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Texas History 101

Brass bands in Texas entertained the masses and left a lasting mark on the state's music scene.

By April 2002Comments

FROM THE MID-1800’S to the early 1900’s, townspeople in Texas had to devise their own entertainment and often came together to play their instruments, which led to the present-day jam session. These get-togethers turned into organized practices, which in turn were the beginning of bands throughout much of the state. Brass bands, a major player in this music awakening, gained popularity after the influx of German and Czech immigrants to Texas in the 1830’s to early 1900’s. Many of these immigrants left their homelands during this period because of over-population, crop failure, and civil unrest. These immigrants settled in and around New Braunfels and began assembling clusters—many composed of fellow immigrants and musicians—throughout the northern and western portions of the state. To accommodate the groups, towns throughout Texas began building bandstands, which were also used for political rallies, church socials, and fundraising drives.

In these bands it was common to find the same last name multiple times. Younger siblings, children, nieces, or nephews served as apprentices to the older band members. The Ottmar von Behr family produced four generations of musicians and three generations of directors in the Boerne Village Band, which was organized by Karl Dienger in 1860. Ottmar joined the band and trained his two children, Jennie and Ottmar, to play musical instruments. Jennie’s husband taught his three nephews, Ottmar, Jr., Arthur, and Oscar, how to play and they also joined the band. Along with the Behr musicians, Kenneth, a Boerne veterinarian and the son of Alvin Herbst and Oscar’s daughter, Roma, was also a member. Kenneth’s two sons, Kenneth, Jr., and Clint, became members as well. The band chose not to deviate from the traditional German music of their homeland. The group survived during the Civil War by moving its performances from the bandstand to the barn. When the war ended, the band resumed touring around the Boerne area.

The Boerne Village Band, which celebrates its 142th anniversary this year and can be seen and heard at the Texas Folklife Festival, has been recognized by the federal government of Germany for its substantial impact on Texas. In 1986 the band received official uniforms courtesy of Otto Schicht of Bavaria. The Boerne Village Band is also known as “the Oldest Continuously Organized German Band in the World Outside of Germany itself.”

In 1901, roughly two hundred miles north of Boerne along U.S. 87, a musician named Charles Grant (a.k.a. Charlie Grant) who was influenced by the German brass band style, began organizing the first musical group in the newly incorporated community of Winters. The members of the Winters Brass Band—Grant, his sister, Attie, and twelve other members—embarked on their musical career wearing white middy blouses with dark pants (a skirt for Attie) while they marched down Main Street to the tune of “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

The band’s success grew as did its circuit—the band began playing throughout the area for box suppers, old settlers reunions, and political campaigns. A new bandstand near the Winters Methodist Church was built, making Friday rehearsals the townspeople’s weekend entertainment. In 1905, $14 poorer but with new uniforms of blue and gold stripes, the band traveled to small towns nearby riding in a wagon drawn by four white horses. For trips to more exotic towns like Brownwood, San Angelo, Coleman, and Big Spring, the band took its entourage to Ballinger and boarded the train. When the railroad finally made it to Winters in 1909, the Winters Brass Band played for the opening celebration with Grant directing the band himself. The Winters Brass Band became the largest brass band west of Fort Worth with hits such as “The Anvil Chorus,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and “Poet and Peasant.” After nineteen years together, the Winters Brass Band disbanded and donated its instruments to the local high school, contributing to the first official Winters High School marching band.

The first brass band in the Panhandle Plains was founded in 1887 by a 33-year-old Swiss entrepreneur named Alexander Schneider. He had previously played the cornet in some of Chicago’s largest bands before moving to the Panhandle in 1887 with his wife and children. The members of Schneider’s band were mainly soldiers from Fort Elliot. Unfortunately, a severe drought in 1888 forced Schneider and his family to quit farming, curtailing his music career in Texas. He returned to Switzerland around 1890 only to find himself back in the Panhandle 22 years later. In Pampa, Schneider gave the brass band another try, and within two years, the band was performing around the area. Some of the members of Schneider’s band included Montague K. Brown and Cecil V. P. Bucklerq. On February 21, 1929, Schneider died—and with his passing went the band.

These bands are a few of the two hundred brass bands that once flourished in Texas. Bass brands were the pioneers of organized bands in Texas and set the stage for swing bands, big bands, and marching bands. For more information on Texas Brass Bands, visit the Handbook of Texas Online and search for “brass bands.” Additional sources include Garland A. Perry’s Historic Images of Boerne, Texas (Perry Enterprises, 1982) and Charlsie Poe’s Runnels Is My Country (Naylor, 1970).

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