these groups co-existed and/or represented a succession from one name to the next.
In general, the brass bands of that era varied in size and description depending on the instruments and players available, as this new musical ensemble evolved and developed in North America and Europe. By the late 1800’s most established communities of any size had a town band, anywhere from an ensemble of three or four brass instruments to larger bands of some fifteen or twenty brass and percussion. Thus it was not only possible but likely that a city of Fond du Lac’s size may have had competing musical organizations.

Up until the mid-1800’s, woodwinds were found mostly in the chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras in the large population centers of Europe and America. Their addition to the brass bands was tried in the military as early as the 1850’s, and began gaining in popularity as the great concert bands of Gilmore, Sousa and others toured the country extensively toward the close of the century. However woodwinds were slow to find their way into the small town bands, probably because of their higher cost, more delicate structure, and the limited availability of both instruments and players.

As one of the larger communities in Wisconsin by the late 1800’s, Fond du Lac enjoyed a reputation as a musical center, boasting an opera house as early as the 1870’s and numerous movie/vaudeville houses beginning with the advent of the motion picture industry. Since it was a mecca of sorts, it was no surprise that many part-time musicians were attracted to the community to partake of the various opportunities. Thus, while many smaller communities did not see woodwinds in their town bands until the World War I era, Fond du Lac was among the first to boast a full concert band of woodwinds, brass and percussion.

The name Military Band was almost surely chosen to distinguish the new organization from the brass bands that preceded it, as the word military at that time denoted the inclusion of woodwinds and did not refer to an association with the military services. Almost immediately the group attracted a large following, with one newspaper report of 1899 describing an audience of “fully one thousand” attending the first summer concert at Taylor’s park. (Ed. note: I have retained the place name spellings and capitalizations as written in the original newspaper reports of these early activities.)

Early Venues and Associations

In 1900, a beautiful Victorian bandstand was erected in the recently-developed Lakeside Park and donated to the community by William McDermott. There seems little doubt that this act of generosity was intended to provide a more adequate and pleasing concert venue for the popular new concert band, thus beginning an association between the park and the band that would endure for generations.

Military Band concerts in early years were also given at Ingram’s grove – a popular picnicking spot where the Goodrich Little Theater now stands, Schussler’s grove west of South Hickory Street, and in a bandstand that was erected behind the courthouse adjacent to Western Avenue.

Rehearsals were held in a variety of downtown meeting rooms, including the old Union bandroom at 15 Forest Avenue above Finnegan’s Bar and at a meeting place on Main Street between First and Second Streets. Although most concerts were given outdoors in the summer time, a grand concert and social was held at Armory E in February, 1902, featuring Miss Bessie Marie Mayham as soprano soloist and a cornet-trombone duet by Conductor H. G. Bowen and Erwin Jones. It appears these special indoor concerts were held on an annual basis for many years, as the Daily Commonwealth of March 27, 1919 reported on the “twenty-first annual concert” at the Armory. (Interestingly, the Band also played a military theme concert at Armory E in 1979 shortly before the building was razed, without realizing the earlier concert history at that building!)

From the beginning, the Fond du Lac Military Band was a semi-professional, usually-paid group of musicians which hired out for public and private occasions. In response to popular demand and to increase its sources of income, the band often split up into three or more smaller “orchestras” during its early years to perform at dances and social gatherings.

The Fond du Lac Musicians’ Association, Local 309, was formed on May 20, 1903 and immediately applied for a charter in the American Federation of Musicians. The thirty members of the fledgling Military Band signed the charter roll and were admitted to the union on July 9, an affiliation which continued unbroken until shortly before Local 309 was absorbed into the Oshkosh A.F.M. Local in the early 1990’s.

Bowen Leaves, Then Returns
The Band’s first conductor, Henry G. Bowen, served from 1898 until 1906, then left the area for a stint on the Pacific coast where he conducted bands in several cities including Spokane, Washington. During his absence the manager’s position was filled by Mervin Jones and Fred Kastorff, and the conductor’s post was filled by at least four men: Charles Ibs, Grant White, Frank Lature, and E. S. Park.

The Military Band captured first honors at the Northwestern Band association’s meeting at Mayville in 1908, but was declared ineligible for the prize money when it was determined the group did not belong to the association! While specific information on the next few years is lacking, it seems there may have been some downturns in the Band’s progress; in any event the return of Mr. Bowen to the city and his post as Director in 1915 was greeted with great jubilation.

The Daily Reporter of Sept. 10, 1915 noted: “Mr. Bowen has been absent from this city for several years, but his good work in connection with the band in the past has never been forgotten, and so when sufficient money was raised to guaranty a series of concerts in this city, immediate steps were taken to secure the services of Mr. Bowen.” Bowen continued in his capacity as Director of the Band until 1929, when ill health at the age of 64 forced his retirement.


Schmitz Succeeds Bowen

At that time the Band’s outstanding young cornet soloist, Joseph Schmitz, was named the new director of the Military Band. A native of Marytown, Schmitz returned to the Fond du Lac area around 1919, after studying music and performing professionally in Chicago for several years. He became the first instrumental music teacher in the Fond du Lac school system in 1922 and continued in that position until 1955, after which he continued to teach part-time for several years in the Oakfield School District.

Under Schmitz’ capable and respected leadership, the Military Band enjoyed remarkable stability and continuity of purpose. With a roster of 28 to 32 union musicians, concerts continued to be given each summer on Sunday afternoons at Lakeside Park and occasional evenings at Taylor Park. Performances were also given at the Fond du Lac County Home (now Rolling Meadows), St. Agnes Hospital, area nursing homes, the County Fair, county parks at Waupun and Calumet Harbor, and the Hamilton Building grounds.

As aforementioned, the Band operated from its beginning as a semi-professional, paid group of musicians. Funding in the earliest days apparently came from a community advancement association. According to Park Board records, the City of Fond du Lac contracted with the Military Band for 12 summer park concerts in 1922 at a cost of $1800, and that relationship has continued with few interruptions until the present day. When the Music Performance Trust Fund was created in the 1930’s by the American Federation of Musicians and the U. S. Recording Industries, these funds were also used to co-sponsor free public concerts. This practice ended recently, however, when new guidelines were drawn which made the funds inaccessible to the Symphonic Band.

An annual Winter Concert was presented during the Joe Schmitz years at the Roosevelt Junior High Auditorium, which was located at the site of the present-day Chegwin School. While the musicians were paid union scale for the scheduled summer concerts, older members recall that the members always donated their services for the winter concert and occasionally played in parades as a community service without remuneration. The ensemble also played without remuneration during the war years for salvage drives and to escort servicemen as they boarded the train to military camps.

From time to time the Band would also travel to nearby cities for special guest performances, and according to information published at the time of Joe Schmitz’s retirement, the group performed at least once at the State Fair, in 1938, with Schmitz featured as trumpet soloist.

Women Join in 1938

In response to the need for players, Joe Schmitz invited two of his talented young high school musicians, Betty Gysbers (flute) and Ruth Salzman (cornet), to play in the Band around 1938. According to Eugene Noe, a 45-year veteran of the Band who retired from clarinet playing in 1973, this made the men in the band very uncomfortable at first, since they now had to watch their language and jokes with ladies present!

Since the Military Band’s roster was by invitation only and limited to a set number of players and instruments, vacancies did not occur with great frequency. Women continued to be admitted occasionally during the next three decades, but the Band did not approach 50-50 gender equality until its reorganization in 1974.

The Band celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1948 with the purchase of new uniforms and special entertainment at many summer concerts. In 1954, several members of long-standing were publicly recognized by the Band for their service (number of years in parentheses): bass drummer Herman Mertz (50), oboist Dr. A. K. Steen (41), Matt Huber (38), clarinetist Ernie Wenzlaff (38), and Oscar Hassman, Ray Roehrdanz, Ervin Yanke and Lester Thuerwachter, all with 35 years of service.

The Schmitz Era Ends

In 1959 a picture of the Military Band in the Lakeside Park Bandstand was featured on a two-page spread in the Saturday Evening Post’s Face of America series, under the caption: Music in the Park. It was a nostalgic tribute to a long-standing tradition – one that was warmly received and much appreciated by the community, little realizing the changes soon to come.

During the last years of Schmitz’s tenure as conductor, the Band found it increasingly hard to attract qualified musicians and supportive audiences in sufficient numbers, a trend that was echoed around the country during the turbulent 1960’s. Nevertheless, the community owed a great debt of gratitude to its own “Mr. Music,” who had devoted his entire adult career to the training of musicians and the enjoyment of band music in Fond du Lac and the area. As a measure of its high esteem for this humble man from Marytown, the City of Fond du Lac designated June 23, 1968 as Joseph Schmitz Day. During the afternoon of festivities at Lakeside Park, many former students and band members were on hand to pay tribute to Joe, and the community’s beloved Victorian bandstand was renamed the Joseph Schmitz Bandstand in his honor. At the end of the 1968 season, at the age of 81, Joe Schmitz retired.

Transition to a New Start

Schmitz had been assisted in the years before his retirement by a young band member and teacher, Peter Runde, who succeeded him as conductor in 1969. Two years later, Runde was followed by Ray Mortinger, and the next year the baton was transferred to Jim Donovan. Serving as Assistant Conductor during this interim was Maxine Averbeck, who has continued as the Band’s principal clarinetist until recently.

Despite the best efforts of all these musicians, along with the remaining long-term members and officers of the Band, it was clear by the end of 1973 that radical measures were needed to save the dwindling ensemble from its inevitable demise. At that juncture, Richard Francis, who had been serving as President and Manager of the Band for several years, approached a young music professor by the name of Ray Wifler about taking over the group.

Wifler’s response was that he would like to give it a try, but if chosen for the opportunity, he would install a new program that would open up the membership to include students at the UW Center-Fond du Lac and other area colleges along with adult avocational musicians during the school year, while continuing the summer program with a semi-professional “core group” as already established. Called by some the “communiversity” approach, Wifler was among the first in Wisconsin to apply these ideas to an established group in need of a transfusion; as it turned out, he was the right man in the right place at the right time to get the job done.

In January, 1974, Wifler sent a letter to his music teaching colleagues, former students, and musician friends and acquaintances throughout the area, inviting them to become part of his new undertaking: the Fond du Lac Community Band. With his credentials among fellow musicians already well-established, the response still went far beyond his expectations, as over seventy musicians turned out to begin rehearsing at the UW Center music room. The debut concert was held on March 31st at Goodrich Little Theatre to the largest audience the Band had seen in several years, and a new and exciting chapter in the Band’s history had begun.

New Name – New Look

As to the new name: while the name Military Band, as previously explained, never had denoted any connection to the armed services, that fact was not widely known to the community, and the country had just been through many years of anti-war protests. Thus the name Community Band was chosen both to denote a new and broader membership policy and to remove the stigma attached by some to anything “military.”

In 1976 the second step of the reorganization was completed with the revision of the by-laws and election of new officers and directors. At that time, the Band’s piccolo player, Mary Arthur, joined Wifler’s efforts as Business Manager, and she has continued in that capacity to the present time. Arthur had come to Fond du Lac in 1965 when she married a local trumpeter and former Military Band member, Jim Arthur. They had met playing in Mary’s hometown band, the Oconomowoc American Legion Band. As the niece of that band’s founder and manager, Art Rhodee, Mary had a good deal of first-hand knowledge to apply to Fond du Lac’s rebuilding program.

While the Community Band immediately attracted somewhat larger audiences to its school year concerts, the Lakeside Park concerts on Sunday afternoons continued to suffer from heavy competition with boating, picnics, softball and the many other activities in the park, and randomly-scheduled evening events fared little better. Thus, under the premise that an audience would develop more readily if a mid-week evening concert series in a single established location were announced, in 1976 the Band began giving concerts on Wednesday evenings at Taylor Park.

To better lure the public, special intermission entertainment and ice cream socials were offered at every Taylor Park concert, and slowly but surely summer audiences grew to a respectable and occasionally exhilarating size, which led to new challenges. After a few seasons, it became apparent that neither the bandstand (built in the 1920’s to accommodate a group of 30 players), nor the park (heavily used by swimmers and neighborhood children and tightly surrounded by residences on all four sides) were adequate to serve the Band and its burgeoning summer concert audiences.

The Quest for a New Summer Home

In 1979, funding from the Evening Optimist Club allowed modifications to be made to improve the acoustics of the Taylor Park shell, but this was never seen to be more than a stop-gap measure until better arrangements could be made. Likewise, a few concerts were performed by a “mini” band at Lakeside Park in 1976, and a smaller ensemble continues to play in the historic bandstand on the Fourth of July and for occasional special events. However, with the size of the summer band now ranging between 42 and 50 players, it was impossible to use that bandstand on a regular basis.

The band played its summer series at Taylor Park through 1981, then began testing various new outdoor locations: the east lawn of the UW Center campus in 1982 and a rotating group of sites that included the south park shelter at Buttermilk Creek Park beginning in 1983. In 1982 the local summer series was changed from weekly to bi-weekly, to accommodate the growing number of out-of-town concerts and better allow the musicians to prepare more challenging programs.

Buttermilk Creek Park is Chosen

By 1985 Buttermilk was chosen the Band’s new summer home for several reasons: the park was large, well-separated from residences, and generally under-utilized. Parking was adequate and the location accessible from all parts of town. While not designed for concerts, the picnic shelter provided a serviceable stage until something could be built, and the hill which the “stage” faced formed a perfect amphitheater for seating.

In 1987, after much informal discussion and planning with City of Fond du Lac staff, the Band’s administration assembled a steering committee of community leaders to assist with planning and fund-raising for a performance facility at Buttermilk Creek Park. The City gave final approval and agreed to provide the site work and accept and maintain the structure upon completion, and the Buttermilk Performance Center project was underway. The Center was completed and dedicated to the community in August, 1988 at a cost of $200,000. Funds were provided by local businesses, organizations and individuals, with donations ranging in size from $5 to $15,000.

As anticipated, the new Center soon was home to much more than Band concerts, and the Band’s management played a pivotal role in developing new programs at the BPC. The Buttermilk Festival, a series of four or five concerts by guest artists from around the state, was originally undertaken as a “side” project by the Band’s director and manager, Ray Wifler and Mary Arthur. Their modest program received a major boost when the National Exchange Bank began cosponsoring an annual appearance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as part of the Festival in 1992. In 1995 the Festival was merged into the Band’s existing summer concert series, with the Band serving as host and resident ensemble for the Festival. So, once again the Band was providing a weekly Wednesday night concert series for the Fond du Lac community. That series currently includes five concerts by the Symphonic Band and annual performances by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Kids from Wisconsin along with other regional and area touring groups.

School Year Programs Find a Niche

The Band’s new school year program developed in tandem with the summer band’s evolution. With a consistent membership of 65 to 75 musicians during the school year and no home for this large band’s concerts except the heavily-scheduled theater at Goodrich High School, Wifler came up with two innovations that have grown into local institutions.

In November of 1976 the Band gave its first concert at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul to a standing-room-only audience. This annual concert, which is devoted entirely to religious and serious classical music, had to be increased to two performances in 1981 to accommodate the large audiences which regularly attend.

In 1980, with the assistance of UW Center staff, the Band gave its first annual pops concert in the UWC gym, featuring candlelight, cabaret seating, free snacks and a cash bar. The focus of this springtime event is a lighter mix of music in the style made popular by Arthur Fiedler and others. Special guest artists for these annual concerts have included instrumentalists from the US Army and Air Force Bands, an operatic tenor from Chicago, the reigning Miss Wisconsin, a pianist from Japan (via Madison), and a host of talented singers and instrumental musicians from throughout the region.

Prior to 1974, the Military Band had rehearsed in various public school band rooms and operated from the homes of its officers. The reorganization brought the Band under the wing of the UW Center-Fond du Lac (now UW-Fond du Lac), an arrangement that continued for eleven years. In 1985 Dr. Wifler left the Center to develop an instrumental music program at Marian College and the Band moved with him, establishing an “in residence” status which continued for many years, to the mutual benefit of both entities.

Our Reputation Grows

Many opportunities and honors have come to the Band during the past twenty-five years. The group has played at numerous band and music educators conventions, and it was honored to perform as the Adult Band of the Year at Northwestern University in 1985, after being selected anonymously from a field of eleven bands by three nationally-recognized band judges.

In 1980 the group made its first out-of-state tour, to the National American Legion Convention in Boston. Next came tours to Worlds Fairs in Knoxville (1982) and New Orleans (1984), and in 1989 the Band traveled to Ontario, Canada for performances in Stratford, Kingston, and at the Canadian National Expostion in Toronto. In addition, the Band performs each summer in several area communities, and frequently includes weekend tours to destinations around the state in its summer schedule.

In 1989 the Band’s membership approved a second name change. After considerable deliberation and discussion, Fond du Lac Symphonic Band was chosen, to better reflect the group’s symphonic proportions along with its re-affirmation of high musical goals and standards as it approaches the new century.

In Conclusion

It is far beyond the scope of this modest program booklet to fully do justice to the Band’s 100 year history. Information about the early years is fragmentary at best, but the facts that have been gleaned have certainly whetted this writer’s appetite for more. Time constraints made it impossible to contact everyone who might have added a piece to the story, but I am deeply grateful to those who did provide information, including former and present band members: Eugene Noe, Gib Schroeder, Jim Arthur, Jerry Abraham, Maxine Averbeck and Jack Wenzlaff; along with Lucille Frazier LeMieux and Carl Jacobs. Special thanks goes to band member Joan Perry, who diligently researched the newspaper archives at the Public Library and came up with a wealth of articles upon which I based much of the early history.

–Mary Arthur, Historian

This history of the Fond du Lac Symphonic Band was prepared on the occasion of its 100th anniversary in 1998.

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