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History's Headlines: Allentown Band offers the sounds of summer all year round

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 14 2014 08:01:24 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 17 2014 06:28:13 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Allentown Band

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Ok, who out there is tired of winter? Hang on, hang on, don’t everybody shout at once. I know we all are.

Well, we can’t do anything about the snow, the cold and the polar vortex, but the Allentown Band can get us in the mood for gentle June evenings under the stars in West Park.

On Wednesday, March 26, the Allentown Band, the oldest civilian concert band in America, founded in 1828, is going to be performing the opening concert of the Association of Concert Bands 2014 National Convention in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn at 9th and Hamilton Streets.

The concert will feature a little something for everyone, from the rousing patriotic music of Morton Gould’s “Marches from the West Point Symphony for Band,” to the lilting strains of the waltzes of German composer Richard Strauss from “Der Rosenkavalier,” the ultimate Viennese romantic opera. There are even two Irish songs: “The Last Rose of Summer” and the “Black Ribbon Band.” Conductor Ronald Demkee suggests those seeking more information can go to the band’s website.

When it comes to band music, Allentown has an embarrassment of riches. Along with the Allentown Band there is the Marine Band, the Pioneer Band and the Allentown Municipal Band. Each sprung up at a different time and each has made its own important contribution to the city and region’s rich musical scene.

But hard as it is to believe, there was a time when there were no bands in Allentown. In fact, in 1815, when the city wanted to hear band music along with booming cannon to celebrate the victory of Andrew Jackson over the British at New Orleans, it had to get a band from Bethlehem!

Somewhere along the way someone decided this would never do. According to Lehigh County historian Charles Rhodes Roberts, as early as 1822, there were stirrings to create a band in Allentown. And being German, there must have been plenty of musicians already in town.

According to Demkee’s 2003 history of the band, a local paper covering the Fourth of July celebrations of 1822 described playing by an “Allentown Military Band.” But the band dates its history from a July 10, 1828 article in a weekly German language newspaper reporting on the Independence Day celebration of the previous week.
“The Allentown Band,” it said, “playing war music, marched through the streets and a hickory pole was erected on the square on which an American flag was placed.” A hickory pole was a symbol of Andrew Jackson, who was nicknamed “Old Hickory.”

If the Allentown Band was indeed the name given to the band in 1828, it was not the only name it had. Until the post-Civil War era it was called everything from the “Northampton Military Band” or “Northampton Band” (Allentown’s official name until 1838, sometimes also spelled as Northamptontown), the “Northampton Music Band” (1822-1850), the “Allentown Brass Band (1850-1862), the “ Lehigh Cornet Band” (1862-1864), and the Allentown Coronet Band (1864-1876).

Unlike other Civil War town bands, the Allentown Band did not go off to war, although some of its members did. Demkee notes that the Civil War was unpopular in Lehigh County and many citizens were ardent Democrats who were furious when the war’s aim was switched as they saw it, from saving the Union to freeing the slaves.

After the war ended, the Allentown Band’s popularity continued to grow. In 1876 the Allentown Band played at the National Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
They were appearing with a local militia unit that was dressed in colonial era style uniforms. “Now brace up boys and show these Philadelphians what the Lehigh County Dutch can do,” said Tilghman H. Good, the militia’s commander.

Outside of town the Allentown Band played in the inaugural parades of Presidents U.S. Grant (1869), William McKinley (1897), Theodore Roosevelt (1905), Woodrow Wilson (1913) and Warren Harding (1921).

The Allentown Band played for the opening of the Hess Brothers’ Department Store in 1897, and for the inaugural concert of the West Park band shell in 1908. They were a part of a week long series of concerts by all the city’s bands at West Park that week. In 1913 they played for the opening of the Eighth Street Bridge, with a young Alburtis Meyers on the cornet.

The Allentown Band had many fine conductors throughout its history. Among them are Amos Ettinger, William Minninger and Martin Klingler. It was “Bert” Meyers who was conductor from 1926 to 1976, with whom the band is most identified. In his 50 year tenure, he presided over the band’s transformation from a marching band to a concert band. It last marched as a unit in 1965, says Demkee.

Demkee recalls having first heard them at the Jordan Park pool as a teenager. “I was already interested in music and was really impressed with their sound,” he recalls. He notes that he got a call from Meyers and, after an audition, was selected. Under Demkee’s direction, the Allentown Band has become an internationally known musical organization.

Over its long history, the Allentown Band has acquired a treasure house of memorabilia at its headquarters at a former firehouse in Allentown’s West End. There are photographs of the band going back into the 19th century, and a collection of programs dating back to 1853. It is a time machine into the region’s musical past. Still, Demkee notes it is a very up-to-date organization.

“I’d just like to add something that you would have never heard from “Bert” Meyers when he was conductor,” says Demkee, as a sly smile crosses his lips. “If you want to know more about the Allentown Band, you can go to our website.”