Historiography is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the writing of history, especially the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” While I have every hope that this paper will conform to these high standards, I will not attempt to accomplish this through statistical measurements of historical artifacts or comparative examination to contemporary drums, although this could easily be done, since I have identified about 100 drums “of Brown’s manufature” either in public collections or private hands. Rather, I will instead focus upon how Brown drums, a product of Connecticut Valley craftsmen, were welcomed by the drum-playing public as the best vehicle with which to perfect and perpetuate another Connecticut Valley product, the unique craft of “Ancient” drumming, which flourishes in this area today as a truly “living history.”i
Elias Brown, descendant of Peter Brown of Duxbury, MA, began making drums around 1810. He worked in partnership with an uncle, two cousins, and eventually his son in Wintonbury Parish, a section of Windsor, CT that in 1835 became the independent town of Bloomfield. Although the business faced competition from another shop just a couple of days’ journey or so to the northwest, the Browns nonetheless established a widespread and loyal clientele who eagerly sought their product.ii
Eli (b. 1781) and Moses Brown (b. 1778) were not-too-distant cousins, the respective sons of an earlier generation of cousins, Zadock and Benjamin Brown. In 1810 Moses and Eli were husbands with young families who worked as farmers as well as drum-makers. Both Zadock and Benjamin were listed on local tax records in 1781 as coopers, a craft whose special skills were akin to the ones necessary to produce drums. In fashioning barrels from wooden slats, coopers were familiar with the behavior of wood subjected to varying degrees of moisture, something that drum-makers also needed to know. Moreover, it is possible that a practicing cooper might make round wooden containers as well as staved barrels. The shaping and joining methods used to produce these small containers, known popularly today as “pantry” and “cheese” boxes, would necessarily be applied to the shaping and joining of drum hoops and shells (fig 1). Benjamin the cooper, then, was likely the second Benjamin (b. 1748, d. 1833) who may have taught his sons Moses and later William the woodworking skills necessary to produce drums, skills that Eli may have learned from his own father. iii
The Browns made snare drums in various sizes that were considered “square;” that is, the depth of the shell equaled (or very nearly equaled) the dimension of its diameter. Except for the very earliest drums and those produced as toys, sizes range from 17″ to 19.5″ in surviving examples. Bass drums were also square (“barrel” basses); those extant range from 24″ to 29″. The basses were “double-strung;” that is, tightened by two opposing sets of braces pulled toward the center of the drum rather than with one set placed unilaterally and tugged to the opposite side, as is commonly practiced today. Printed labels were pasted in the shells opposite the vent hole that identified the makers as simply “B. E. & M. Brown, Drum Manufacturers,” with a three-digit number and date written on each label. Although the numbers were issued chronologically, they did not necessarily indicate the date of sale, as one might expect; rather, they more likely referred to the maker and the date that the shell was completed. Since several of the drums were apparently roped, headed and then sold out of numerical sequence, the numbering system is useful in determining how long the unfinished shells remained shelved in the shop. This could be as long as two and even four years.iv
Despite its success, the partnership lasted only until 1815. That year Moses moved west with his wife, Eliza (Frisbie )Brown, and their four children, settling in Columbus, Ohio where he died sometime before 1833. The drum making continued back in Wintonbury Parish, however, as Eli attempted alliances with other family members, first with Benjamin and later with Moses’ younger brother William. The business was carried on as a loose partnership with the makers using up the supply of old labels simply by writing over the previously printed information before investing in new printed labels identifying Benjamin, William, and Eli as individual makers. Benjamin continued using the old three-digit numbering system established in 1810, but William’s drums sometimes contained a two-digit number. In 1820 Eli began marking his drums with a four-digit number. As in the earlier partnership, the numbers were issued sequentially as the shells were completed; however, the drums were not always assembled and sold in sequence, and it wasn’t until about 1825 that the numbers became reliably chronologic with sales.v
Business continued in this manner for five more years. During this time Eli added tambourines to his line, and William advised that he also made “toy drums of every description.” These were sold to individuals as well as merchants, some as far away as upstate New York. A common snare drum, according to later tradition and a penciled note on the label of one drum (dated 1834), sold for $8.00.vi
In 1914 Erwin Huggins recalled how one customer obtained a drum, ostensibly from Eli himself. It was re-told in 1986 by Carol Laun, then curator of the Salmon Brook Historical Society, for The Hartford Courant. It seems that one Hiram Case (b. 1804, Barkhamsted, CT) needed a drum and decided to get one from the Brown shop in Wintonbury.
One bitter cold day in late fall [more likely late summer in 1823, see below], Case borrowed a horse from his father and set out on the rough roads to Windsor [where] Eli Brown had a drum factory…known worldwide for the quality of drums produced. When Case arrived at the factory, he asked Brown if he would make a drum for him. Brown said he would, but that he had drums on hand that might please his customer. Case then admitted he had no money but promised to pay with the first money he earned. Brown looked the young man over and said, “if you want a drum bad enough to ride such a day as this from Barkhamsted on horseback down here, you are good enough to pay for it. You can take the drum.” Case picked out the style drum he wanted, had it strapped to his back, and mounted his horse for the long journey home.vii
Under the tutelage of Hart Lee, also from Barkhamsted, Case became an expert drummer, and we are told both by Huggins and Laun that Case “made another trip to Brown’s factory and paid for the drum” within a few months’ time. Case ultimately founded what became the West Granby Fife and Drum Corps, where his story was recounted many times for the benefit of its younger members.
While making drums, the Browns also were making music. William owned a violin and a fife, both valuable enough to be cited in his probate inventory, although any books of music he may have owned are unknown to this writer. Cousin Eli’s musical interests, however, are preserved in writing – but not his own. He apparently shared some favorite tunes with a friend, John Gaylord, also of Windsor. Gaylord wrote out “Elias Brown’s Quickstep” on the fourteenth page of a tunebook he began keeping around 1816, possibly for use in the field music of the local militia (fig 2). Later, on page 35, he wrote out a “Quickstep” that he got “from Brown of Wintonbury.” Another tune, “William’s Quickstep,” may refer to the drum maker or to a third friend, William F. Tudor, of neighboring East Windsor.viii
Tragedy struck on 25 October 1825 when William died. He was newly married and only 23 years old. The inventory of his modest estate reveals he had been living off the income he earned from the drum-making business, which had probably been conducted from a workbench in his barn. His father still worked with him, as the executors listed 13 of Benjamin’s drum shells on William’s inventory, an error that was subsequently corrected. Eli, William’s colleague, cousin and caring friend, submitted “expences of [William’s] last sickness” for which the estate eventually paid him $1.24. No farming tools were listed on the inventory, even though a variety of household goods, clothing, and a horse and wagon were. However, a miscellany of drum-making materiel such as cord, brass nails, and several types of skins were counted along with 59 drums in various stages of construction. This amounted to almost 30% of the entire estate, including the house, barn, and 11¾ acres of land, whose total worth was just under $500.00.
William had lent money to his friends and family, and when he died they owed the estate more than $150.00. Of special interest is an $8.00 note in the estate against one Hiram Case of Barkhamsted dated 23 August 1823, which having gone unpaid for more than two years, now showed an additional $1.10 interest. It would appear, then, that Hiram’s prior business took place in the (unusually cool and stormy?) late summer of that year, not the late fall, and that the drum that suited him was of William’s make, not Eli’s. Another of William’s customers was reimbursed for expenses paid on drums that could not be completed, and two others owed the estate nearly $100.00 for drums and drum heads that William had supplied. Interestingly, Case (spurred by a guilty conscience, perhaps? or prodded by the executors?) did pay the estate a portion of his long-standing debt, but only in the amount of $0.35.ix
In the years following William’s death both Benjamin and Eli continued making drums, with Eli by far the more prolific maker. Of approximately 100 surviving Brown drums located to date, 44 were made by Eli and most of these between 1820 and 1835. He continued working despite Benjamin’s death in 1833 and after 1835 did so in partnership with his son. By 1837 Eli, Jr. was making the larger portion of drums.
The Browns were not simply drum makers. They were also valued members of the local community. Their civic prominence, however, was not inherited but earned, the result of sociopolitical changes that were a long time coming in the Valley. Founded in 1633, Windsor is one of Connecticut’s oldest settlements and was home to some of the state’s most prominent families. During the late eighteenth century these “River Gods” had established sizable wealth and prominence from a lucrative West Indies trade. Supporting them was an artisan citizenry who supplied the goods and materials necessary for mercantile shipping and who also built the Gods their fashionable homes along the riverbank, filling them with cupboards, clocks, and other respectable furnishings. Over the years as the artisan population increased, however, they ultimately outnumbered the River Gods and toppled their sociopolitical dynasty by becoming politically active themselves. As the nineteenth century progressed, they formed new, self-governed towns, all carved from the original settlement at Windsor but in areas more outlying and away from the river.x
Bloomfield was one of these towns and the Brown family part of these changes. Descendants of seventeenth-century Puritan émigrés, the drum-making Browns were artisan-farmers of the second and third generations living on former common lands lying beyond the riverfront. They witnessed and participated in Windsor’s growth and the eventual social and political sectioning of Wintonbury Parish into the town of Bloomfield. At its first town meeting in 1835, Benjamin’s son (also Benjamin) was appointed sealer of measures, Eli as hayward and Eli Jr. as highway surveyor, an office the elder Benjamin had held years earlier under the old Windsor jurisdiction. Eventually both the elder and younger Eli would assume more important positions, including selectman, assessor, grand juror, and tax collector, all the while maintaining their farms and working their chosen craft.xi
As in the earlier years of the partnership, the Browns’ market for drums remained limited to fulfilling military needs, supplemented by a small but growing demand from civilian bandsmen. Civilian wind bands were often hired by militia companies to participate with them in training days and the parades (“processions”) and other public commemorations held periodically throughout the year, especially the 4th of July.xii In the absence of surviving shop records or other business accountings, an examination of local newspaper advertising suggests that among the Browns’ customers were dealers in military goods such as Middletown’s Smith & Sill, who retailed “swords, pistols, sashes” and such alongside “drums of Brown’s manufacture” in their store. While other customers, such as Hartford’s Thomas Williams, operated retail music shops featuring musical instruments with a more general public appeal, they, too, recognized the importance of the military market by strategically advertising their stock of Brown drums in the spring and fall, just prior to Connecticut’s training day and general muster, when they would be most needed.xiii
The Browns did sell drums beyond the confines of Connecticut and were successful to some degree, as evidenced by the New York debts to William’s estate in 1825;xiv however, the market remained largely local. This permitted painless competition from another drum-making facility located in Pittsfield, MA, about 75 miles northwest of Bloomfield. This enterprise, also a family business, had much in common with the Browns’. Its proprietor was Abner Stevens, son of Eliphet Stevens, formerly of Old Saybrook (now Killingworth), CT. Like the Browns, Stevens was an artisan whose “industry and economy” earned him a “moderate fortune” that enabled him to become a business if not civic leader. He began making drums in Hancock, MA, apparently as early as 1791, removing to Pittsfield in 1809. His thrifty habits plus the proceeds of his drum-making business allowed him to acquire a large tract of property on North Street in Pittsfield that included The Exchange Hotel. His commercial ventures, drum shop included, were transferred to his son, Moseley W. Stevens, in 1840. (By this time “The Exchange” had become “The United States Hotel,” a local landmark.) To date, I have found evidence of two drums bearing the M. W. Stevens label, indicating that some attempt was made to continue the drum-making activities until at least 1845, three years following Abner’s death.xv
Like the Browns, Stevens made drums “in the best manner,” featuring more or less square dimensions. Although both shops enjoyed cheap transportation routes offered by nearby rivers, the proximity of the Pittsfield factory to the Albany road offered Stevens relatively easy land access to markets in New York State. However, he did not ignore the local wholesale market potential. Stevens pursued and eventually obtained at least one large contract from the Massachusetts state militia. Although “Mr. Dalton” and E.W. Ripleyxvi also endeavored to supply the militia with the 600 drums it needed in 1811, Stevens was selected to provide them. His efforts to complete the order, however, were fraught with difficulties that were evident only two months later, when he could not locate suitable construction materials. He addressed his concerns directly to Amasa Davis, Quartermaster General of the Massachusetts militia, in a letter dated May 24, 1811:
Capt Allen wrote to me April 17th. . . to have me make the Snares a little larger and the earse narowded. . . Since I have seen the Contract & it says catgut for S[nares] & Horsehide for Brasirs [probably “bracers” or “braces,” another term for “ears”] – I have ben atalking with a gentleman in this town that purchases catgut every year & the Largeist he can find in Albany or New york. . . is not so large as the Snares in the Drum [sample] I Sent & I think not so good. As for Horsehide for Brasin it is not Suiteable at all. . . xvii
This problem was apparently resolved, but another, more burdensome one soon arose in its stead:
I have Drawn an order on you for three hundred Dollars a few Days ago in favor of Mr. Granger (Boston). Mr. Williams of this town let me have the money & took the order. that money was considerable help to me but I am still in grate want of about four hundred & fifty Dollars more. . . If I could have all this money that is now acomeing [due] for the first hundred Drums soon[,] I think I could make out to get along thorable [tolerable?] well for the preasant. . . xviii
The urgency of Stevens’s plea was compounded by the fact that he already had “. . . fifty Drums which now are remaining on hand” promised to the government but not yet paid for. “I could [have] sold several of them in days past for the money (in this State and other States),” Stevens told Davis, “but I still keep them.” Despite his loyalty, one might conclude that the venture ended badly, since only six months later Davis was searching for a new supplier.xix Business continued well for Stevens, notwithstanding the reluctance of the Massachusetts militia to pay its bills; in 1813, he advertised his shop as “The American Drum Factory,” and five years later added brass drums, fifes, flutes and violin bows to his product line.xx
There is no indication that the Browns solicited such large-scale business or experienced similar cash-flow problems. They, did, however, achieve a local reputation for excellence that effectively dismissed any threat of competition from Stevens, at least amongst their Connecticut customers, none of whom featured drums “of Stevens’s manufacture” in their advertising. The Browns continued producing drums only slightly longer (1846) than did the Stevenses (1845), although popular legend has the Brown shop active until the elder Eli’s death in 1855.
Eli Brown’s probate records reveal that, like Abner Stevens, the drum shop was not its proprietor’s sole business venture. The inventory acknowledged Brown’s half-interest in the drum shop, Eli Jr. being vested in the other half, but also listed a large farming enterprise that included dairying and tobacco production. The value of the drum shop was only $62.00, less than the value of the cow house and only slightly more valuable than the tobacco shed, and this on an estate appraised at nearly $18,000. The estate was ultimately probated according to Eli’s will utilizing the custom of the time to divide the property amongst his wife and children.xxi
Actually, both shops succumbed to causes larger than the loss of their founders. During the early nineteenth century new socioeconomic pressures affected the upper and lower Valley, an area long recognized for its impermeability and resistance to change. Problems began with the arrival of the industrial revolution, whose benign origins at the Springfield [MA] armory began about the same time Abner Stevens produced his first drum and only a few years before the Browns produced theirs. The subsequent “market revolution” that followed in its wake ensured the demise of cottage-based artisanry as consumer markets were flooded with cheaper, mass-produced goods.xxii Even locally important craftsmen like Brown and Stevens could no longer attract skilled workmen willing to settle for lower-than-factory wages or consumers willing to pay for goods that were now considered old-fashioned. A label on a drum produced by Thomas McGann suggests an attempt at reviving the Brown drum business in Albany, NY, but this was short lived (1866-1868).xxiii Other than the family itself, probably no one noticed the demise of the Stevens shop, and except for the handful of disappointed drummers from the ancient corps in Connecticut, the demise of the Brown manufactory was equally unnoticed.
It was the Connecticut drummers’ realization that their traditional musical practices could not survive without a dependable supply of older drums, specifically those “of Brown’s manufacture,” that triggered panic among the state’s Ancient-style corps. The old West Granby corps wasn’t the only one using these instruments; nearly all the corps flourishing in Connecticut’s Valley Shore preferred Brown drums; the list is impressive and includes the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps (founded 1860), Chester Drum Corps (1868), Deep River Ancient Drum Corps (1876-78), East Hampton Drum Corps (1887), Killingworth Drum Corps (1887) and the Westbrook Drum Corps (1910) along with Waterbury’s Mattatuck Drum Band (1881). The East Hampton men were the first to guarantee their own supply of “Brown” drums when Elias, Jr.’s granddaughter distributed shells and other parts to the fledgling corps upon dismantling the old workshop, probably in 1892 when the home was sold outside the family. This was facilitated, no doubt, by Dan Burns, a former Moodus drummer and drum-maker who had defected from his old corps to organize and teach the new one in East Hampton, lured by the promise of a job at the local silk mill and “boarding round” the homes of the drum corps members.xxiv One comrade of these old-timers, Robert von Deck, recalled in horror how the granddaughter reserved one of the bass drum shells for herself, to cut in half for use as plant borders at her West Hartford home.xxv
East Hampton’s newly assembled “Brown” drums were the first of a spate of imitations produced by ancient corpsmen in the years following the shop’s closure, the above-mentioned Erwin Huggins among them. As late as the 1930s, a drummer with the old Chester Drum Corps, Clayt Holmes, copied the Brown drums in that corps’ collection, sometimes carving romantic figures in bas-relief opposite the drum’s vent hole.xxvi While Huggins, Holmes and other makers produced serviceable and sometimes superior instruments, the most perfect replication had already been achieved in the years following 1914 by a Moodus drummer known as “Grump” [Elmer] Ventres. Utilizing his own Brown drum as a model, Ventres meticulously re-created every detail of construction used by the Browns including the paper labels, which were prepared for him by fellow Moodus drummer and printer, Michael J. Barry (fig 3).
The execution and style of these old-time traditionalists survive in today’s Moodus Drum Corps and Mattatuck Drum Band, which still use Brown drums, some inherited from their musical forebears and others acquired by purchase from antique dealers. The history of these corps exemplifies the early customs that gave birth to the style of Ancient drumming currently practiced in the Valley and also demonstrates the how important the large, square drums “of Brown’s make” were in its creation and perpetuation.xxvii Their drumming practices can be traced in an unbroken line of aural transmission from both corps’ founders. Hezekiah Percival, co-founder of the Moodus corps, and Charlie Miller, founder of the Mattatucks, practiced and passed along methods they had learned long ago from military-style rudimental drummers.xxviii The few lesson books, manuscripts, and other evidence of “book learning” descendant from both founders and their respective corps suggest that Miller and Percival were taught their rudiments by rote, although their teachers may have had some benefit from books. Percival’s instructor was Samuel Wilcox of Middletown’s Upper Houses (now Cromwell, CT), and Miller learned to drum from Louvane Fox of the Wolcott Drum Band. The rudimental background of these teachers is apparent not only in the practices that have survived them but also in the few documents they left behind. Wilcox listed essential rudiments and beatings on a certificate of proficiency he signed for his student in 1821, and Fox owned a copy of Col H. C. Hart’s New and Improved Instructor for the Drum. . .  and apparently subscribed to its theory (fig 4).xxix
Stylistically, Moodus and Mattatuck drumming differs from current Ancient method in several ways. Wilcox and Fox both taught functional military drumming, in which performance was subservient to purpose; that is, the drumming was intended less as music and more as an adjunct to “assist troops in marching correctly” and to produce a beat that could be heard over the din of marching men.xxx The result was a slow, heavy execution of the rudiments with a necessarily pronounced inflection restricted to the downbeat. Drumming proficiency, therefore, was measured as much by volume as it was by accurate performance of the rudiments; as late as 1946, old-timers evaluating the performance of early ancient corps did so primarily on the basis of the volume of their drumming.xxxi The Brown-made snare and bass drums in the Moodus and Mattatuck corps enable this practice to continue today. The drums are still maintained with unmuffled calfskin heads, which are only minimally tensioned, even by today’s ancient standards, and the drummers play with heavy downstrokes that effect a strong, uncluttered downbeat, the result of which was described even by the old-timers as “thunderous.”xxxii In executing the rolls, the strokes are deliberate and devoid of bounce. The drummers employ little contrast between accented and unaccented strokes, something especially apparent in the bass drummers’ flamacue, a five-beat rudiment that has no accenting at all.xxxiii These remain such important features of the drumming that new Moodus students are advised to practice on pillows instead of rubber-coated drum pads, much as their counterparts did in the early days of the corps. As an example, Moodus’ Pete Mietzner learned to drum this way in 1900, recalling in rhyme that, unlike today’s Ancient practices, “each blow was struck distinctly, for a rebound did not go.” This lack of rebound was not only a musical necessity but also a point of honor, as Mietzner tells us.
[the] rudiments were known as rules
and a piece was called a beat;
A soft pad used while learning,
Where one could not fake or cheat
In 1975, John Golet recalled similar training “way back, 52 years ago when I joined the Moodus outfit:”
. . . it took at least a year to develop a snare drummer. . . If at the end of a year they could not roll properly or execute their blows, they were given a choice, either to quit or [to] practice until they could master the art. To-day many drummers are given a drum to “practice” on after a couple of months. We keep our youngsters on a soft pad for a year at least and longer if necessary.xxxiv
Beating on a soft pad produces absolutely no rebound, thus requiring the student to fully control both the attack and the lift rather than rely upon the stick bouncing back up after its strike. The soft pad is what prepares the Moodus drummer to control both action and reaction of the stick with each blow. Loosely tensioned heads reverberate slowly, which necessarily slows the beat. So, the preferred Moodus cadence, then, hovers between 70 and 90 beats per minute.
In contrast, today’s Ancient drummers choose from a variety of drum styles and sizes, and they prefer a tighter bracing of the heads. Some Ancients continue to use natural skin, others prefer synthetic heads; even so, typical Ancient practice requires muffling by placing a strip of cloth beneath the batter head to modify its reverberation and eliminate an otherwise audible “ring.” The rolls are played open, much more so than in modern drumming but much less so than in the Moodus or Mattatuck style, and the sticks are controlled to effectively utilize rebound from the relatively tight batter head and response from tautly strung snares. The sticks themselves are thinner and lighter to accommodate the faster tempo, and the accents are more pronounced, requiring about 80% more effort than unaccented strokes. Tempo is generally 110, although ranges between 100-120 are not uncommon.
This stylistic divergence both caused and was caused by the changes that occurred in drum construction in the years following the demise of the old Brown shop. For example, in extant Brown drums the shells are constructed from a single wood ply. The later factory-made drum shells, however, utilized machined cross-grain laminates. Just how the laminate shells affect timbre and tone quality remains a matter of musical debate; historically, the more important effect was their ability to withstand increased tension. The tighter, more responsive heads thus produced enabled drummers to execute crisp rudiments without waiting for batter head and snare response; this in turn encouraged faster tempos and a different type of stick attack.
The demand for more tension and better control of it spurred further advances in drum-making technology. Laminate shells notwithstanding, the response of even the newer drums remained limited due to the natural substances that continued to comprise the majority of the instrument. The catgut snares, skin heads, and natural ropes found on the early drums will sag and stretch under pressure, necessitating frequent adjustments to remain in playing condition. Nor could they withstand the rigors of damp or humid weather. Homemade remedies were available for some of these problems, most notably cloth batter head mufflers, but in general these were shunned by traditionalists, who accepted ringing heads as inherent to the traditional style and found no reason to correct them. Accordingly, they rejected factory-promoted solutions that were more readily accepted by their fellow Ancients, such as changing the length of the shell or substituting metal for the traditional wood construction, because they found it difficult to play “Moodus style” on the new instruments. Certain other changes, however, were accepted as “improvements” and did find a market among the traditionalists in the Moodus and Mattatuck corps. These include a variety of snare-tensioning devices, some of which are found on later Brown drums and with which some earlier Brown drums were retrofitted. They continue to reject other modernizations, though, such as weather-resistant synthetic ropes, heads, and snares that were accepted long ago by other Ancients as advances in the developing plastics industries made them available. These changes in drum making, which occurred alongside evolutionary changes in fife construction, were heartily endorsed by instructors who had no military drumming background but who were professional percussionists. This served as a dual-pronged attack on the old Ancient repertory and inspired in fifers and well as drummers to respond in kind with modernized music and accompaniments played at increased tempos.xxxv
Eventually, and certainly by the 1930s, the evolution of Ancient drums and drumming had created its own ancestry in the old-fashioned ways that remained standard practice for the Moodus and Mattatuck drummers. In addition, both the Brown drum and the style of playing it were rapidly acquiring a legendary mystique that misidentified them as relics from the American Revolution. This heightened the demand for Brown drums and artificially inflated their prices. As late as 1960, newspapers described the “deep Revolutionary War type drums” used by the Moodus and Mattatuck drummers, made by “their crony Billy Brown,” and embellished earlier stories about how “crockery fell off the shelves” whenever these corps marched by.xxxvi Other stories magnified the intensity of this precursor to Ancient drumming, resulting in an even more powerful “Moodus thunder:”
. . .an old Higganum woman. . . always liked one of the band’s pieces, ‘Village Quickstep.’ One Friday night when the band was practicing in Moodus she heard her favorite piece played—eight miles away, and thereafter listened from the same spot each Friday night. Earlier in the history of the band the corps was giving a concert at the Middletown depot and the concert was heard at Lake Bashan, 19 miles away. xxxvii
Stories like these prevailed whereas primary research did not, and their repetition waxed poetic in the public memory. This is represented most notably by the larger-than-life “drummer-boy” monument erected in Bloomfield [CT] center during the Bicentennial of 1976, commemorating The ‘Brown Drum’ made in Bloomfield in the late 1700’s and carried by troops in the Revolutionary war,” which was further sanctified as the instrument “sound[ing] the call to arms in the struggle for liberty and justice against the shackles of tyranny.xxxviii
The fact that the continued evolution of Ancient-style drums was departing further from the Moodus/Brown model and thus threatening the existence of the original performance practices of Ancient drummers was recognized early on. At their second convention in 1887, the competitive Connecticut Fifers and Drummers Association established a specific class for Ancients that respected their slower tempo and unique repertory and judged them accordingly. Even so, it failed to attract as many contestants as did the variety of fife and drum; fife, drum and bugle; piccolo and drum, flute and drum, and even the “drums no fifes” categories offered by the Association. The absence of such prestigious Ancient corps as the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps from these events was glaringly obvious, even though the corps was a dues-paying member. This prompted the Association to direct a personal invitation to the Moodus corps for the 1889 convention,
“Mr. Edward Clark, Prest of the Asso~ wished me to write you and urge you to prevail upon Moodus to be with us this year[. I]n the large Bills I have inserted a line as an especial attraction Moodus will be there. I hope I have not stretched it in [so] saying. . .”
Although the writer, Major Allen of Allen Drum Corps, concluded with hopes “you will favor us with your presence this year,” it was to no avail; the newspapers reported the event in detail, noting the absence of the Moodus men. Major Allen went even further in 1891 in attempting to hire a Moodus contingent “in Continental uniform” to accompany the Commandery of the Loyal Legion on a two-day trip to Manchester, NH, which promised to be a “rattling good time.” Written on the letterhead of the Connecticut Fife and Drum Corps Association, of which he was secretary and treasurer, Allen added a postscript urging the Moodus men once more to attend to the Association, “. . . old Mattatuck has joined again & we want Moodus represented to make the Convention complete.” There is no indication how the corps responded, if at all, to this entreaty.xxxix
The dilemma was not confined to Connecticut. In New York, some complained that Ancient drumming was nothing more than “bang and bump,” a “strictly Connecticut style” that should remain confined within its borders. Others regretted that they did not hear enough Ancient music. J. Frank Martin, a drummer, was one of the former, fifer “Pop” Ripperger one of the latter. Both were members of the Charles T. Kirk Fife, Drum and Bugle Corps until Martin quit, disdaining his fellow drummers’ increasing fondness for Ancient playing (“it never fitted the music the Kirks played”).xl A fifer who appreciated Ancient drumming, Ripperger fumed at the proliferation of “modern” music that threatened the existence of the Ancient style, and he appreciated any opportunity of hearing (and participating in making) Ancient music. One such opportunity arose just prior to a contest in Beacon, NY in 1943, which ultimately proved disappointing; Pop described it in detail for a young GI serving in China. “There wasn’t a quickstep played all evening,” he complained; moreover, “one senior Amer. Legion corps tried to play ‘The Thunderer March’ by Sousa, and it sounded more like ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama.’” Despite the crackerjack corps present at the event, he was shocked by their lackluster performance. Again referring to “The Thunderer March,” Pop proclaimed he had “never heard it butchered up so badly, and if Mr. Sousa ever heard that he would turn over in his grave.” This was all the more distressing since Pop had spent the several preceding hours making grand music, Ancient-style:
. . .I had the old fife out and Dave Johnson’s brother. . .had a pair of drum sticks and a pad ready—and by the way, he was the Drum Major of the old 14th Regiment of Brooklyn for years and is a rudimental drummer—and for a man 69 years old you should see the way he handles the sticks. Well, I had to play the Duties, in fact the whole Reveille, not once but twice, and I think I played all the quicksteps, reel[s], jigs, etc that I knew. . . we hammered out the old tunes until after 6 o’clock xli
An examination of business records of the Moodus and Mattatuck corps suggests that the old-Ancient-versus-new-Ancient argument did not extend to the public at large. Over the years each corps acquired a long list of public performances, most of which commemorated historically significant events. Following its humble beginning “playing off soldiers from the train station” during the Civil War, Moodus took their Brown drums with them to New York City in 1883 to celebrate Evacuation Day and again in 1896 for the Sound Money Parade. One member recalled how they declined “lead[ing] the Newspapermen’s contingent” at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, even though the invitation was urgently telegraphed by Joseph Pulitzer himself, because “the notice was too short.” In 1891 they were in Bennington, VT for commemorative ceremonies that featured a review by President Harrison. They participated in several GAR reunions, including the mammoth convention and parade held in Boston (1890). At another GAR event held in Portland, ME, one newspaper reported the presence of the Moodus corps along with “several other bands attending this national gathering,” and the “keen rivalry [that] existed between each organization.” This prompted an incident of “bearing on,” from which only a skilled and enthusiastic Ancient drummer rightly equipped with a Brown drum could emerge triumphant:
It was considered great sport to attempt to drown out all other opposition bands or drum corps. The Moodus Corps were overwhelmingly victorious upon this occasion. It appears that the Portland Regimental Band was playing before General Headquarters as the Moodus Corps arrived and marched alongside of them. With their big powerful instruments the Moodus Corps were so dominant that the Portland Band was unable to hear themselves play.
The losers did not take their “derision and defeat” lightly. They protested with “one blast with their horns in the ears of the Moodus players” before breaking ranks.xlii
The Moodus men played for other momentous occasions, one such being the dedication of the Washington Monument on February 21, 1885. The weather that day was so cold that the brass band’s valve instruments froze, and by default the Moodus corps became the featured music at the outdoor event. Following that performance President Chester Arthur requested a personal White House concert, which the corps declined, fearing the effect of the drums’ reverberations upon delicate White House glassware. Ultimately the president’s wishes prevailed, albeit cautiously—he stationed an aide near the china in the East Room who was later purported to insist that during the concert “it actually swayed back and forth.”xliii
The Mattatuck Drum Band was in equal demand. Some of the men who would later become Mattatuck drummers saw service during the Civil War. At one point, their “bang and bump” Ancient drumming attracted the attention of a New York recruiter:
Early in 1862 Quartermaster George W. Roosevelt of the 71st Regt NY State Militia, then organizing, employed Col. H.C. Hart to organize the Regimental Drum Corps. Mr. Hart came to Connecticut looking for drummers and fifers, but met with little success, until one evening after he had arrived at Southington, and was sitting on the veranda of the hotel, chatting, when he heard drums in the distant. On inquiry he learned that it was the Wolcott Drum Band practicing on the center of town, six miles distant. He immediately hired a team and hastened to Wolcott. . . .xliv
Three Wolcott musicians were persuaded to leave for the war with Col. Hart, and the corps recruited more members as they traveled to New York. One of the Wolcott drummers, Henry Chatfield, was appointed leader and instructor. By the time they “. . . marched down Broadway leaving for the war, the Corps attracted much attention by their fine playing. They were attached to the Army of the Potomac, and it was said that the 71st Regt N.Y.S.M. has one of the best Drum Corps in the Army.” At one point during their service, their slow and thunderously distinctive Ancient drumming drew wry commentary from none other than Ulysses S. Grant himself. Chatfield told a friend about the incident, recalling it thusly,
When General Grant took command of the Army [at Petersburg] he reviewed all the troops. As he and his staff passed the 71st Regt. the Corps played Hail to the Chief. He paused in front of the players, and when they had finished he remarked, ‘Well, boys, I never heard such a hell of a racket from so few drums in my life.” He then passed on.xlv
Following formal organization of the Mattatuck Drum Band in November 1881, it compiled a remarkable list of appearances. Undaunted by an earlier gig in New York when the “concussions” of the drummers caused a plate glass window to shatter as they marched by, the corps returned to the city for the 1886 Independence Day parade. A drummer who was present that day likened their playing to “a shower of big firecrackers that were exploded in our ranks.” This excited the onlookers so much that “At times so much ticker tape was showered on us that it tangled in our sticks.”xlvi About 40 years later at yet another July 4th commemoration, the drum major described a more drastic effect of the drums upon an unlucky horse and rider:
We had been at parade rest for several minutes and at the time we were given the “forward march” command there was a girl on horse back just overtaking us – as is our practice, every drum, it beat on the cadence as we step[ped] off – Well, it is an absolute fact that when our 10 snares and 8 bass hit that first beat, the horse reared up on his hind legs and then dropped to the ground—dead.xlvii
Both Moodus and Mattatuck were in high demand within the state of Connecticut as well. They participated with other Ancient corps in the many centennial, bicentennial and even tercentennial events that dotted Connecticut’s city streets onward from the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps none so dramatic than on September 17, 1879, when Hartford hosted Connecticut’s Battle-Flag Day. A large procession was held as the state ceremoniously deposited the military flags and colors used during the Civil War in a newly prepared display at the State Capitol. A book of nearly 300 pages was just enough to describe the festivities and the parade, which included a variety of civic and veterans’ organizations along with many brass bands including the famous New York Seventh Regiment Band and Connecticut’s own Colt’s Armory Band. Several drum corps participated as well, only the more renowned identified by name. These included the Putnam Phalanx, a drum corps that was also a member of the legendary Centennial Legion, as well as the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps (15 pieces), which marched in the third division behind the Phalanx. They were followed shortly thereafter by the 22 Wolcott men, some of whom would soon become members of the Mattatuck Drum Band. That day the Moodus corps wore their new continental-style uniforms (probably obtained through friends in New Hampshire’s Amoskeag Veterans), and no doubt both the Moodus and Wolcott drummers carried their now famous Brown drums.xlviii
Today the Moodus and Mattatuck corps are active members of the Ancient community. Both are frequent participants at musters, the social event most associated with the Ancients, and both maintain an impressive practice and performance schedule. The Moodus and Mattatuck drums constitute two of the largest known collections of Brown drums, two others being those at the Museum of Fife and Drum in Ivoryton, Connecticut and the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
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