David Blakely and the demise of Bancroft

Published 9:15 am Friday, April 9, 2010

According to several historical accounts, Bancroft was one of the first towns in Freeborn County. It had a sawmill, several homes and nearby farms and even stores by the fall of 1857 when David Blakely from either St. Paul or Minneapolis came to start a newspaper. This new locality hoped to be the Freeborn County seat that same year, but lost out to Albert Lea in a special election. Within a year the town lost population and Blakeley’s Bancroft Pioneer weekly paper ceased operations.

However, those same historical sources imply the town of Bancroft gradually died out. That’s wrong. There was a rural school and several farm families in this part of Bancroft Township. In fact, there was once a store located near the corner of County Roads 22 and 14. And today the Good Samaritan Center complex and several homes certainly confirm that the community of Bancroft is still a part of the city, county and even state maps.

Blakely likely left Bancroft in the early fall of 1858. He took his printing press and type to Austin and started a new weekly newspaper named the Mower County Mirror. Then, about a year later, he and brother Cyrenus started a newspaper named the Post. In fact, his brother was involved with this predecessor to the present Rochester Post-Bulletin for about 35 years.

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David moved back to St. Paul and became clerk of the state’s house of representatives during the sessions of 1861 and 1862. Then, from 1862 to 1866, he served as Minnesota’s secretary of state.

Blakely soon left the state and became the publisher of the Chicago Evening Post and also owned a printing plant.

By 1870 he had moved back to Minnesota to become the publisher or editor of the St. Paul Pioneer. One of the historical references I checked gave him credit for combining this paper with the St. Paul Press to create what evolved into the present Pioneer Press. Blakely later became either the publisher or manager of the printing plant for the Minneapolis Tribune.

On June 14, 1881, Blakely came to Albert Lea and served as the main speaker for the seventh annual reunion of the Freeborn County Old Settlers’ Association which was held in what’s now Pioneer Park at the west end of Hawthorne Street. (Please note how the word pioneer is again being used in this column based on Blakely’s life.)

At about this time in his life, Blakely was married and had four daughters. Besides journalism, he had another overwhelming interest. It was military-type music. In that era this was the predominate type of musical entertainment in the nation. Every town had a band and there were several professional bands touring the U.S. to present concerts. The greatest of these musical groups in the 1880s was Gilmore’s Band. Blakely soon moved to New York City to become the prime promoter and manager of this very successful band. He also became rather wealthy as a result of his journalistic career and the music promoting.

Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, by the way, was born during 1829 in Ireland. He went to Canada in 1848 to serve as a cornet player in a British Army regimental band. Gilmore moved to the U.S. the following year. During the Civil War he served as a U.S. Army regimental bandmaster. After the war Gilmore organized his own band and presented concerts all over the eastern part of the nation.

In the spring of 1892, Blakely contacted John Philip Sousa with the intention of starting another band. The already famous march music composer was then serving his 12th year as the director of the U.S. Marine Band, “the President’s Own.” Blakely told Sousa he would guarantee a salary and financial support for the new band.

In the next column we’ll have more information about Blakely’s connection with Sousa and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” our National March.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.