photograph from the Library of Congress
The truth about John Philip Sousa in the Adirondacks
Decades after I last played John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” on a trumpet, with its thrilling strains still echoing in my head, I was hungry for a good Sousa story. I found one in Alfred Donaldson’s two-volume A History of the Adirondacks, originally published by the Century Company in New York City in 1921.
In two sentences, Donaldson delivers a tale widely repeated by historians, guides and yarn-spinners ever since. Of the maiden voyage of the steamboat Water Lily, based at Martin’s Hotel on Lower Saranac Lake, he wrote, “The first official trip of the Water Lily was made on July 4, 1878. She had on board Sousa’s Band—which was playing at ‘Martin’s’ that summer—and people came from miles around ….”
Icing the cake, Donaldson adds, “On pleasant evenings … [the Water Lily] was frequently chartered, with the band, for excursions on the lake.”
Imagine that! Cruising the luminous green waters of Lower Saranac Lake on a delicious summer evening in 1878, with the world-famous composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa and his band on deck beside you. It sounds too good to be true.
And it is. Problems with Donaldson’s tale be-came clear after videographer Josh Clement and I produced a piece about Bartlett Carry, a historic nexus between Upper and Middle Saranac Lakes, for our documentary series Curiously Adirondack. In that production, we re-told Donaldson’s story and, to illustrate, included photos of the Water Lily and Sousa himself. Yet I had qualms: 1878 seemed too early in the life of Sousa (born in Washington DC in 1854) for him to have had a band of his own, let alone to have achieved fame. And surviving photos of the steamboat show a vessel looking too small to accommodate a brass band along with passengers. And there were words spoken by an old friend, the late Barbara Parnass, local scholar and volunteer in the Adirondack Research Room at the Saranac Lake Free Library, also echoing in my head. Parnass once told me succinctly, “Never trust Donaldson.” She felt that the banker who came to Saranac Lake to be cured of tuberculosis and reinvented himself as a historian had a hard time differentiating good stories from actual history.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised when professional musician and Sousa historian Jari Villanueva, of Philadelphia, left a comment about our video on YouTube. “Greetings,” Villanueva be–gan. “John Philip Sousa would have been 23 years [old] on July 4, 1878 and he was in Philadelphia for most of the year working for an opera company. 1878 would have been 2 years before he became leader of the US Marine Band and 14 [years] before he started his own civilian band. What kind of record do you have for Sousa and his Band playing there in 1878? Thanks!!!”
Villanueva and I enjoyed some cordial back-and-forth by email. He was eager to let Saranac Lake down gently, sensitive to the fact that our small, proud Adirondack town might cherish its Sousa connection and be disappointed to learn it was bogus. Like any good historian, Villanueva didn’t expect me to rely on his words only. He suggested I get in touch with distinguished musicologist and Sousa historian Loras Schissel at the Library of Congress.
Schissel was helpful, too. Sousa, he said, was performing that year as a violinist in Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theatre under the direction of J. F. Zimmerman. Summer was the off-season. Young Sousa spent it far from the Adirondack Mountains, Schissel said, playing violin with the Hassler Brothers orchestra at a resort hotel in Cape May, New Jersey. “Sousa did not form his own band until 1892,” he wrote. “Until he became conductor of the U.S. Marine Band in 1880, there is no evidence that he ever conducted a band, much less had his own. [In 1878 Sousa] was exclusively a violinist.”
Villanueva, Schissel and the basic outlines of Sousa’s life convinced me that if there was a band playing on the deck of the Water Lily during the summer of 1878, it wasn’t Sousa’s.
In pursuit of the factual basis, if any, of Donaldson’s story, I rum—-maged in his files, which he be–queathed to the Saranac Lake Free Library. They reside in the library’s Adirondack Research Room. Curator Michele Tucker kindly hauled out the boxes and set me loose. A couple of days of digging turned up nothing of note. Donaldson’s story seemed to derive from an article published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise on July 23, 1914—the author of which was Donaldson himself. It includes almost verbatim the Sousa story that Donaldson included in his book.
Among the vast correspondence in Donaldson’s files, a sentence in a letter he penned to Lake Placid hotelier George Stevens caught my eye. It was dated May 22, 1918. Donaldson wrote, “I am naturally pleased to find that you discovered so little to change in my chapter and that I may, therefore, be considered to have my dates and facts about Lake Placid fairly correct.” Donaldson’s satisfaction with being “fairly correct” may be illuminating. In the introduction to his book, he concedes that much of it is based “on oral tradition only; and, as memory often plays tricks both with the teller and the told, it is not improbable that errors of fact will be discovered.”
My research into Sousa’s Adirondack connections wasn’t entirely fruitless. While our most widely repeated Sousa story is demonstrably false, an even better story turns out to be true. The proof is filed away in Washington DC, in the Sousa collection at the Library of Congress.
Jari Villanueva gave me the scoop, and Loras Schissel supplied the final, clinching detail. According to Villa-nueva, Sousa’s march “The Fairest of the Fair,” the only new work the March King produced that year, was composed for a debut performance September 28, 1908, at the annual Boston Food Fair. The genesis of the title is uncertain. Music historians have speculated that the march was inspired by a pretty young woman Sousa had seen at the fair in a previous year. For those keenly interested in Sousa’s place in Adirondack history, the most interesting detail appears in Sousa’s hand on the back of the original score, archived at the Library of Congress. Loras Schissel helped me track it down. The last page bears these words:
“John Philip Sousa, Camp Comfort, Saranac Lake, Adirondack, New York, July 8, 1908.”
So while Sousa may not have played on the Water Lily in 1878, he did something far more important 30 years later. He completed the writing of a march here. “The Fairest of the Fair” is not one of Sousa’s most famous, but it has all the hallmarks—including stirring strains of melody that showcase a band’s full range and make the listener’s spirits soar—that made the composer famous the world over.
Where is, or was, Sousa’s Camp Comfort? The question, to date, re-fuses to yield an answer. There was a building at Brandreth Park, near Long Lake, known as Camp Comfort until its name was changed in 1943 to Trophy Lodge. Yet the location seems wrong. It’s possible that the name was generic, perhaps even used playfully by Sousa for a cabin he rented. It’s also possible that among the hundreds of Adirondack camps on the Saranacs in the early 20th century, there was one called Camp Comfort that’s vanished into the maw of time.
Schissel makes clear that Sousa and a band did not perform in Saranac Lake on a boat or anywhere else in 1908. His band, according to Schissel, “did not play from March 3rd until August 13th, when he began an engagement at Willow Grove [Pennsylvania].” It turns out that aside from completing “The Fairest of the Fair” in Saranac Lake, Sousa spent much of that year trapshooting his way around the United States. Trapshooting is a peculiar sport that began with the slaughtering of passenger pigeons for amusement. When all the pigeons were gone, it reinvented itself to involve the shooting of flying terra cotta targets. These are called, with much irony and no discernible shame, “clay pigeons.”
Sousa enjoyed the Adirondacks. He came back at least once and perhaps several times. His best documented visit came in 1923. In that year he was photographed on the street during a visit to Saranac Lake, while over in Lake Placid, he staged two concerts in the Agora Theater at the Lake Placid Club. In 1953, columnist Eddie Vogt recollected in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise about hearing Sousa perform twice at Saranac Lake’s Pontiac Theater, where he “pretty nearly blew the place apart.”
The date of the Lake Placid Club concerts, one at three p.m. and the other at 8:30, was July 28, 1923. Adirondack Experience, the museum in Blue Mountain Lake, has an original program in its files. The Lake Placid Library, holder of extensive Lake Placid Club records, has the original booking. The signatories on the contract are club founder Melvil Dewey and Harry Askin, Sousa’s manager. Sousa and his band worked for “seventy-five (75%) of the gross receipts.”
As it happens, George G. Hart (1916–2013), a longtime physician in Lake Placid and father of Lake Placid’s Nancy Beattie, attended one of those performances when he was a boy. “He said it 25 times if he said it once,” Beattie told me, “that Sousa had a big influence on him as a result of his being there that day.” Beattie recalled that her father, who lived to be 97, developed a lifelong love of music, with a special fondness for band music and marches. He took up the French horn and the violin, and played them—“just for fun”—throughout his long life.
So while John Philip Sousa and his band did not exist in 1878 in the way the public came to know them toward the end of the century, and they could not have been playing on the Water Lily in 1878, they did come to the Adirondacks later. Sousa imparted a passion for music to at least one child and finished composing a march here that will ring down through the ages. It’s a good enough story for me.