Book Review, “One of His Many Uniforms: Ed Olsen, Noah Webster, and CT’s Ancient Fife and Drum Tradition.

This image of Moodus Drum and Fife Corps predates  what author James Clark believes could be “…the oldest image of the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps” (p. 122).   Dr. U.S. Cook, back row, center, was heavier, mustachioed, and older when he posed about 10 years later with his bass drum for the photograph featured on p. 112.  Copy in Author’s Collection, original currently unlocated.

Not much has been written about Ancient fife and drum corps, so I am always hopeful when something new surfaces.  The latest of these is Connecticut’s Fife and Drum Tradition (Wesleyan University Press, 2011).  It’s a nice little book that speaks of some history but essentially chronicles the author’s Ancient exploits, beginning with his early days in a hometown corps and progressing through his fascination with local competitions and the corps/drummers who participated in them.  Unfortunately, the documentation is disappointing; in lieu of footnotes, there are just a few in-text references (and not all of them correct) culled from a short and mostly unimpressive bibliography.  This probably won’t trouble the casual reader but will frustrate those bound to question the unusual hypotheses left unproved.   For example, the author devotes too many pages inter alia linking the “Dionysian tumult” of the Ancients (which, he says, angered Shakespeare AND the Puritans) to a lofty but unlikely heritage derived from Elizabethan England, Playford’s Dancing Master, and Othar Turner.  If the author is onto something here, we need supportive citations; otherwise, his arguments are pretentious.  And pretensions run rampant in this book, beginning with the “purple-inked bureaucratic form” (the rest of us call it a mimeograph) in the very first sentence of the introduction.  Elsewhere, you have to look carefully for the good stuff (he found Samuel G. Wilcox, an important figure in Ancient history, listed as a military drum major in 1819), because it’s too easily lost amongst other stuff that is just plain wrong (“Yankee Doodle” did not originate in 1745).  Nonetheless, it’s a fair read you can get through in about an hour-and-a-half, longer if you take notes (a necessity, since there is no index).

“Ed Olsen in one of his many uniforms.”  Actually, it was never his.  Olsen wore it only once, in October 1946 (see below), after which it was packed up by its real owner and taken to South Dakota.  Image from Connecticut’s Fife and Drum Tradition (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

The illustrations come from a similarly mixed bag.  Overall the  copy photography is not very good, but scattered amongst pictures of hand-rendered  musical scales and “digitally enhanced” second- and third-generation photocopies are some worth looking at.  There are a few of the early Moodus corps and a dark, hazy Sherm Carpenter working on a drum, but the best one, in my opinion, is a rather grainy photo of a young Ed Olsen “in one of his many uniforms.”  Despite its poor quality and bland caption, the photo presages a captivating story that the author couldn’t or wouldn’t tell, starring not Ed Olsen but a gifted self-taught artist who was destined to carve a mountain.

Korczak Ziolkowski was born in Boston in 1908 and moved to West Hartford, Connecticut in 1937.  There, from the workshop at his Sedgwick Street home, he produced a prize-winning sculpture, Paderewski, Study of An Immortal, that was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

“Paderewski.” http://www.bronzesbykorczak.com/paderewski.shtml “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” –Korczak Ziolkowski

Meanwhile, Ziolkowski wished to sculpt a memorial to Noah Webster, who was born in West Hartford on October 16, 1758.  A Time Magazine article dated October 27, 1941 tells us what happened when the artist:

“… said he would create one if West Hartford would raise $16,519 to pay expenses. When public-spirited West Hartfordians kicked in a mere $3,700, Sculptor Ziolkowski was hurt, but agreed to carry on.  Saying that the money would not provide him a shed to work in, Ziolkowski borrowed a trailer and carted a 32-ton block of Tennessee marble onto the lawn in front of West Hartford’s prim Town Hall. There, stripped to the waist, Sculptor Ziolkowski hacked and chiseled. He turned night into day with glaring floodlights [and] rang West Hartford’s rural welkin with an electric drill. When the West Hartford clergy protested his working on the Sabbath, bushy-headed Ziolkowski snorted: “There seems to be no objection to golfing, tennis, motoring and sports in general on the Sabbath, so why the rumpus over the creation of a masterpiece of art?” As months passed, Sculptor Ziolkowski’s marble cutting became the biggest show in West Hartford. Crowds gathered daily, and tourists parked their cars to have a look. Hawkers sold peanuts and soda pop. To his audience, Sculptor Ziolkowski sold marble chips, at 60¢ to $2, to be used as doorstops and book ends.”

In the midst of this hoopla, Ziolkowski created a musical tribute to his hero in the form of the Noah Webster Fife and Drum Corps.  He recruited members from the local schools and asked Charles S. Miller, founder of the Mattatuck Drum Band, to teach the drummers.   Miller agreed, driving regularly from Waterbury to West Hartford to fulfill his commitment.  This was no mean feat back then…

Noah Webster Ancients, 1946. Ed Olsen is the fifer on the right. Author’s collection

…when 30 MPH was considered speeding.  Miller was rewarded, though, by a long friendship with the artist and his corps that included a ceremonious unveiling of a bronze bust on his 80th birthday, enjoying “drum corps parties” (a precursor to musters) at Korczak’s home, holding drum-making sessions  in Miller’s barn, and a surprise serenade on a cold, rainy day in 1942 to celebrate yet another birthday (his 84th).   The  boys and girls in the corps were devoted to its founder, raising funds for the Webster statue by selling  miniature models door-to-door and performing otherwise-neglected household chores.

Korczak Ziolkowski’s gift to West Hartford, http://en.wikipedia.org/

Finally, on Noah Webster’s 183rd birthday, the statue was dedicated, even though it was not yet completed.  The Mattatuck Drum Band provided appropriate music, and local officials dressed in costume to accept the gift.  Still, the townspeople were unhappy, especially when they read the artist’s carved inscription:

“For you I labored, not for my own day,
that by the Word men should know brotherhood.
My fellow men! You have not understood,
Since each of you would go his separate way.”

When pressed, Ziolkowski claimed it was a quote from Webster’s writings and not a personal reproach to an ungrateful citizenry.

Ziolkowski finished the statue.  Although massive at 13-1/2 feet, it is intentionally shorter than Michelangelo’s David since, as Ziolkowski once told Olsen, “No one should outdo the master.”

Like Ed, Korczak volunteered for duty during World War II, and upon his return the Noah Webster corps resumed activity, marching in events such as Manhattan’s Pulaski Day parade on October 11, 1946, where Ed’s  picture was taken “in one of his many uniforms.”   However, very soon thereafter Korczak removed to South Dakota to work on a new project, a mountain sculpture of Crazy Horse.  Aware that he would not live long enough to complete an artwork 4 times the size of Mount Rushmore, he nonetheless took his tools, treasures, and most of his corps  to the Black Hills.  Renamed the Hill City Ancients, the corps continued for another few years before disbanding.  As of this writing, the old corps drums are still displayed at the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Friends left behind in West Hartford didn’t forget Ziolkowski, and in 1947 his supporters traveled to South Dakota to help him set up camp.  One of them, a drummer named Ruth Ross, never returned.  She stayed with Korczak, had 2 of his children, and then married him in 1950 and had 8 more.   But as he predicted, Korczak’s work was unfinished when death overtook him in 1982.  He is buried on the site in a grave that he and his sons had blasted out of the mountain.  He wrote his own epitaph:

KORCZAK
Storyteller in Stone
May His Remains Be Left Unknown

“Crazy Horse” attracts thousands of visitors each year. http://tinyurl.com/asg5wf3

At age 84, Ruth continues running the Crazy Horse Memorial, assisted by numerous children and grandchildren.  They are completing Ziolkowski’s magnum opus, the ultimate tribute, both to the artist and the American Indian.

Back in West Hartford, Ziolkowski’s masterpiece continued to irritate the residents.  The anonymous blogger, “Nutmeg Grater,” learned the details firsthand from a friend:

“It seems his mother was part of a women’s group in town that was none too pleased with the final rendition of the statue [because] if you drove around from Memorial Drive taking a right onto Main Street, you would see Noah’s hand down by his side with his index finger extended.  However, it didn’t LOOK like his index finger; it looked like good old Noah had a [description withheld but I think you can figure it out].  Again, the way I heard it was Mr. Ziolkowski was pissed at the fine citizenry of the charming town of West Hartford (as I am MOST of the time), and to get them back for all of their complaining and whining, he redesigned the arm and finger of the statue just a bit.”

Here I must interrupt, having heard a similar story many times from Ed Olsen.   There is no question that an insult was perceived, but “Korczak was too much of an artist,” according to Olsen (and I agree), to compromise his work in such a manner.   In any event,

The fine citizenry of the charming burg of West Hartford (well,  a group of babes, at any rate) decided to do something about it.  By the cover of night, they snuck into the center (no Radio Shack and no Max’s or Grant’s back then) and armed with only their wits, stealth, and a ball peen hammer, they whacked (so to speak) off Mr. Webster’s appendaged appendage—never, may I add, to be replaced!”

The blogger continues:

“If you don’t believe this is true, all you have to do is get in your car and drive from Memorial to Main (of course, you can’t do that now because they are working on Blue Back [another story for another day]) and see for yourself.

Blue Back Square, a sprawling commercial complex located around the corner from “West Hartford’s prim town hall,” caused more controversy than Ziolkowski ever did.  Its name commemorates Webster’s “blue-back speller,” a schoolbook he authored in 1783 that was customarily bound in inexpensive blue-papered boards.   Construction began in 2003, its completion delayed, however, by several years of lawsuits and political wrangling.

Happily, West Hartford has made peace with both the Square and their mammoth Noah.  Blue Back opened in 2008, the same year that Noah’s finger was replaced.  (It wasn’t there but a few weeks, though, before some prankster put a condom on it.)

(For another perspective, see the review of Connecticut’s Fife and Drum Tradition in Notes, Journal of the American Library Association, Volume 69, Number 3, March 2013, pp. 547-551 by Raoul F. Camus.)

Ruth Ross Ziolkowski died on May 21, 2014, at the age of 87.  http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/27/ruth-ziolkowski

Copyright 2011, August 2012 HistoryoftheAncientsDotOrg, All Rights Reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review, “One of His Many Uniforms: Ed Olsen, Noah Webster, and CT’s Ancient Fife and Drum Tradition.

    • The thing is, it’s all true! Regretful that Dr. Clark could not have included at least part of it in his book. . . or the fact that the picture of Ed Olsen with the Noah Webster Corps was the *only* time he marched in a “mixed” corps. . . Ed never did believe that “ladies” belonged in drum corps. . . 🙂

      The drums that old Korczak collected, including about 12 or so made by the Browns, are still displayed at the Crazy Horse National Park, or so I am told.

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