The Hammond Silver Drum Corps — An Excursion? or the First Ancient Muster?

The Hammond Silver Drum Corps Takes a Trip to Rocky Point

The year 1953 heralded a new era of Ancient history when, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ed Olsen and Carl Emmanuelson, the Deep River Drum Corps hosted the first ancient muster.   At the event they conceptualized, music would be the feature of the day and “no trophies, no prizes, and no unkind words” would be tolerated.   And, with 10 corps in attendance, the first Ancient muster was indeed a grand success.  But was DRAM 1953 the first of its kind?  One candidate for that honor might be the long-defunct Hammond Silver Drum Corps of Rockville, CT.  Their 1878 excursion to Rocky Point, Rhode Island was an event that offered neither prize-winning contests nor the ill will they could sometimes produce but instead featured a parade, libations, stand pieces, a commemorative button, and many other characteristics of our now well-established practice of Ancient mustering.

The Hammond Silver Drum Corps posing for newspaper reporters below St. Bernard’s Terrace in Rockville, Connecticut. Led by Rockville’s much-liked and “tallest colored man,” William Nelson (left), they are carrying their signature metal drums with silver-colored shells. Willie, leftmost in the drum line, eventually became a church organist of some renown. Detail from 1877 photo.

The Hammond Silver Drum Corps began in the late 1860s with Joe C. Hammond, a leading citizen of Rockville, Connecticut.  With Joe on fife, wife Catherine on bass drum, and their two sons on snares, the family entertained their friends and neighbors with patriotic music whenever the occasional arose.  At first they played informally, sometimes as the Elm Street Drum Corps and at least once as the Lilliputian Drum Corps, no doubt in deference to the youthful snare line consisting of 12-year-old Willie and 9-year-old Charles.  By 1876, however, Joe was busy with another group, the Veteran Field Music of Tolland County, and the Hammond Silver Drum Corps officially became a junior (“juvenile”) corps.

It was at the great Jubilee held in Rockville in 1877 that a trip to the Rocky Point was discussed.  At that time the Hammond corps consisted of 10 boys led by the well-known William Nelson.  Among their duties that day was greeting the visiting corps at the train station as they arrived to participate in the festivities.  Moodus won the prize that day for best drumming, a silk banner made by the ladies of Rockville, but the performances by all the corps, including Hammond’s, were impressive.  By day’s end, all agreed that another event should be held the following year, and the date was set for Friday, August 30, 1878, at the Rocky Point amusement park, Rhode Island’s premier tourist attraction.  The Hammond corps made plans to be there, too.

Several newspapers memorialized the Rocky Point affair, including The Rockville Journal and The Providence Evening Press. Undeterred by the 4-hour train ride to Providence, the Connecticut contingent filled 19 cars with musicians, spectators, and newspaper reporters, some of whom sported what might be considered the first “muster button” in the form of a wooden nutmeg set off with a red ribbon, “an emblem of times past,” according to one reporter.   The trip was completed by steamer, which brought them from Providence to Rocky Point.  Following a dinner of Rhode Island clams (a  Rocky Point specialty) and fueled by an enthusiastic throng of onlookers, the corps paraded to the bandstand where the festivities commenced in earnest.

The Crystal Wave was one of many steamers running passengers to and from Rocky Point during the summer season. The park buildings are seen in the background. Detail of albumin print, 1878.

The stand pieces began with the Tolland County Veterans, who received “hearty applause” for their efforts.  They were followed by the “excellent music” of Suffield’s Remington Drum Band.  Next, the Tunxis Valley Band played with “much spirit and vigor,” followed by the well-known and much-admired “gentleman drummers of Moodus,” who were “handsomely attired in red jackets barred with white.”  The Mansfield Drum Corps played “creditably,” given that they were “a country band and have not the opportunity for practice which city bands have.”  Polite encouragement returned to enthusiastic applause with the “the careful practice and confidence” exhibited by the St. James Band of Manchester.

It seems the best performances were saved for last.  The Hammond Silver Drum Corps “played with self possession and vigor, and were very heartily applauded.”  Next came the G.L. Belden [Bolden] Drum Corps of Hartford, “composed of colored youths” whose expert drummers would grow into adulthood and dominate the competition circuit.  Last but far from least was Steele’s Independent Fife and Drum Corps, also from Hartford.  We are told by the observers that this “very excellent band had some of the best performers in the State including Joseph Heck.”  Two years earlier, it was Heck, “the boss fifer of Connecticut,” who had won the coveted gold-tipped fife as “Best Fifer” at a contest held in Rockville.

The G.L. Bolden [Drum Corps, ca. 1906, a participant in the Excursion to Rocky Point some 30 years earlier. Author’s Collection.

True to a tradition that cannot be improved, the festivities concluded with—what else—a jollification.  It was reported that the music, which had kept up until the steamers arrived, continued for the entire 45-minute boat trip back to Providence.   While one reporter feared that “to those whose nerves were weak, the noise must have been very annoying” another worried not a bit.  Speaking of the Hammond Silver Drum Corps specifically, his words might have applied to all.  “The boys found admirers wherever they had listeners,” he bragged, “nor were the words of praise in any sense unworthily bestowed.

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2 thoughts on “The Hammond Silver Drum Corps — An Excursion? or the First Ancient Muster?

  1. I’m really interested in the drum corps mentioned in the article, The Bolden Drum Corps. Would you have other information on them?

  2. Hi–Unfortunately, we have very little on this group. I know they were a competition corps, competing in the category of “drums no fifes” and were considered excellent in their day. The elder gentleman (seated) is thought to be old man Bolden himself. He is listed as being on the Executive Committee of the Connecticut Fifers and Drummers Association back in 1885 and 86–quite an honor for an African-American gentleman in those days. Around 1914 we don’t find much mention of them anymore in the competition reports, so like other corps, they might have just sort of faded away (old corps never announce that they are folding, they just get to a point where parades and events become fewer and fewer because of poor turnout, and then one day they just stop turning out altogether. . . I think this may have happened here but only after many long years of performance spanning the turning of two centuries).

    Perhaps the genealogical file at the CT Historical Society has something (you’d be looking for George L. Bolden and Sydney Crasney/Krasney, those are the only two names I know of for sure). If you find anything out, do let me know! And if I do, I’ll post it here.

    Also, there used to be an African-American museum in New Haven, I believe it was associated with the Southern CT State University. I was never successful in getting in touch with them, but I do believe in some of their advertising some years ago I came across the image of a young African-American boy dressed as a drum major and holding his baton. . . never got an answer from them despite several attempts. . . maybe now is a good time to try again to see where their collections ended up (I think they’ve been closed for years, but I’m an SCSU alum, so many I could get somewhere by contacting them. . . )

    There were other all-black drum corps at this time, one of them being the Wallingford Dred-Nots, which I wrote about in a different article, and the Hartford City Drum Corps, which I need to write about. There were also some “juvenile” corps that were all-black, one of which bore the very un-p.c. name of the Hartford Pickaninnies, which I would love to know more about. Unfortunately, we can’t change what happened in the past, we can only report it. . .

    Thanks for reading!

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