Band History: 1925-1935

Our June 17, 2015 concert was moved to Somsen Hall at WSU due to the inclement weather. If you missed it, we visited the second decade of the Winona Municipal Band’s history. Here’s what we learned:

Week 2, June 17, 2015
(Written by Ruth Bures, read by Dan Barr)

The Winona Municipal Band director for tonight’s decade was O. W. Reese. He assumed the position in 1920, after Emile Michaux.

O.W. Reese with his business partner, W. W. Christensen moved to Winona from Peru Indiana, with their wives, Babette and Freda (who happened to be sisters) in 1919. They purchased Winkels Furniture, 173 E 3rd and declared they would “remodel and restock the store,” with furniture booths, potted plants, and tasty interior decorations” making it among Winona’s most up-to-date establishments, catering to the best trade.

According to the newspaper, Reese, who played and taught all band instruments, had experience conducting a number of bands and “was a cornet and saxophone soloist”. Christensen was a “splendid baritone vocalist who also played saxophone. Freda, Mrs. Christensen had a “beautiful contralto voice and played saxophone and xylophone most excellently.” Babette, Mrs. Reese, played and taught saxophone and piano, and soon opened a music studio in the furniture building. The four of them, all musicians, had performed around the country for 3 years as the Musical Reeses.

So Reese was chosen the new director. After 2 months of twice-weekly rehearsals, the 40 member all male band presented its first concert on June 13, 1920. A review the following day states, “Initial band concert wins general favor!” Reese quickly got his old act into the act featuring W. W. Christensen with a vocal number on June 13, a duet by Freda and W.W. Christianson on June 30, and his own wife Babette, on August 14. For this concert the headline read “Band to have star Xylophonist, Babette Reese who has traveled the entire U.S and is an expert xylophonist.”

By August 28 Reese was organizing the “world’s largest saxophone band”, featuring local saxophonists and (you guessed it) Reese himself, his wife, Babette plus W. W. and Freda Christensen.

Reese adopted a “business model” for running the band, penalizing musicians who missed rehearsals or came late. But in September of 1920, a misunderstanding left the band short of funds. The band had expected a yearly $1000 from the Association of Commerce. But the Association thought it was a one-time allocation. The next band concert was cancelled. In December an article titled” Things to know about The Winona Association of Commerce:” It maintains the Municipal Band”. So the problem was solved for the time being.

Concerts were usually at the lake park location except when it was flooded. Reese concentrated on rehearsing the band in the winter months and developing the Junior band. They continued to play for local festivals, fairs, parades and political rallies. Reese revived band tournaments in which bands from local cities competed for prizes of new instruments. The tournament in August of 1921 awarded first prize to the band from Lanesboro, 2nd to Galesville, 3rd to Alma, 4th to Rollingstone and 5th to the Strum Ladies Band, which was seriously handicapped by the absence of its director.

Concerts frequently featured the Christensens as vocalists, and Babette on xylophone or marimbaphone. The band was often used to promote Winona businesses on booster tours. One of these tours visited Houston and Fillmore counties with over 50 cars filled with manufacturers, jobbers, merchants and band musicians, sponsored by the Association of Commerce.

The band continued to receive complimentary reviews in the newspapers: “Pleasure experienced in watching the arrival of our summer garden flowers was repeated at the opening band concert” where the “Symphony of color is replaced by the symphony of sound” and from visiting musicians, one of whom “declared that the group was far above the average municipal band”.

By 1926 Reese had organized the band into three levels, beginners, Junior and Senior and by 1929, four levels, adding an Advanced category between beginners and Junior. To encourage youth membership, Reese wrote, “the young musician has a different slant of life, his morale is different, his environments have bettered, his ideas have broadened out. He has more confidence in himself and is better able to cope with the ups and downs of the world. Training in music costs a nominal sum of 25 cents a week.”

On March 29, 1927, both houses of the Minnesota state legislature passed a statewide bill allowing Minnesota cities to collect taxes to support their municipal bands. The governor signed it on April 1. Winona band supporters succeeded in gathering enough signatures to add the question to the local election ballot. Letters supporting the band tax measure appeared in local newspapers. The proposed tax levy of “not to exceed one-half mill,” would give the band enough money to continue comfortably.

April 4, 1927 was the date of the Winona election. When results were reported, there were about 500 more “yes” votes than “no” votes. However, a bigger number of voters had left the question unmarked. These were counted as “no” votes, causing the measure to be defeated.

In 1928 the band donated their services for the last concert, and, faced with a serious shortage of funds, the directors of the band association decided to curtail fall activities and cut out any more concerts that season. The band struggled to raise enough funds to continue operating until 1929, the next time the band tax question could be on the ballot.

By 1929, O.W. had organized the band into four levels, adding an Advanced category between beginners and Junior. To encourage youth membership, Reese wrote, “the young musician has a different slant of life, his morale is different, his environments have bettered, his ideas have broadened out. He has more confidence in himself and is better able to cope with the ups and downs of the world. Training in music costs a nominal sum of 25 cents a week.

The Band Tax Proposal was given to voters again on April 1,1929. Once more it failed to pass mainly because of unmarked ballots. The band voted to disband, but in the next two months impassioned pleas in the newspaper and a house-to-house campaign had raised $1645, enough to mount a summer season of concerts. Concerts were also held in 1930, paid for by a reserve fund.

In the early spring of 1931, editorials, ads and exhortations to support the band appeared in the newspaper. Rev. W.S. Whitsitt of First Congregational church went so far as to declare, “the amount each taxpayer will pay is so negligible that the board feels Winona cannot afford to be without a band! On April 7, 1931, the band tax levy passed, by a margin of 4506 to 3156. Whew!

Judging from the ads for $.98 all-metal ferneries, $2.95 complete bird cages and stands, $95 walnut bedroom suites and a huge two page ad for a “Bona Fide No Profit Sale (values of pre-war days)”, business at the furniture store was going well in 1931.

Babette Reese’s music studio, which was located in the furniture store building, was a thriving business as well. Her 1931 spring recital listed 42 students of piano, saxophone, and clarinet.

But there must have been some other business also going on. An item in the newspaper on September 9, 1931, read: “Divorces have been granted in Washoe county district court, Reno, Nevada to Mrs. Freda E. Christensen from Walter W. Christensen and to Mrs. Babette Reese from O.W. Reese, on August 24.” Subsequently, announcement was made of the marriage of Babette Reese and Walter W. Christensen of Winona at Crown Point, Indiana, on Friday Nov. 13, 1931 and Freda to her athletic “friend” George Graham on December 24.

In a series of Winona Republican Herald articles meant to familiarize people with Winona businesses was one in the November 23 issue titled “Do You Know Reese’s Furniture?” It showed photographs of owners, O. W. Reese, Senior Partner, Mrs. Babette Reese Christensen and W. W. Christensen. Freda Heyer (formerly Christensen) was in charge of the musical instrument department, and Fred Heyer (Freda and Babette’s brother) was advertising manager and salesman. It seems the business kept going.

By the end of 1931, the transition between the old band board and a new one that could handle tax money caused several problems. A notice from the old board in the Dec 1 newspaper announced that the band would cease operations over the winter months and the band equipment would be locked away. Unhappy, Mr. Reese countered on Dec 2 that the band rehearsals would continue over the winter months “financed by myself.” He maintained that the band equipment was not the property of the board, but of the donors “who do not want to see the band hampered as it is now with the equipment locked up”.

Another article on Dec. 22, read “There has been dissension lately between the band board and director O. W. Reese. . . . The band board owes about $1900 (mostly fees due the musicians who took IOU notes) but has property worth more than that and offered to turn over to the city the property if the city will take over the old board’s debts.” Apparently the city council didn’t agree to this. Some council members wanted to manage the band and its fund and appoint another bandmaster. That was resolved somehow and in April of 1932, Reese was officially named the bandmaster for a year.

Summer concerts continued as before, but perhaps not surprisingly, W. W. Christensen only appeared 3 times as soloist that summer. But by the summers of 1933 and 1934, Christensen was again a regular feature, leading popular community sing-alongs and singing solos. Requests were taken at a special box at the bandshell and played when time allowed. Most numbers that were applauded enthusiastically were followed by encores.

The band performed at area festivals and fairs, and at the spring and fall store openings, where crowds of people promenaded through the business section inspecting the most recent styles in wearing apparel and household articles displayed in store windows. The newspaper crowed “The value of a band as a good will builder for its community as well as to provide the music which the home folks enjoy is demonstrated again by the festival at LaCrosse, where the Winona Municipal Band took first place.” The Winona Municipal Band “has given a tuneful declaration that Winona is a good community.”