Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Covington's Musical Heritage - 1890

The musical heritage of Covington, as it developed over 129 years ago, was influenced by many factors, not the least of which were the musical preferences of the crowds of hundreds of summer visitors who came over from New Orleans. Boats from New Orleans would come up the Bogue Falaya River and tie up at Columbia Landing. 

 Only the smaller boats could make it as far as Columbia Landing, however, the steamer Camilia would tie up at Old Landing. Thousands of visitors would arrive by boat, and often the bands from New Orleans would play on the boat, and then disembark and play at Covington area venues.

Excursion boats from New Orleans to Covington usually ran on Sundays, with many of the passengers spending the night at the Southern Hotel and enjoying the ballroom and parlor where they could dance until it was time to go back across the lake. 

In a book written in the mid-1980's,  Dr. Karl Koenig outlined the musical heritage of towns around Lake Pontchartrain. He noted that "social affairs were first limited to small soirees and outdoor activities, such as picnics, swims  and  hayrides.  The  dances  were  more  of family/friend  gatherings  than  commercial  endeavors,  with  the  music  furnished  by  small local groups or solo pianists." 

There were also "ice cream socials" among neighbors. Those gatherings were often called "Soirees," and the evening's agenda would include music and dancing, a joyful atmosphere, and anything else that could "add  to  the  pleasure  and comfort of those present." (Nov. 23, 1878-St. Tammany Farmer.) 

According to an article in the January 4, 1897, issue of the Farmer, a social 'hop' took place at the residence of Mr. J. C. Barelli, and it featured a few waltzes and reels, and 3 or 4 "tuckers" The younger folks liked to dance and were "still  tripping  the  light  fantastic" late into the night.

Dr. Koenig noted that as  far  back  as  1879,  steamers  were  crossing  the  lake  from  West  End  and  other southern  locations  on  Lake  Pontchartrain  bringing  excursionists  to  the  North  Shore.  "At this time there were at least six large steamers cruising the lake, bringing as many as two thousand people on the weekends," he stated in his book. 

According to a Farmer article dated July 5, 1879, "Next  Sunday  six  steamers  will  cross  the  lake  with  excursions  for Mandeville,  Madisonville  and  Covington,  being  the  New  Camelia,  Abita, Alice,  Georgia  Muncy,  Heroine  and  Henry  Wright  -  thought  that  these steamers will bring over no less than 2000 persons."

Mardi Gras was grandly celebrated in Covington from the very early days, and music always accompanied the parades, the balls, and whatever other gaily-attended event was on the Carnival schedule.  In 1880, the paper reported that a Grand  carnival   procession   to the courthouse was held where a grand masquerade and fancy dress ball was given in honor of the occasion. The music for the carnival ball was supplied by the Johnson family band that rode on  the  plantation  tableau  float.  

Dr. Koenig goes on to explain how in  many  towns  of  Louisiana,  the  fire  department  was  a  very  important  part  of  the town. "It was voluntary and funds were raised by having special activities such as socials, dances and fairs. In order to raise money to buy a new fire engine the town of Covington gave  a  ball  for  which  it  hired  a  band  from  New  Orleans  (the Pelican  Brass  and  String Band.) 

The Farmer's article about the event said that the fireman's ball continued all night, with people dancing until the sun came up. 

As the population of the North shore increased the need for larger gathering places became necessary, and talk of building a town hall and a hall for dancing began to appear in the paper: "Entertainment at courthouse for benefit of a town hall - followed by a dance  hall  needed  with  ample  stage  room  and  seating  for  at  least  500." (May 26, 1883) 

Almost every event of any kind ended with a dance. An entertainment at the Episcopal  church  showed evidence of the need for the formation of local musical groups, the newspaper said. The group that was to play this dance failed to show up and several young men of the community volunteered their services and played music for the dance. (Feb. 3, 1883.) 

Dr. Koenig explained that during  this  era,  bands  that  played  for  dancing  were  usually  called  'string  bands'  and  varied  in  size  from  two  to  five  or  six  musicians.  The  larger  brass  bands  would play for the larger dances and affairs that could afford them, such affairs usually were held in larger halls or outdoors. The Farmer often mentioned various affairs using smaller string bands.

One string band mentioned above consisted only of a violin and harp, and the group's fee was $1.25. (Sept. 29, 1883.) 

"The  first  mention  of  a  local  band  was  on  August  18,  1883," Dr. Koenig stated. His research revealed that a  Covington  string band  played  a  serenade  for  the  editor  of  the  paper,  a  typical musical  practice  during  this  era  to give exposure to the band, with a resulting item in the next issue: "The  band  was  out  serenading  again  this  week.  They  have  our  thanks for musical favors rendered." (Aug. 18, 1883.) 

The  North  Shore  became  an  exciting  place  to  live  for  not  only  did  the  citizens have  their  private  social  affairs,  but  on  the  weekends  the  area  was  inundated  with excursionists, Dr. Koenig went on to say. He quotes the Farmer as saying  "there were 1500 excursionists and two brass bands from New Orleans at Slidell last Sunday." (June 27, 1883) 

Music troupes would even be hired to play for dances held in connection with the launching of ships built in Madisonville, and there were quite a few of those launchings back in those days.

"Besides  the  lakeside  hotels  in  Mandeville  and  the  local  downtown  hotels  in Covington, there were resorts scattered in the nearby countryside. One such place was the Blueberry Grove Hotel, set in a scenic grove close enough to Covington to enable free transportation from Covington," he said.

 A weekly advertisement appeared in each issue: "Grand  masquerade  and  fancy  ball  at  Mulberry  Grove  Hotel.  Free conveyance  will  be  furnished  from  Covington  to Mulberry Grove." (Nov. 19, 1887.) Mulberry Grove Road is located off Lee Road, just before the turn off to Playmakers Theater Road

"Train excursions were as popular and as much used as the steamers on the lake. Another   popular   place   for   social   gatherings   was   the Claiborne   Hotel in Covington.  Most of the hotels used their dining rooms after dinner for dancing. It was a picturesque atmosphere, right out of the 'Gay Nineties.'  Here is a description: "Claiborne  Hotel  -  Sweet  strains  of  music  floated  out  from  the  large dining  hall,  summoning  the  numerous  couples  of  promenades. "

Bands and orchestras featured elegant names. One group calling itself the Orpheon Francais Orchestra presented a concert in Covington on September 13, 1890, with the purpose of raising funds to build a new Catholic Church in Covington. 

The program included both vocal and instrumental music by "some of the most talented amateurs" in the parish. "The  present church edifice is in a very dilapidated condition and beyond repair, and the ladies have concluded that the time has come to build a new one, in order to keep pace with the spirit of improvement visible on all sides," according to the current St. Tammany Farmer article.

Dr. Koenig found repeated notices of "social entertainment" throughout the  year  1890, both  at  private homes ( such as the Bossier House) and the commercial hotels (such as the Frappart and Crescent Hotels), as well as the excursion boats (such as the New Camelia.) A number of dance halls and outdoor pavilions were the scene of dances, also, such as Paul's Exchange.

The "Can't  Get  Away  Club  of  Mandeville  gave  its grand  annual  ball  at residence of Mr. Robert Cooper, according to a February 8, 1890, article, and the ""Washington Artillery is coming to Mandeville and will be accompanied by a brass band," reported another article in August of that same year.

New Town Hall Celebrated

Dr. Koenig explained that the  town  was  in  need  of  a  large  hall  for  community  activities  as  well  as government business. The answer was to build a new Town Hall that was completed and dedicated on August 25, 1890. 

An account of this evening, a typical evening of this era, included the stylist entertainments of the late 19th Century in a small town of Louisiana. This entertainment and dance that followed would be the setting for the evolution of the new ragtime craze and the soon to follow "jazz age" dances.

Approximately $500 was raised in the event that was billed as an Oration, Festival and Ball. The newspaper said that the date of August 25, 1890, "will  forever  hold  a  bright and  prominent  place  in  the  history  of  Covington,  for  on  that  night  our  new  and handsome Town Hall building was dedicated to the uses of the public. 

This event had  been  looked  forward  to  with  fond  anticipation  by  young  and  old,  and  its occurrence fully came up to their brightest expectations. Shortly after the doors were opened the auditorium began to fill up, and soon the hundreds of seats were occupied. "

Mayor  Guyol introduced  attorney  Chas.  B.  Stafford of  New Orleans, who proceeded to deliver a "most  eloquent  and  interesting  address,  referring  to  the past  history,  present  prosperous  condition,  and  bright  future  in  store  for  our beautiful little town. He proved himself an orator of considerable ability, and was listened  to  throughout  with  marked  attention.  He  paid  a  fitting  tribute  to  our charming  town  and  parish,  fine  scenery,  healthy  climate  and  energetic  and hospitable  people,  and  complimented  our  honorable  Mayor  and  Alderman  for having succeeded in erecting such a handsome edifice, which he predicted would mark a new era of prosperity for our town and parish," the news item recounted.

Music followed the oration, of course, and included a piano solo, fancy dance, a solo performance, a "Japanese dance and tableau (in costume), another solo (with chorus), a "comic dance," another piano solo, a tableau depicting "Pygmalion and Galatea," orchestra music, another tableau (this one called "Faith, Hope and Charity"), and a final number by the orchestra called "Home Sweet Home." 

With a program like that, one can see that early Covington did indeed enjoy memorable singing, music playing, and stage theatrics that  came to be the foundation of what is available today.

See also:

Strike Up The Band