Idaho History

In 19th century Idaho, brass bands were soothing music to the residents’ ears

Delamar, Idaho’s miners band was larger than most.
Delamar, Idaho’s miners band was larger than most. Idaho State Historical Society

Brass bands were the favorite kind of musical group in 19th century Idaho Territory. They ranged in size from five members to 20 or more. Typically, a brass band had two to three trumpets, two to three French horns, two tenor trombones, a bass trombone, and a tuba. A bass drum and a smaller drum completed the ensemble.

On Feb. 17, 1870, the Idaho World reported: “Musical Treat – the World was the recipient of a visit from the Centerville and Idaho City Brass Bands on last Monday evening who, combined together, thus making a double set of instruments, regaled us with some of the best music we have ever heard in the Territory. It was quite a treat, for which our friends will accept the thanks and best wishes of the World.”

A turning point in the musical life of Idaho City came in May 1879, when the multitalented professor Gilbert Butler and family arrived in town on the Silver City stage. “Mr. Butler, assisted by his wife, will teach the public school of this city, which opens next Monday. They come highly recommended by the citizens of Owyhee County.”

By 1879 the Idaho City brass band had gone out of business ( I was tempted to say “disbanded”). But the Idaho World could report that “the young men of Idaho City are organizing a brass band, with Gilbert Butler as its leader.” On Nov. 28, 1879, the World reported: “The brass band played two or three tunes on the streets while returning from practice last Wednesday evening. Although the boys have practiced but two or three weeks, the general verdict was that they made pretty good music.”

When Gilbert Butler, on behalf of the new Idaho City Brass Band, tendered their services for the Fourth of July celebration, the offer was received with applause by the planning committee.

In March 1880: “Last Saturday the Idaho City Brass Band took a trip to Centerville, Placerville and Quartzburg. The day was rather cold, yet the ride was very pleasant, the roads being in fine condition. The band played in the towns during the day, and after dark serenaded a number of the denizens of Placerville. The band boys were treated like lords by the citizens of the different places, and did not return home till the small hours of the morning.”

Boise City’s young Brass Band was credited by the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman in April 1869 with “rapidly improving,” and was mentioned again in June 1870, when it serenaded Gov. David Ballard.

That Boise was not without music of several kinds we learn from the Statesman of Sept. 17, 1874: “Our savage breast was soothed the other evening by the sweet melody and song of the Boise City String Band under our bedroom window.”

In July 1875, the Statesman wrote: “Brass Band – Mr. A. Steidel, the accomplished cornet and clarinet player, is getting up a brass band, and is now teaching several of the young musicians of this place how to ‘toot their horns.’ There is nothing that the people would sooner hear than a good brass band, and we say, all speed and success to the organization.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email