An overlooked anniversary for our high school band

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

During a visit to the new Music Man Square in Mason City last month, I became aware of four significant dates involved with this place dedicated to the memory of the famous Iowa musician and composer, Meredith Willson.

First, the centennial of his birth in the family home next to the Music Man Square was observed last Saturday, Willson was born on May 18, 1902, a hundred years ago.

Second, the nearly block-long streetscape inside the Music Man Square building is based on the movie-like concept of River City (Mason City) as it was in 1912. That’s supposed to be the year the events depicted in the musical and film, &uot;The Music Man,&uot; took place.

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One of the most unusual features of this streetscape is the wood block pavement (or flooring) inside the building. This and the replica of a brick sidewalk is intended to reflect the way it was on Mason City’s

main streets 90 years ago.

Third, this year is the 40th anniversary of the world premiere of the film, &uot;The Music Man,&uot; in Mason City.

However, it was the fourth significant anniversary mentioned by our tour guide which really drew my attention. She said this year is the 75th anniversary for the Mason City High School Band. With a little quick math, that means their band started in 1927. By that same year the Albert Lea High School Band had already been in existence for 15 years.

What I’m leading up to is the fact that this is the 90th anniversary of Minnesota’s very first high school band right here in Albert Lea!

This claim to fame is based in part on a statement made on page 43 of the AH LA HA SA yearbook issued in 1913. I also checked with the Minnesota Historical Society and they verified the fact that no other high school band was operating in the state prior to the fall of 1912.

There may have been informal musical groups of students elsewhere in the state. However, it was the action of the Albert Lea School Board which made this claim to fame possible. In September 1912 the board appropriated $100 for the band experiment. The first director, Lee Prentice,

purchased two bass horns, a bass drum and a baritone horn with these funds. He also started off that fall with 35 boys who couldn’t play a note on any instrument. By the spring of 1913, with what I think is the assistance of some adult musicians, Prentice had developed a group of students who presented their first concert.

In 1914, he took the band in their new uniforms to the Minnesota State Fair. This may have been the first appearance by a group of high school musicians at the fair.

The Albert Lea High School Band may have also been the first in the entire Midwest to obtain uniforms. That’s a claim I found in print on page 57 of the 1915 AH LA HA SA yearbook.

This band was an all-male group until the fall of 1925 when the first girl appeared at rehearsals with her trumpet. I found her pictured with the band in the 1926 and 1927 yearbooks. By 1928, the band’s photo in the yearbook shows several girls and the real start of a co-educational group.

Lee Prentice was followed as the band’s director by Myron Langworthy, Floyd A. Osmundson and Lawrence J. &uot;Cap&uot; Emmons who took over the baton in the fall of 1922.

Prentice was a U.S. Army aviator who was killed in action in late 1918 while serving in France during World War I. Lee Prentice Post 36 of the American Legion in Fairmont was named in his honor. Also, his name is perpetuated here in Albert Lea with Prentice Avenue, a rather short street located to the south of Front Street near the Lou-Rich plant.

Now, in closing, I’d like to make a suggestion. Let’s have a banner out in front of the Albert Lea High School Band telling folks it’s really number one in Minnesota!

Feature writer Ed Shannon’s column appears in the Friday edition of the Tribune.