Friday, January 12, 2007

The Gananoque Citizens' Band

Just after Christmas in 1920, Gananoque ratepayers received a letter from the Gananoque Citizens’ Band. It implored the town’s people to support a special bylaw that would see the band receive a small stipend for the appointment of a permanent band leader and to pay for instrument repairs. The letter argued that this would ensure the continued existence of the venerable institution. It seems the band had fallen on hard times as radio and movie theatres had cut into their market. The letter, signed by band manager W.J. Kelly, asked:

“Does the band not help to increase tourist traffic annually? Does it not give 52 weeks free advertising to your town? Does it not brighten your recreation hours at the park in summer at the open airs, or soothe you when you enjoy the placid bosom of the St. Lawrence by moonlight? When you bury your illustrious dead these funeral are ours. When you do honour to the living, these occasions are also ours” [1]. (Left is a picture of the Gananoque Citizens’ Band Music Chest in the Museum Collections)

I wasn’t able to find whether or not the bylaw passed, but the Gananoque Citizens Band did continue to play for over 50 years after this letter was sent. In spite of the dramatic appeal of 1920, the Gananoque Band had been thriving during the first decades of the 20th Century.

Originally, the militia organized the first band in Gananoque in 1854 and they practiced in Auchinvole’s Tannery, a large red brick factory that once stood, aptly, on Tanner St. A military officer, Captain Murdock, was the instructor and a local man, J.B. McMurchy, was the leader. Two years later, the Gananoque Carriage Works formed the Silver Cornet Band which was manned with the remaining members of the militia band and eventually evolved into the Gananoque Citizens’ Band. Like so much else in Gananoque, industry was the real starting point. In fact, industrialization was the root of many such local bands throughout North America, just like the English band movement a few decades earlier. The brass band was a symbol of pride and prosperity, and formed one of the only outlets for the arts in a rural or industrial community [2].

This photograph, taken in 1860, shows the Gananoque Brass Band. According to the names scribbled on the back Captain Murdock and J.B. McMurchy are shown, but it’s unclear which ones they are. The man in the white striped pants is likely one of them. The military influence in the band is clearly seen in the kepis and uniforms.

In the decades that followed, the band became a central part of the community. With the onset of the “Golden Age” of tourism in the Thousand Islands, music was in demand. Entertaining the wealthy captains of industry and Victorian elites who retreated to their castles and hotels in the islands was certainly lucrative. It was during that time that a young composer and baritone player named William E. Rees moved to Gananoque from Cincinnati, Ohio and took over as band leader. It is possible that Rees is in this photograph, taken in Oshawa in 1900, standing fourth from the right. If you look very closely you can make out “LEADER” on his cap. According to one source, “Bill Rees was a distinctive character, a rugged individualist who called a spade a spade, and his superb musicianship was unquestioned.” Working as general superintendent and engineer with Parmenter & Bullock manufacturing and then Ontario Steel Products, both in Gananoque, Rees also served as orchestra leader for the upscale Thousand Islands Club on Wellesley Island and the famed Frontenac Hotel on Round Island. Rees’ most lasting contribution to Gananoque was in designing the bandstand which stands today in the town park and continues to be used [3].

Interesting enough, William Rees formed his own band, The Rees Orchestra, and the two bands amalgamated sometime in the first decade of the 20th Century. Ever conscious of changing times, the new Citizens Band and Rees Orchestra attempted to branch out into new forms of entertainment. In 1908, they leased the Grand Opera House where they opened a “Five Cent Theatre.” Great care was taken to advertise the fact that “our machine in the first place is strict FIRE PROOF and will thereby insure our patrons’ absolute safety which they could not expect in almost any 5¢ theatre in Canada…” Furthermore, “Murder scenes, Prize Fights and all objectionable pictures will positively not be shown…” [4]

I haven’t been able to determine how long the band/theatre operation lasted, but by 1920, it had obviously closed up.

The band continued on until the 1970s under a number of different directors. A junior band was also formed to train the next generations of band members. This small town band went on to compete and win in several competitions including the Perth Courier Cup, 1931, 1932, The Canadian National Exhibition in 1932, and the Dominion Championship in 1933, and certainly helped lift spirits around Gananoque during the Great Depression.

All things must come to an end, of course, and the Gananoque Citizens’ Band is no longer with us. Their training house became a daycare, and bands were brought in from elsewhere to play in the town park. It was common across North America for community bands to fold up in the 1970s. Economic recession and changing interests were the main culprits. Brass instruments fell out of style with young people, and new forms of entertainment – television, records, rock music and cheap car rides to the city – spelled the end for this, and many other, small town citizens’ bands [5].


Many thanks to our volunteers, Eileen, John, Marcia, Kathy and Aidan for finishing off some big chores this week. We have nearly all the photographs present in the Gananoque Museum Collections inventoried and we’ll now set about getting them copied. The extensive coin collection has also been documented by Aidan and Kathy who have made some more interesting finds. In the coming weeks, we’ll begin to show off some of the interesting items we find as we take stock of the large archival holdings and a few other interesting odds and ends.

[1] General letter to Gananoque Ratepayers from W.J.Kelly, Gananoque Citizens’ Band, Dec. 28, 1920
[2] Pages from unnamed published book found in non-accessioned dossier, Gananoque Museum Collections. For a general discussion on the roots of the band movement see: Michael J. Lomas, “Secular Civilian Amateur Wind Bands in Southern England in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” The Galpin Society Journal, Vol.45, (Mar., 1992) pp.78-98
[3] Same unmarked dossier as above
[4] Open letter from The Citizens’ Band, April 24, 1908
[5] See: Jay Zorn, “The Changing Role of Instrumental Music” Music Educators Journal, Vol. 76, No. 3, (Nov., 1989), pp.21-24

No comments: