Setting the Tune; The North Bridgton Brass Band

Prepared by Michael J. Davis

In 1852 certain citizens in North Bridgton gathered together and organized into a body that, in at least a partial measure, continues to exist today.  This group, which has undergone many changes in both name and location, is one deserving of a fully researched history; and today we will be presenting what might better be called the first chapter in Bridgton’s history of Music.  We are talking, of course, of the Bridgton Community Band, that group of local volunteers who, out of an abundance of charity and community spirit, bring the light of music to all our local events.  With respect to their later history, much is known, and anyone who has attended Bridgton’s yearly Fourth of July celebrations, winter Festival of Lights, or recent 250th Birthday Bash will remember the sweet notes of their America the Beautiful, the wistfulness of their Old Lang Syne, or the imperial majesty of their We Three Kings.  Likewise will one remember the bright scarlet of their uniforms, and the gleam of their instruments upon the bandstand.  But theirs was not the first band to play in Bridgton; and the debt which they owe to those who came before is not often realized by those who go to hear them.

In this paper, we have endeavored to back through the ages and make a report on the Bridgton Community Band’s first twenty-five years of existence, from around 1850 down to 1875.  Back in those days, based in Merchant Andrew’s Masonic hall on the shores of Long Lake, a group which called itself the North Bridgton Brass Band first woke the echoes of the hills with spirited arrangements which soon made them a point of real community pride for our town, and indeed the whole Lake’s Region.

This is their story, so far as is known to us today.

The idea of a community band certainly existed in North Bridgton in the years before the formation of one; indeed our nearby Fryeburg has been well-known for their local band since at least 1800, and accounts of early Independence Day celebrations in both Bridgton and Harrison place small bands of musicians in our area in both 1811 and 1814.  But the first note we hear of any true band comes much later, at the launch of the steamship Fawn in 1847.  An observer to the scene, which took place on June 5th, remarked in the Portland Weekly Advertiser that when she rolled out of her berth and into the bay she was “Highly decorated with Flags, with a fine band of music, and some fifty citizens on board.”  This was not a local band, as we learn from news reports of the era that the custom in those days was to write for a band from Portland, who would arrive by stage coach to play for any notable celebrations.

The Centennial History of Harrison places the arrival of the first brass band in Bridgton in 1851, and it is likewise a Portland company.  It was the 5th of July, Independence Day being celebrated a day later that year as a result of a tremendous rainstorm.  The celebrated author and historian Charles O. Stickney, who happened to attend this spectacle in his youth, described the scene as “big with fate, for to that celebration is due the introduction into local life of that important feature, the brass band.  The affair took place in 1851.  It was a joint celebration by Harrison and North Bridgton, and was held at the head of Long Lake, beside Harrison Village…  The Charlestown Brass Band, which had come by stage coach from Portland, forty odd miles, on the 3rd, broke up into twos and threes, and those squads were entertained at the houses of citizens of “Harrison flat” and “Head of the Pond,” as those two villages were then called.  It was the first time a brass band was ever in this region, and the people vied with one another in showering upon the members attention and hearty hospitality.  Some of the instrumentalists, such as played the cornet, bugle, alto horns, etc., relieved the monotony of that dark, rainy day by giving selections, to the great delectation of their entertainers and callers.”

When the time for the celebration came, and “promptly on time” at that, the “object of intense curiosity, the Charlestown Brass Band, was on hand and at parade headquarters, in stunning uniforms and elegant equipment, the cynosure of every eye.  The services of this excellent band had been secured by the committee through the personal office of the late Capt. Abram Savage of North Bridgton, the once noted old-time singing master and prominent Mason, two of whose sons, Lyman and frank, were members of it.  The captain had been to Boston and heard several bands of that city and vicinity, and to his musical ear, influenced no doubt to some extent by personal pride, he decided that this one was ‘the best of them all,’ and so reported on his return.”  Directed by the parade’s Marshall, Col. James Webb, the Charlestown Band led the parade through Harrison along its route to North Bridgton, where speeches and dances were held on the Bridgton Academy green.  In reading Stickney’s thorough account, a feeling of intense excitement and overwhelming support for the band is plainly felt amongst the local citizens.  In light of this it seems little wonder that this band, which showed Bridgton “the joy and pride of having a brass band,” formed the impetus for the formation of local groups.

The first organization came that fall, when in Center Bridgton the “Bridgton Brass Band” was organized under Dr. Josiah Blake, with members Edward Adams, James Adams, James Barker, Nathan Burnham, Albert Davis, George Dillingno, Benjamin Dodge, Charles Gibbs, Charles Kilborn, Fred Littlefield, Benjamin Milliken, William F. Perry, Benjamin Stone, Charles Walker, Algernon Webb, Eben Webb, George Woodbury, and Jonas Woodbury.  Despite this hearty turnout, it does not seem that this band survived very long; incidents and errors seem to have plagued its first season, and we hear no more of it after 1853.  The History of Bridgton relates that this band was led by Prof. E.K. Eaton of Boston, which it unsympathetically calls “a blunt and eccentric taskmaster;” then going on to describe some of the colorful mishaps which characterized the poor group; “A long-told tale was of his lambasting William Perry, prominent mill-owner, for a poor performance because his sheet of music had been upside down.  Perry redeemed himself later by winning a $5 bet that the band couldn’t march up Main Hill to High Street and countermarch to the Bridgton House, playing all the while, without breaking down: Perry was the lone survivor.”  In a note of regional interest, those familiar with the history of Fryeburg Academy will recall another of these disastrous scenes, when in 1853 the Bridgton Brass Band was called to play at the dedication of Webster Hall.  There, at what was termed the band’s “first job abroad,” the group, being unused to marching, “got comically broken up and mixed in trying to march between the front-yard posts.”  Theirs was not a very successful arrangement, we feel.

Meanwhile, another band was organizing in North Bridgton; and they are the subject of our article.  Founded in the spring of 1852 by Capt. Richard T. Bailey, a noted ironworker who previous to the writing of this article was not known for his musical accomplishments, an equally large and seemingly better trained ensemble had been together under the name “The North Bridgton Brass Band.”  As for location, the aforementioned Capt. Savage secured the use of Merchant Andrews’ Masonic Hall; as for members, Col. James Webb was an obvious choice – other than being an accomplished master of ceremonies he also had six children, all of whom showed real musical talent.  Two of them, Algernon and Eben, had signed on to the struggling Bridgton Brass Band; the other four – Edward, Isaac, Isiah, and Walter – immediately joined the North Bridgton assembly.  Together with them came nine others; George Brown, Thomas Burnham, Albert Gould, Charles Gould, John Hill, Richard Kitson, Elias Newbegin, Charles Paine, and Capt. Savage’s son, W. Henry Savage.  From what we have been able to determine, Edward Webb played snare drum, Isaac the base drum, with John Hill on cymbals.  As a brief aside, the first note we find of Isiah and Edward Webb’s musical proclivities comes from 1850, when they added their snare and bass drum notes to the raucous student parade which was the Perham Rebellion.

From what we have seen, the North Bridgton Brass Band was not at all like that of the Center Village.  They are routinely described as “successful,” and a later note concerning Algernon and Eben Webb indicates that they soon jumped ship to join the N.B.B.B.  One wonders how many of their bandmates went with them.  In any case, by 1853 they seem to have wholly absorbed the Center Village band; though admittedly, not without help from several local benefactors.  Albert Gould, chemist, Harvard tutor and one of North Bridgton’s most prominent men, was “an active and foremost spirit in starting and pushing the band enterprise; and his colleagues also played a strong hand, in double sense.”   A series of articles, appearing in the Bridgton News during the winter of 1896, did much to document the founding of the band, and these articles are so thorough that we even know the design of their uniforms; blue with red trim, like continental soldiers.  It also happened that all of their members were Whigs, later Republicans; a note which would become very important in coming years.  At one point, we have found it mentioned that they were instructed and drilled “for some weeks by Prof. D.H. Chandler, leader of the Portland (Chandler’s) Band for about 40 years.”  Chandler’s Military band, which still exists today, is now the second oldest professional band in continuous service.  Later Drafted into service during the Civil War, where it attained significant distinction, it has had the honor of playing at both our nation’s Centennial and Bicentennial celebrations in 1876 and 1976, respectively. 

Under such skillful leadership, the North Bridgton Brass Band was swiftly readied for service, and was soon playing at anniversaries, Fourth of July celebrations, political gatherings, and Bridgton Academy class Exhibitions.  Regrettably, owing to the lack of a local newspaper at the time, actual descriptions of these early performances are few.  An account worth noting, one which recalls the first two years of the N.B.B.B.’s existence, was later printed as a letter to the editor of the Bridgton News on February 14th, 1896.  The writer, who penned the piece under the childish nickname “Jotham,” seems to have joined the band in the season after their first year, and his account, though lengthy, is worth quoting as it is the most thorough description of the North Bridgton Brass Band which we have anywhere on file.  He writes;

“I remember being present at the first public concert – I think it was of the band – given in the Congregational church at North Bridgton; and the sweet tones of the “Ben Bolt Quick-step” and other of the popular pieces of that day, re-echo in my memory as I write.  I think the first public appearance of the band was at a 4th of July celebration on Bear Mountain, and one of the incidents of the day which used to be jocosely mentioned was, playing the old familiar Jackson’s March, afterwards re-named “Bear Mountain March,” while marching and sweating up the declivitous road leading to the summit of the mountain.  That event occurred in 1853, in which, at a later date, I became enrolled as an active member.  My first practice of any instrument was on an orphecleide that belonged to Walter Webb.  It was an old relic of some band in Massachusetts, and was of the baritone persuasion, on the principle of the keyed bugle.  I struggled with the odd thing for several days, I remember, until the gamut was discovered, when I took my place in the rehearsals, and soon acquired such skill and rapidity of execution that almost any melody like fisher’s Hornpipe, or Yankee Doodle, were played in a fair manner.  From the orphecleide I graduated to the position of 2nd Eb sax-hornist.

During my connection with the band, that rollicking youth and prince of good fellows, Oscar Rogers, became affiliated with the band in some capacity – I cannot distinctly remember how – but whether as an enrolled member or not, he was with us on many occasions, and gave to our company and general exercises many features of pleasure.  Later on, Asa Gould, brother of Samuel H., was an active and valued member of the band.  Lewis smith, your respected townsman of the present, played First Bass horn for some time very acceptably.

The N.B.B.B., with regard to the general character of its membership, was unique and exceptional among similar organizations.  It was emphatically a band of tee-totalers, with one exception; and he, never an excessive partaker of the ardent, had so deep a sentiment of respect for the reputation of the band, and such affection for each and every member that he would have patiently endured any degree of thirst, with treats galore at his disposal when on public duty with the band, and he loyally and firmly declined all opportunities for libulous gratification.  His kind-heartedness and good fellowship are among the pleasant memories of my association with the band.

Another, who was hardly ever absent from rehearsals, and regarded in the light of an honorary member, was Osgood Bailey, one of the most constant and interested of all the local friends of the band.  He was an acute observer of everything that occurred, and appreciated all that had a ludicrous feature to it; and possessed such a fondness for humor and an original sense of comical situations that he contributed a an unfailing fund of pleasantry and enjoyment.  His audible laughter at the success of one of his witty practical jokes, on some unsuspecting individual, is well remembered.”

We will return to this account shortly.  As we have said, it is rare to find an account of the North Bridgton Brass Band’s public displays, but occasionally an outside paper did manage to get a reporter on scene, as happened on the first of May, 1858, when we find a correspondent for the Portland Weekly Advertiser among a crowd which had gathered at Bridgton Academy for North Bridgton’s annual May Day celebration.  A May Pole was raised, about which a fine may day dance was held, followed by the crowning of the May Day queen upon a throne of flowers and “frost-defying evergreen.”  At the end of the day, before the whole class of Bridgton Academy, “the Queen of May, surrounded by her maids of honor, escorted by the North Bridgton Brass Band, with inspiring music, approached and took her place.”  After this point, when the Bridgton Reporter was organized in the fall of that year, the inner workings of the North Bridgton Band become clearer; in the issue of January 7th, 1859 we find the note “The North Bridgton Brass Band had their annual meeting last Saturday, and made choice of the following as its officers for the ensuing year.  Asa Gould, President; E.C. Webb, Vice-President; E.C. Webb, Director; R.T. Bailey, Leader; Isaac Webb, Clerk and Treasurer; R.T. Kitson, Librarian; Financial Committee, R.T. Bailey, Isaac Webb, John T. Hill.”

Likewise, on March 22nd, 1861, we find note that “the social levee given by the North Bridgton Brass Band last Friday night, we learn, was a fine affair.  Everything was on a generous and popular scale and everybody who went agree in saying it was one of the pleasantest occasions they ever attended.”  A week later, an account of the gathering was submitted to the paper by “a correspondent” who had been there, in which it is revealed that the dinner was on account of “the seventh anniversary of the organization” of the band, and “that two hundred people sat at meat at two tables, after the Band had performed several pieces and the Glee Club chanted the Lord’s Prayer, the Band acting as waiters.  After this came dancing and other pastimes varied according to the tastes of those present.  The festivities were prolonged until the small hours, nobody – not even the ‘old folks’ – feeling in a ‘retiring’ mood.”

This celebration was, in effect, the culmination of the North Bridgton Brass Band’s efforts; though they likely did not know it, it was to be their final arrangement.  Less than a month later, Fort Sumter fell beneath a surprise Confederate bombardment, and the Civil War was on.  Soon Lincoln called for soldiers, and Bridgton Academy furnished the first of Bridgton’s volunteers.  Near all of Bridgton’s young Republicans signed up; and with such ardent patriotism and strong political feelings fermenting among the band’s members, Lincoln’s call depopulated the band almost entirely.  To find a ready example of the noted patriotism of the band, we need only return to the bandmate’s narrative quoted earlier, for he writes; “The N.B.B.B. was, if I remember, composed of staunch original republicans… and during the first presidential campaign of its existence, enjoyed huge satisfaction in “blowing for Fremont,” as Capt. Bailey once expressed himself very appropriated when unexpectedly invited to make a speech.  During the years preceding the formation of the Republican Party, and for years after, Maine was a seething cauldron of political excitement.  Prohibition and free-soil republicanism were in the air at all times, and brass bands did not go into desuetude for lack of business.  The N.B.B.B. was “on deck,” and contributed largely to the inspiration of the mass meetings of the young Republican Party.  In September, 1854, by invitation of the citizens of Standish and Cornish, the band projected a trip to those places and a public concert in each village.  The tour was full of enjoyment and marked by many funny incidents.  Starting from home early in the morning, by sunrise, the procession of teams at unequal intervals passed through “Pinhook” (Sandy Creek) and onward towards South Bridgton and beyond.  Arriving at the foot of the long hill south of Pinhook, Capt. Bailey alighted and walked up the hill.  About half way up, just as he was passing a dwelling, a tall, rustic individual rushed out of the cottage and coming to the side of the road exclaimed: “Say, I should like to know what you fellers call yerselves?”  “This,” replied the Captain, without hesitation, “is the Watertown Light Artillery.”  This answer pacified the curiosity excited by the appearance of uniforms, a garb not often seen in those days in rural neighborhoods… 

The band had an opportunity to show itself, when en route to Standish, at a large public meeting of anti-slavery and temperance people at Limington Corner, where they were cordially received and much applauded.  The public concerts at Standish Corner and Cornish were successful and gave decided satisfaction to the citizens.”

And so, when the war came the band broke up and went off to serve, taking their bugles to march in Southern lands.  Worthy of notice among this group were all of Col. Webb’s sons, four of which remarkably remained together in the same regiment: Isiah, Edward, Osgood and John, who enlisted with the First Maine volunteers at Portland.  This regiment, which became the Thirteenth and later the Thirtieth following casualties, would serve out the duration of the war until August 28th, 1865.  Rather fittingly, they became their regiment’s musicians, and a diary belonging to one of the Webb boys along with several of their instruments has come down through the family into the hands of Margaret Reimer, former President of the Bridgton Historical Society.  It is our hope that we will be able to examine this account in the months to come.  During the war years our town’s festive celebrations and graduations of Bridgton Academy were, the Reporter tells us, supplied instead by the Portland Brass Band.

Mrs. Catherine A. Simpson, writing in the January 29th, 1909 issue of the Bridgton News, recalled the end of the war and the return of the Webb band to Bridgton; her having been in Portland to witness the return of a classmate from the “shattered” Thirtieth Regiment.  “I also met there quite a number of Bridgton boys of the returning Thirtieth Reg., among whom were Robert Bisbee, Edward Davis, Royal Lewis, Almanzo and Greenleaf Bacon, and the brothers Isiah, Edward, Osgood, and John T. Webb.”  Battered but unbroken, it was not long before the band re-organized, soon increasing its membership and taking on other soldiers who had learned the bugle, fife, or drum in their wartime service.  In the words of Granville Fernald, one of the new members, “Among other prominent and well-remembered players were Albert Gould, Dr. Oscar Rogers, Asa Potter, Alvin Burnham, Samuel and Asa Gould, John Hill, Charles Paine, Charles E. Tolman, Lewis Smith Jr., Richard T. Kitson, [and] Geo. H. Brown.”  Fernand also tells us that the band’s leader, Captain Bailey, likewise returned “after the close of the war, when the Band reorganized its forces according to my recollections.”

The History of Bridgton relates that “the second spurt of band history began after the Civil War, when a 19-member group,” drawn from former Center and North Bridgton band members, “formed in March, 1871…  Some of these players were veterans of the 10th Maine Infantry Band.  Horace Seavey later became a member of Sousa’s Band.  Another member, and one of their best players, was Allen Scribner, formerly of Gilmore’s famous war band.”  This second incarnation of the North Bridgton Brass Band continued on until 1876, when a schism took place which split it into the Bridgton Brass Band and the Bridgton Cadet Band.  The Cadets, dressed now in “gay uniforms of blue with yellow facings, belts and plumed shakos,” was led by Professor Jacobus, of Boston, a former army musician, and apparently the rivalry between the two groups was nothing less than fierce; many competitions taking place between the two groups.  This split would not be healed until 1882, when reunification came under Edward Berry, but by then both bands had moved to new headquarters in the Center Village.

And that, in short, is the history of the North Bridgton Brass Band.  Much remains to be told regarding the history of organized music in Bridgton, and many other stories have come down from later days which are worthy of mention; not the least of which being the newest incarnation of our Community Band and its thrilling library concerts these past few summers.  But these are stories of other times, and indeed other places, and to understand them and the honored place which tradition has ever afforded musicians in Bridgton’s history, we must always look back on that moment in North Bridgton when, in 1851, a long march of patriotic and eager citizens first learned the joy of the brass marching band.  As Charles O. Stickney said it best, “In the intervening half-century – an era fraught with dramatic vicissitudes and tremendous events to this nation – I have seen many a magnificent pageant, but as seen by my dilated juvenile eyes the memory of that procession transcended them all.  It was by all odds “the greatest show on earth.”

© 2020 by the North Bridgton Historical Society