The musical legacy of Clara Thomas

Published 8:54 am Friday, December 23, 2011

Column: Between the Corn Rows

Organ music for Christmas services at Albert Lea’s First Presbyterian Church actually has a historical connection with one of the county’s first residents. In fact, her name is on small plaque situated on the right side of the church’s organ.

In the previous column we featured Clara Matilda Colby and details about early Christmas celebrations by her pioneer family. Now here’s more information about Clara who came to Itasca with her family at the age of 4 in 1856.

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The Colby family of eight daughters and one son lived on a farm located between Albert Lea and Itasca. There’s no indication as to how much education the youngest daughter, Clara, received. However, by the age of 16 she became a rural school teacher in Carlston Township. Also, the 16-year-old married Leander J. Thomas on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1868. Her new husband was a veteran of the Civil War which had ended three years earlier.

There’s not much information I could find about the early years of married life for this couple. They had one son, Edwin Thomas, and lived in the Itasca area until 1880 when they moved to Albert Lea.

I did find a few details about her connection with music. Two old Tribune news articles said, “Mrs. Thomas was very popular as a singer in those days and her voice was much in demand in choir service. She had a little organ with silver reeds, made for her by her brother, Charles, and she and her young husband would load the instrument into a wagon or bob sled and carry it with them to church gatherings, country parties or lodge meetings. …

“One cold night the mercury dropped to forty below while the Thomas’ were out at Pickerel Lake with their little organ, and the extreme cold spoiled the silver reeds so that it never could be tuned right again.

“It was this little organ that earned for its owner the money to buy the family’s first cook stove and set of dishes.”

Now here’s Clara’s connection with the organ at First Presbyterian Church. In 1929 this church was nearly destroyed by fire. One of the important items needed by this congregation was a new organ. A 1936 Tribune article explained her connection with the organ this way:

“Mrs. Thomas has seen our city grow from a settlement of five log shacks to what it is today. As fitting to the memory of her pioneer service with her little organ, the name of Mrs. Thomas is inscribed on the beautiful pipe organ in the handsome new Presbyterian Church, a gift to the church of Mrs. Ella Blackmer of this city, only surviving niece of Mrs. Thomas, and daughter of Anthony and Emily (Colby) Huyck.”

Clara Colby Thomas died Jan. 31, 1936, at Naeve Hospital. She is buried at Graceland Cemetery.


With just three exceptions, Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.