Music in the early days of McCook

Monday, October 26, 2015
The Burlington Band, Col. H.P. Sutton, Conductor

McCook has always had an interest in good music. This interest is alive and well today in our fine high school band, the community concert series, fine church choirs, the "Live at the Bieroc" music series, as well as other musical events at the Fox, the auditorium, the lake, and other venues around town. The spring musical, brought to us by the community theater group, is a popular event and well attended.

In the past, the college has had fine band and choral programs, which were taken to surrounding towns as recruiting tools. For many years the Matinee Music Club offered community women a chance to continue their musical talents.

And always, we have had much appreciated bands, dance bands, and bands at the high school and college level, as well as community bands, and business sponsored bands, with a succession of outstanding leaders. This love affair with bands in McCook began in November 1882, a bare four months after McCook became a community.

Col. H.P. Sutton

In November 1882, the first McCook town band was organized. Eleven young men, musically inclined, contributed from their own funds to buy instruments. They met to practice several times a week, in a building owned by the Lincoln Land Co., whose officials wholeheartedly encouraged their efforts. This little group called themselves the McCook Light Guard Band, though as far as we know they had no connection with any military organization.

After just three weeks of practice the group made its first public appearance. The bandsmen chose to "serenade" J.R. Phelan, the Burlington and Missouri roadmaster.

Their appearance at the Phelan residence must not have been a surprise, because after their little concert they were invited into the Phelan home, where they were greeted by a table, loaded with cake, fruit, and cider. For some time after that, every two weeks they "serenaded" some prominent citizen with their music and afterwards were invited into the house and entertained in similar style. These after music parties must have been cozy affairs because in 1882 most, if not all, houses in McCook were very modest (small) structures.

In the 1890s the McCook band, known as the "Nebraska Brigade Band." was recognized not only in Nebraska, but in neighboring states as an excellent musical organization. Members from this band formed the nucleus for perhaps the most outstanding McCook band, and certainly the most well-known and praised band of the early days -- the Chicago Burlington and Quincy railroad Band. Harvey P. Sutton served as the Band Master of this group from 1889 to 1924.

This band played engagements at the Nebraska State Fair in the 1890s, and played at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha in 1888-1889. They took first place in the Denver Festival of Mountain and Plains in 1887, with their rendition of Rossini's "Semiramide."

The Burlington railroad spared no expense in outfitting the 28 members of the group with high boots, red jackets, white duck pants, and white helmets with scarlet plumes. Needless to say, the Burlington Band was in great demand to play at local Fairs and Festivals at locations along the Burlington Route, from Chicago to Denver.

Harvey P. Sutton established McCook's first Jewelry store, in 1889, a business, which his son, Harold Sutton continued into the late 1960s. The Sutton business building, in the 200 block of Norris Avenue is now a part of the McCook National Bank building. A reminder of that business, a large clock, stands at the library wing of the High Plains Museum on Norris Avenue.

Sutton's Jewelry was an official testing station for railroad watches for the Burlington railroad. Besides diamonds and watches, Mr. Sutton also sold bicycles and band instruments. On the mezzanine of the jewelry store was the location of McCook's first radio station.

But as important as the Jewelry Store was to McCook, H.P. Sutton was even better known as McCook's No. 1 band man. It was because of Sutton's musical talents that he was brought to McCook in the first place.

Harvey was born in 1860, in Naples, New York. While still in his teens, he joined a circus band and toured the United States as a member of that group. While touring Nebraska he became very ill at Ainsworth, Nebraska.

He was forced to leave the circus band temporarily. During his convalescence he met and married his wife, in 1886. Together they made the decision that he would leave the circus permanently and "get a real job"--his first jewelry store.

In 1889 The Burlington Railroad was in the process of organizing a band, to be made up of railroad employees. Though at that time Harvey was in the Jewelry business in Ainsworth, he had not gotten music out of his system, so when the Burlington officials contacted him about the job in McCook he was very willing to listen. Harvey's son, Harold told a story about his father's first visit to McCook. The interview with the railroad went well. Sutton was assured that jobs with the railroad would be provided for enough good bandsmen to make up a top-notch band.

Harvey met with a number of railroad V.I.P.s that day, men who were eager to show him the town and to meet with leading townspeople (at downtown saloons). The trouble was that it was springtime, the saloons were all featuring Bock Beer, and there were a lot of saloons to visit -- too many. By the time Harvey was scheduled to return to Ainsworth he was "completely befuddled, worn, and tired." Boarding his train to Ainsworth, he concluded. McCook was too fast a town, for "even a circus man like him." He decided to stay put in Ainsworth.

This was not to be, however. The telegraph lines were hot from the messages from the Burlington officials, and a delegation even called upon him in Ainsworth, urging him to reconsider his decision. Finally, H.P. succumbed to their arguments and agreed to move to McCook -- but it was extremely hard to forget all that Bock Beer.

H.P. Sutton and McCook seemed to be made for one another. Over the next 25 years "Col." Sutton conducted the Burlington band. He built up that organization into one of the finest, and most popular bands in the Midwest. The band regularly performed in concerts and in parades in cities and towns situated along the Burlington Line from Chicago to Denver.

Mr. Sutton was not just involved with the Burlington Band. He was instrumental in establishing a band in McCook High School. In 1909 McCook High boasted a band of some 26 young men -- only men were eligible. By 1915, though, MHS also laid claim to a school orchestra of 15 instruments, of which three of the players were young ladies.

Harvey Sutton had many interests, aside from his business and the Burlington Band. He was an avid sportsman. As a young man he played on one or another of the city's many baseball teams. His lifelong interest in the sports took him to a great many games, often to Chicago with Railroader Harry Culbertson to watch the Chicago Cubs. During World War II he never missed an airbase team game. He could always be found sitting with the airbase band.

Hunting and fishing were two other of H.P. Sutton's avid interests. It became a tradition for Sutton and some of his cronies to take a fishing excursion on Sutton's birthday.

This string of fishing trips was finally broken in 1945, when he was 85 years old. Sutton was still eager to take the trip, but was unable to find any of his old fishing buddies who were in good enough shape to make the trip with him.

In 1945 Mr. Sutton had been retired from leading a band for many years. But that year Mr. (Pop) Kelly, the leader of the McCook High School Band, prevailed upon the "Father of McCook Bands" to pick up the baton one more time. He conducted the McCook band in a concert arrangement of one of the Burlington Band's old favorites, Rossini's "Semiramide" to thunderous applause of thanks, from a full house of concertgoers.

Source: Marion McClelland's Early History of McCook, Gazette Centennial Edition 1882-1982

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