The Sound of History: Music and Society in Scott County

When it comes to history, it is easy to see how people’s clothing has changed, how houses look different, or even how social customs evolve.  We often take it for granted that life sounds much different than it did 100 years ago.  I remember watching an old episode of The Twilight Zone in which a scientist experimenting with time travel in 1961 brings a violent cowboy from the 1880s into his present.  The cowboy, a master of his environment in the 19th century, is nearly driven mad when he walks out onto the New York street and hears cars honking their horns, jukeboxes blaring from diners, sirens whizzing by, and the dull roar of the city crowds.  The difference in sound between his world and the modern world was overwhelming.  Today, we can walk into virtually any business and hear music piped throughout the store or restaurant.  Our cars are equipped with radios, tape decks, CD players, or even DVD players, turning them into portable sound machines.  And our homes have just as many, if not more devices that emit constant streams of sound, television being chief among these.  In the pioneer days of Minnesota history, long before these technological and cultural innovations enveloped our everyday worlds in sound, music was a much more powerful social force.

Social connectedness was one of the underlying purposes of music for a long time, and still is among those who go to concerts, play in bands, or sing in choirs.  Just as music was an important part of individual expression and entertainment, live musical performance was an important social activity that brought individuals together and connected them to their communities.  Here at the Scott County Historical Society, we have a number of items that illustrate this important musical legacy throughout the county.

The earliest pioneers to the county brought their musical instruments, skills, and traditions with them from the eastern U.S., Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Bohemia and other countries.  In those heady days of land-grabbing and town-founding, dances and parades were some of the few occasions when settlers could enjoy themselves and interact with one another.  Maine native Daniel Storer kept an extensive journal of his migration to Scott County in the early 1850s and his new life in Shakopee.  Like many pioneers, Storer was multi-skilled and held numerous positions in the new town: carpenter, justice of the peace, town clerk, as well as fiddler and singer.  His journal, published by the Shakopee Heritage Society, gives a glimpse of Storer’s success as a fiddler.  It also hints at the social interactions of others during such festive occasions:

December 14, 1854: Went to a party in the hall in the eve.  Gates and I played for them.  A good many got drunk.  I took Dr. Ripley’s lady home, and he was so mad that he set out to shoot me.  He was so drunk himself that she would not go with him.

December 19, 1855: Went to Mrs. Holmes’ birthday party the night of the 19th.  There was a large crowd of people there.  Douglas and I played for them.  John McCormick, whom I used to know in Stillwater, was after me to go to Eden Prairie the same night and play for a dance there.

Storer’s talents were much in demand, and the playing provided him with a little extra income.  More importantly, he and other pioneer musicians brought townspeople together.  Young men and women could court at such functions and strengthen their relationships with dance and conversation.  Business might be conducted, or neighborly disputes settled (or commenced, in Dr. Ripley’s case).  For many, town hall dances and concerts would simply be a much-needed reprieve from their daily toil.

Storer also witnessed several dances and songs performed by the Mdewakanton Dakota (Sioux) of Chief Sakpe’s village.  Like Samuel Pond in his recollections of the Dakota in 1834, Storer was entranced by Dakota music, yet failed to understand it as a vital part of Dakota culture.  Dakota traditions emphasized connectedness and kinship, and dances and singing were a way of reinforcing stories and memories from their history.

Browsing through our photograph catalogue, a researcher might find any number of images of marching bands parading through the streets of downtown Shakopee, Main Street in Belle Plaine, or Water Street in Jordan.  Many of the occasions for which bands played in small towns and cities were tied to community or national celebrations, such as Independence Day, or Armistice Day.  One photo from 1925 shows band leader extraordinaire Hubert Stans with his Shakopee band during the annual picnic of the American Range Corporation.

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Bands were an effective way to create fanfare to advertise business or products.  Two photos from Belle Plaine in the early 1900s bear this out.  “Plano Day” on June 19, 1901, took place along Main Street.  The marchers advertised machinery made by the Plano Company and sold in town.  American flags waive and signs read “Plano Plano” and “Plano Leads the World.”  The band in the middle of the photograph is the Valley Coronet Band of Belle Plaine led by Matt Hally and Barney Kirchoff.  The band is headed straight for a muddy patch at the intersection of Main and Meridian (or else a large pile of horse manure).

In a second photograph, this one from 1904/5, we are back on the same corner in Belle Plaine with the same Valley Coronet Band, but a different product and different advertising scheme.  Rather than a march, we have a stunt, with six men on a makeshift stage pulling on a pair of overalls to demonstrate their durability.  At such parades one might hear rousing songs with names like, “Robinson’s Grand Entrée,” “The Explorer March,” or “March Independentia.”

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The coronet was a smaller version of the trumpet, and coronet bands were popular throughout the county.  Hubert Stans was an accomplished coronet player in his Shakopee band and Chaska Sodality Band.

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In Jordan, the Germania Band, the Jordan Coronet Band, and the Jordan Imperial Band, all made use of this light and loud instrument.  Most cities proudly built bandstands in public parks and other gathering places to accommodate the growing number of musical groups.  The resorts around Prior Lake and Spring Lake always promoted their band pavilions and Saturday night dances to vacationers as their main social events.

While bands played at civic occasions and for advertising purposes, other people voiced their opinions about important political and social issues through song.  The anonymous writer of a temperance song from 1880 probably intended his song to be circulated among others who supported the prohibition of alcohol.  The lyrics come from an older temperance song that may have been written by New England poet and abolitionist John Pierpont.  The song is scribbled on a scrap of lined paper, and the author must have had some formal training in music to be able to put notes to the lyrics.  One verse captures the crusading spirit of their movement: “No alcohol we’ll buy of sell/ Away, away the bowl./ The tippler’s offer we repel,/ Away, away the bowl./ United in a temperance band,/ We’re joined in hearts,/ We’re joined in hand./  Goodbye to rum and all its harms,/ Farewell the winecup’s boasted charms,/ Away, away the bowl,/ Away, away the bowl.”

Throughout the history of the county, communities have produced musicians and forms of music that helped strengthen social ties.  Music and performance had a way of bonding people together and bridging the gaps between communities.  It is a rich area of historical research that can lend perspective to the way that we experience musical performances today.  How is music a part of our lives in a way that connects us to one another?  Do we recognize and respect local musicians or musical traditions with the same pride that communities did in the past?  How has technology changed public and ceremonial forms of music?  Whether music brings us together for a local festival, a family celebration, or a social cause, it is a significant historic source of heritage, entertainment, and social well-being.

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If you would like to know more about this topic, visit the Scott County Historical Society on the web and search our catalogue at www.scottcountyhistory.org, or email us at info@scottcountyhistory.org.

By: Patrick Rodgers, past SCHS Curator

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The New Guy

IMG_0858As the new Curator of Collections for the Scott County Historical Society, I wanted my first blog to be something of an introduction. I was going to tell you a story of who I am and about my background in history. However, I was given the idea to instead talk about what it is like to be the new guy. What is it like to start at a new place, with new people, and new ways of doing things? How do you start? What do you do? How do you feel? I thought about this and realized that this is a good opportunity to tell you about myself in a different way. On that note, I would start by saying that my first few days could be summed up in two words, “I’m lost!”

It has been my experience that starting a new position can be one of the most exciting and confusing times in someone’s career. I’m still not entirely sure how I got here, I remember asking for a job and suddenly having one. Since I started with SCHS I have had to learn whole new ways of doing things, while at the same time knowing exactly what I am doing. The history field is strange in that way, everyone does things differently but we all end at the same thing. You save the same types of history and information no matter where you go. I only wish best practices told me how to manage my office.

As you can see, my office is full of all kinds of things, each one with a story, and each one a total mystery to me. For example, I found a box on a shelf full of pictures. I looked and looked and couldn’t find a thing on them. A box of 300 some pictures and I had no clue what to do with them or even what they were. Here begins the lesson of a new job, ask questions, every question. After some digging, and reaching out to me predecessors, we found out that all of those photos are copies. Here at SCHS we don’t accept copies of things into our collection, we want the genuine article. Still, the photos have a ton of history locked up in them. Those photos have been meaning to go in our library for years, I just happen to be the one doing it.

I admit I was lost when I started here, I didn’t know where to start or what to do. I look at that mess of an office and froze. It didn’t take long though for me to prioritize and begin tackling all of the projects and loose ends that needed tying up. I hope this quick blog gives you a sense of who I am, and if not feel free to stop in and meet me. I am always happy to talk with people and get to better know my community.

Storytelling

Everyone has a story – or two – or more.  Some are amazing, or outrageous, or heart-warming, or funny, or depressing, or frustrating, or… The thing is, these personal stories are what we usually take with us to the grave.  They are also the “special something” that makes history come alive.

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Our mission is to search, save, and share the history and cultural heritage of Scott County, which includes our stories.  In our collection we have stories on paper – journals, letters, postcards, books, etc.  We also have stories on cassette tape, video cassette, and digital files. However, not everyone kept a journal, or it’s still packed away in someone’s attic. Stories on cassette tapes, videos or digital files really aren’t very useful if you don’t know what’s on them – what topics were covered.  It’s the transcripts that make the stories easy to search and use.

The SCHS conducted a six-year project to collect stories from the “Greatest Generation” a few years ago.  With the help of dedicated volunteers, stories were collected on cassette tape from over 130 people in our county – over 70 with WWII Veterans.  With the help of the women at the Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility, all the tapes were transcribed, an intern converted the tapes to digital files, and we used snippets for an award-winning exhibit on WWII.

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Because we were able to access the transcripts, we could choose snippets of stories to use in exhibits.  Because they were digitally accessible, it was fairly easy to locate and pull out the snippet we chose, and convert it to the proper format for use.

Hearing someone’s voice describe something you are looking at, or a scene in the past, it creates images in your mind and through their voice, you are able to experience the past in a deeper and richer way.


I don’t know about you, but there are many times I’ve thought – Dang, wish I had thought to record my Mom’s stories about when she was little.  Or… it would be great to hear Grandpa talk about how he made special lures for fishing.  You know…, family lore and stories.  These stories provide an anchor to our past, share special skills, link us to communities, and more.  Unfortunately, we usually think of recording stories after the person has passed away.

At SCHS we thought of this too.  To help capture and save those stories, we partnered with the Scott County Agricultural Society (SCAS), to create a mobile recording studio, named the “speak easy“.

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The speak easy, is ADA compliant (it kneels to the ground, has a ramp, and space inside for wheelchairs); is comfortable (designed to look like a comfy kitchen); includes easy to use, professional recording equipment; and is available for anyone to use.

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With the holidays quickly approaching, it’s a wonderful time to think about actually capturing those family stories before they slip away.  

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We are here to help with advice on what questions to ask, how to ask them, how to capture the stories, and what to do with them once they are recorded.

The speak easy is available for rent – contact us for information at info@scottcountyhistory.org or give Kathy a call at 952-445-0378.