Ancient History Unraveled, Part 1: Phototour of a Connecticut Tradition


One of the many fife instruction books published in London. Ca. 1786. Author’s Collection

The history of ancient fife and drum corps is deeply rooted in the military musical practices of the eighteenth century.  At this time, the American army followed British custom and assigned one or two drummers and fifers to each company of men.  The music they played was functional and included signals that regulated the soldiers’ workday in camp and their movements on the battlefield.  While on the march, music established and regulated the cadence, thus promoting the orderly (and predictable) movement of large groups of men.  The merry and patriotic airs of the fife also boosted morale during times of discouragement.  Some of this music, especially the camp duties, was available in printed instruction books, called “tutors” (above). Most of the marches, however, were simply borrowed from the existing repertory of popular song, dance, and theater tunes.  The portion of this music that survived the ensuing 200+ years forms the core of a fluid and, until relatively recently, somewhat aural repertory that we now know as “ancient.”

On the back of this card (1878) is an advertisement for laundry soap. Author’s Collection.

This is one of the thousands of chromolithographs reproduced from the painting by Ohio artist Archibald M. Willard.  He captured the essence of homegrown patriotism in this depiction of a Fourth of July celebration.  He positioned his father, a long-time friend, and a cadet from Cleveland’s Brooks School as models for what was originally a humorous piece called “Yankee Doodle.”  The title was changed to “Spirit of ’76” at the behest of J. F. Ryder, a local photographer and art dealer, and a revised painting, newly captioned and now serious, was exhibited in the Centennial Exposition in 1876.  The original “Spirit of ’76” hangs in Abbott Public Library in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Moodus’ “Spirit of ’76” with the Chester Fife and Drum Corps in Washington D.C., 1951. Author’s Collection.

Beginning in 1914, a contingent from the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps began portraying the “Spirit of ’76” at field days and conventions and later at musters and parades. This photo (above) shows Walter Golet, Pete Mietzner, and John Golet towards the end of their career, when Mietzner’s ill health forced The Spirit of ’76 into retirement.  The tradition they established is sporadically re-created by other ancients today.

The Moodus men marched in street clothes until they could afford their first uniforms, pictured here. Courtesy The Company of Fifers and Drummers.

The success of “Spirit of ’76” capitalized on the public’s fondness for old-style fife and drum corps which by that time had become firmly established.  Fifes and drums were no longer confined to the military—in fact, changes in tactics and technology were gradually disinheriting these instruments from the field and camp.  Simultaneous with their military demise, however, was an increasing trend towards formation of civilian fife and drum bands. The ones that stuck to the old-fashioned tunes and tempos were called “ancient” by their more modern counterparts.  Above, we see the Moodus Drum and Fife Corps shortly after its inception ca. 1860.  Their band-style uniformsare typical of the period, but not what we would now consider “ancient.”

The Continental uniform set the standard for CT Valley Ancient corps. Author’s Collection.

By 1879, the corps had acquired a new uniform closely following the pattern worn by their Revolutionary forefathers.   This “Continental” style, shown here a decade later, was admired by Connecticut’s ancient community, and corps in the Valley Shore as well as others in Plainville, New Haven, Branford, and Waterbury, eventually abandoned their contemporary uniforms in favor of continentals.

Moodus, 2009. Author’s Collection.

The Moodus corps continues to thrive today, still wearing Continentals and still playing on the antique drums inherited from its founders.

Dan Silliman, a local factory owner, recruited his brother for the fife line. Author’s collection.

In 1868, the Chester Fife and Drum Corps was started under the leadership of local businessman Dan Silliman.  Silliman, the bearded gentleman in the top hat, was reportedly taught to drum by a freed slave.  His fellow corpsmen are wearing straw hats cocked to resemble the Revolutionary War soldier’s “tricorn.”

Detail from larger photo. Author’s Collection.

“When the parade starts, the bass drum weighs about 15 lbs, but by the end it weighs 50.” –Personal Experience of the Author (image from my collection).

About twenty years later, the Chester corps chose band-style regalia as their second uniform (above ).  Chester wore the Continental uniform for decades, but their current uniform is a sleeveless tunic, which is much more conductive to hot Fourth of July parades and summertime musters.

Real photo postcard, ca. 1906.  Google Images.

Real photo postcard, ca. 1906. Google Images.

Other valley towns soon sported their own ancient-style corps, such as this one in Deep River (founded in 1878, above).  This corps, too,  is still going strong, 133 years later.

The Westbrook corps posing in front the town library. Author’s Collection

The Westbrook Drum Corps, founded 1910 (above), also continues the Ancient tradition today (below).

The Westbrook corps hosts an annual muster, well attended by corps within and beyond CT. Author’s collection.

From a real photo postcard. Author’s Collection

Other ancient corps, however,  disbanded long ago, such as this one from Killingworth (shown here c. 1897).

Stuart Stack, a champion bass drummer. From, accessed February 12, 2011.

The ancient style soon spread outside the Valley into other areas of CT.  Wallingford, a New Haven suburb, remains home to the Yalesville Fife and Drum Corps (founded 1883)  Shown here in 1912 (above) and 1998 .

Smith also played the bass drum for Wallingford’s National Band. Courtesy Wallingford Historical Society.

Connecticut was a product of its time, and the white male domination of society at large also extended, unfortunately, to the Ancient community.  The only way women, children, or blacks could participate in the hobby was to make their own corps.   Tony Smith, a local drummer and former soldier with the 54th Colored Troops, did just that in 1872.  He called his corps the Wallingford Dred-Nots.

Bolden’s Drum Corps, ca. 1906. Author’s collection.

It took about 30 years for another black corps, Bolden’s of Hartford, to break through the color barrier by participating in contests and exhibitions, even though George L. Bolden (thought to be the seated gentleman, center) had served on the executive committee of the Connecticut Fifers and Drummers Association shortly after its inception in 1885.  (Corps for women and children were not commonplace until the early 1920s.)

Today the Mattatuck corps is one of CT’s largest. Author’s Collection

In 1881, “Charlie”  Miller formed a new drum corps, the Mattatuck Drum Band, in Waterbury, CT.   Miller was its leader, both figuratively and literally, for many years. The corps is shown above at rehearsal ca.1915.

Courtesy of the Mattatuck Drum Band.

In this 1922 photo, Miller (far right) posed with Arthur Harrison (far left) and 7 surviving members of the old Wolcott Drum Band.  Both Harrison and Miller are wearing the Continentals that had become the standard Mattatuck uniform.   One Moodus old-timer recalled in 1973 how the Mattatucks acquired them:

Some leader [of the Mattatucks, probably Charles Miller himself]. . . came to see Dr. U. S. Cook, drum major for the Moodus Corps and wanted to borrow one of their new uniforms. . . . Dr. Cook was reluctant to let him have it, so he thought if he asked him for a deposit of $50.00, this man would refuse. But evidently he came prepared and immediately “peeled off” the bills and gave the deposit.

They must have desperately wanted those uniforms, because we are further told that “$50.00 those days was a lot of money. . . ”

The corps performing at the Deep River Muster, ca. 1960. Author’s Collection

Led by long-time drum major Billy Pierpont, Waterbury’s Mattatuck Drum Band today is a welcome sight at parades and musters.

The Nathan Hale Ancient Fifes and Drums are also known as the 19th Regiment of Foot. Author’s Collection

A musical trend closely allied to the ancients is the re-enactment group.  Whereas ancients carry on a tradition of mixed historical significance that endorses no specific time period, reenactors instead choose a precise pinpoint in time and strive to re-create its associated military sights and sounds.  Fifing and drumming, an integral part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century armies, are generally included in their portrayal.  There are some ancient corps who  share a focused musical interest with reenactors and have thus developed an image and repertory that fit in nicely with both worlds.  For example, the Nathan Hale Ancient Fifes and Drums (above, unidentified newspaper clipping, c. 1998) portray the Revolutionary War soldier of 1775,

Marching on the Fourth of July 2010, Irondequoit, NY. Author’s Collection.

while the the Excelsior Brigade of Rochester, NY wear authentically crafted uniforms of the Union Civil War soldier.

From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1860. Author’s Collection

Re-enacting is not a modern concept.  What might be called Connecticut’s first reenactment group was the Putnam Phalanx, an independent military unit founded in 1858 to “perpetuate the memories, customs and traditions of the American Revolution…” They did this admirably for many years, traveling throughout the eastern United States (and sometimes Europe) in re-created Revolutionary War dress.  Their appearance was augmented by the period drill of its soldiery and the old-fashioned music supplied by their similarly-outfitted drum corps. They attracted large audiences and much newspaper coverage wherever they went.  One of their drummers, Samuel Wilcox, had a connection with the early Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, having taught its founder, Hezekiah Percival, how to drum back in 1821.

Copyright 2011, HistoryOfTheAncientsDotOrg.  All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “Ancient History Unraveled, Part 1: Phototour of a Connecticut Tradition

  1. I have transcribed the journals of my great grandfather Charles Somers Miller, which contain much information on the Mattatuck Fife and Drum Corps. I also have several pictures. Let me know if you are interested.
    Bob Kraft (

    • Years ago when the journals were first transcribed (and the Internet not quite as advanced as it is today)I feared they would someday be withdrawn from the web, so I copied those journals and printed them out. They fill four 3″ binders and remain on my library shelves today 😉

      I would love to see what pictures you have! I have some but not nearly enough.

      “Charlie” Miller was a vital member of the Mattatucks and great friends with the late Korczak Ziolkowski, known by some in CT as the founder of the Noah Webster Fife and Drum Corps (West Hartford) but known by all worldwide as the sculptor of the Crazy Horse Monument. Ziolkowski presented a bronze bust to his friend on his 84th birthday (I have a picture of that presentation), which I remember seeing in the Mattatuck clubhouse some years ago. A couple of years eaarlier, the Mattatucks had played for the sculptor for the dedication of Ziolkowski’s marble statue of Webster in West Hartford, which certainly livened up the event.

      What a pair they must have been! “Uncle Charlie” would travel once a week from his home in Waterbury to help teach the drummers in the fledgling Noah Webster corps. Now, that’s dedication, especially when going 25 MPH was “speeding.” So traveling those 30 miles took him an hour-and-a-half (each way). . .an hour-and-a-quarter if he wanted to risk getting a ticket! 😉

      Thank you for your interest in this blog, Mr. Kraft, and I hope to hear from you again, soon.

  2. I was amazed at what I read about the history. I was a member of the mattatucks for about 30 years before moving to Fl. My dad ( Charlie) was a life time member joining in 1935 playing with the band for over 60 years. I was glad to read the history of all corps. It was amazing as to read this. I look forward and fortunate to be able to go to Waterbury Ct for the 250 anniversary of this marvelous band. Thank you for publishing this.

  3. what year is the photo with this inscription? ‘Smith also played the bass drum for Wallingford’s National Band. Courtesy Wallingford Historical Society.’ which is right above the bolden photo. thank you

    • I do not know the date of this image. I would not be surprised to find it was done shortly after their founding in 1872. However, it was quite common for corps to commemorate important events, such as getting new uniforms or winning contests, with a formal portrait, so it could have been done at just about any time during their career.

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