A Bicentennial Musical Celebration of Dearborn County
By Chris McHenry
Almost from its very beginning in 1803, our county has had a passion for making and enjoying music.
An early recollection of Lawrenceburg tells of a party at the home of James Dill, Dearborn County’s early lawyer, county recorder, and clerk. The visitor had been promised a wonderful evening of music.
He arrived at the house to find a fifer and drummer stationed on the stair landing with Mr. Dill and Lawrenceburg’s founder Samuel Vance marching happily in circles to the martial tunes they were playing.
A few years later, an incident in Lawrenceburg became the subject of a folk song that can still be found in serious collections of music.
It seems that young Amasa Fuller shot and killed Palmer Warren in a quarrel over a young woman. Fuller was arrested and convicted of murder and in 1821 he was hanged on the Courthouse Square. A song detailing his tragic fate immediately began making the rounds of the country. It’s called “Ye Sons of Columbia” and there’s a copy at Lawrenceburg Public Library for those who are interested.
Not long after that, private music lessons began to be offered and there were enough pianos around to attract a master piano tuner.
Brass bands accompanied troops leaving for the Mexican war and the Civil War as they boarded riverboats headed for the fighting.
By mid- 19th Century, the tide of German immigrants had brought their own musical passions with them, and in Aurora they formed the Sangerbund, in Lawrenceburg the Liedertafel, to provide opportunities for choral and instrumental music.
Every little crossroads had its own band in the late 19th Century, including Guilford, Bright, New Alsace, Dillsboro, and Moores Hill, where the College offered major musical instruction. There were bands at Wrights Corner and Manchester, Farmers Retreat, and in the larger towns there were several, all operating at the same time.
Concerts could be found every weekend, either with homegrown talent, or touring professional singers and musicians.
Special occasions called for special music, and in both Lawrenceburg and Aurora, May 1 was just such a day. At dawn in each town, on Suttons Hill in Aurora, and on Ludlow Hill in Lawrenceburg, special concerts could be heard.
Not content with merely meeting to practice and perform music. The Lawrenceburg Liedertafel built its own theater, with a dance floor considered to be one of the best in the area. The Liedertafel still stands proudly on Walnut Street in Lawrenceburg after a long career of hosting musical events, high school graduations and then, the movies.
In the last part of the 19th and first part of the 20th Centuries, local newspapers advertised at least one musical event every week, mostly made up of local talent, but also involving touring troupes that performed everything from Minstrel Shows to Grand Opera.
It seemed as though every church choir put on at least one public concert annually, and of course schools, including the tiny one room variety, entertained parents and friends with performances.
Women’s clubs, such as Lawrenceburg’s St. Cecelia Club, were formed for the purpose of learning about and performing music, the local newspapers carried words and music to popular favorites and classical songs, and music was woven into the very fabric of our lives. Some Dearborn countians became modestly famous for their musical talents.
Clara Taylor Fahlbush became well known throughout the Midwest for her beautiful operatic soprano, performing on a regular basis with the Chicago opera company, and returning to Lawrenceburg in the summer time to teach vocal music and stage a recital for her students. In later years she moved permanently to Chicago, where she eventually became a nun.
On the other end of the musical spectrum, there was Bertha Wiles, daughter of Lawrenceburg merchant John Wiles. Her father played in a local band and her two brothers often traveled with circus bands around the United States.
Bertha went into Vaudeville, and used the stage name of Beatrice Earle. She married a vaudeville promoter named John Himmelein, and spent many years traveling with his troupes around the east and the Midwest. For many years they operated the largest stock show in the country from their headquarters in New York,
Not all of Dearborn County’s musicians were performers.
Margaret Breakey wrote and published a number of popular songs around the turn of the century, including some with patriotic themes and some in a more danceable form. Margaret Breakey worked for a time selling pianos for the Cook Piano Company that manufactured them in Greendale.
On the classical music side, there was Bainbridge Crist, named for his grandfather William Bainbridge, who had been a judge in Dearborn County, and who became a well-known composer of classical music whose music is still performed on a regular basis by choruses and soloists.
As the 20th Century moved along, people began listening to phonographs and radios, and then sound came to the movies, and making your own music seemed to be too much trouble.
One by one the musical organizations dwindled out until only the churches and the schools could boast live music any more.
It seemed local musical organizations were a thing of the past until the Rivertown Players decided to try out a local chorus to see if there was any interest. They’ve been producing musical plays and concerts, and Madrigal dinners ever since.
In a few cases there were enough people who still just plain enjoyed singing together that individual groups were formed, singing at various events around the county.
More recently, under the auspices of the Dearborn Highlands Arts Council, we saw a new musical opportunity, this one for kids, as the Young Voices came into being. It was so popular it has been divided into three separate choruses for different age groups and an adult chorus was added.