In the 1800s, Chester County must have had a wealth of musical talent.
How else can one explain the hundreds of community bands that were apparently as indispensable as the local fire company?
These bands were found in towns as small as Nantmeal, a village in northern Chester County, where the 18-member marching band included a blind horn player.
The Star Band of Coatesville may have been the largest, growing from 15 members in 1836 to about 50 members throughout its remaining 39 years.
Although the majority of bands raised their own funds – the Nantmeal band once sold 1,400 oysters at a community supper in 1894 – they were hardly informal organizations.
Nearly every band had its own community band house, a bandwagon, an executive committee, and uniforms that any military unit would be proud of. Many band leaders seemed to be spit-and-polish types, such as William Buxton, a railroad engineer who grew up in the Soldiers’ Orphans School in Chester Springs.
When Buxton died in 1920, his obituary noted that he allowed “no oath to be heard in the practice room” during his 30 years directing the West Chester Cornet Band.For the most part, though, news stories about Chester County community bands rarely delved into the lives of band members.
Even the Liberty Cornet Band of West Chester (pictured here), which may have been the only all-black band in the county, was only occasionally described as “colored.” Founded after the Civil War, the Liberty band typically received press coverage because of its Philadelphia parades and its connection to the local political scene.
In addition to following the outdoor concerts, the holiday parades and fund-raising events on every band’s schedule, local newspapers typically followed the seemingly endless task of instrument acquisition and payment.
The 17-member Citizens Cornet Band of Kennett Square, for instance, apparently spent an entire year after its founding in 1881 selling “subscription books” before anyone even had an instrument.
The West Chester Cornet Band, which was known for generations for giving free summer concerts on the courthouse lawn, spent more than $800 in 1883 on new “German silver” instruments. The band members missed their annual Christmas concert in order to get “used to them,” as one reporter noted. They still managed to pay all but $222 of the amount within a few weeks, despite earning an average of only $48 for performances such as their “promenade concert” at Horticulture Hall.
On occasion, the band gave private “serenades” to the newly married, and impromptu street-corner concerts while hauling the bandwagon through town. Still, that didn’t keep them from having certain members of the public rain on their parade.Editorials in 1892, for instance, debated over the band’s request for a concert platform at the courthouse to help them avoid “colds” and “damp feet.”
One writer of a 1911 item headlined “Appreciation Lacking” complained that people often talked during these courthouse concerts. He signed his editorial only as “an ex-musician.”