John Rex McMullen, a teacher of band music in School District 131, began his career as an educator in 1937.  In “partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Doctor of Music Education degree from Chicago Musical College,” McMullen wrote a history of vocal and instrumental music, with an emphasis on “instrumental development” – i.e., bands, orchestras, choral societies, musical clubs, small ensembles, dance music, and “the most prominent musicians” in Aurora. His work covered the time period from 1834 through 1948.  He interviewed people who were alive in 1955, making their homes in Aurora and its vicinity.  He submitted his dissertation in August, 1955.  The dissertation is on file in the Local History Room of the Santori Public Library in Aurora.  The 206-page document opens with the following statement:

“It is assumed that the definite need for music as a physiological and psychological outlet led many foresighted citizens in the city of Aurora to accelerate the growth of music.  It is also assumed that these citizens saw the need for outstanding music teachers to teach their children to sing and to play instruments with good musicianship.  Whether the pioneers came from the old country or from another section of the United States, music was a part of their heritage, and these people were desirous for the continuance of that heritage.  Some outstanding musicians also saw the need; therefore, schools of music and conservatories were established at an early date.”  (pp. 5-6)

Dr. McMullen noted, too, that Aurora “is one of the few cities in the United States that has a music branch of its public library.” (p. 12).  The music repository represented 60 years of collecting undertaken by Alice Doty Wernicke, a noted pianist, organist, teacher, and performer, and was valued at $5,000 in 1936.  In 1910, Wernicke initiated a series of Sunday afternoon artist recitals in her home studio.  At first she was worried that “church people would object,” (p. 53), but the series proved successful and continued until 1922.  Two events of consequence are mentioned early in the dissertation:

“In 1850, the first railroad passenger service was inaugurated in the Fox River Valley…Music was a part of this celebration in that a brass band from Aurora furnished the entertainment for that festive occasion. That band was one organized by Thomas Sellars, an E-flat cornet player.”

“According to the July 22, 1928 Aurora Beacon News, the first Aurora brass band played at the First Congregational Church at an organizing convention for the Republican Party on September 20, 1854.”

Though Wikipedia did not exist in the 1920s, the Aurora Beacon News did not dig very deeply to counter the claim of some local Aurorans that this event marked the birth of the Republican Party. Generally-accepted historical documents place the first public meeting where the name “Republican” was suggested for a new anti-slavery party as one held on March 20, 1854 in a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin.  Nonetheless, Aurora did love its brass bands in the 1850s.

Dr. McMullen’s book provides lengthy lists of the members of concert bands, orchestras, and choirs.  He also recounts the existence of several conservatories of music where local students received top-notch instruction.  According to an interview with Edward Bailey Birge, an Auroran named B.W. Merrill organized one of the first high school orchestras in the United States in 1878.  Merrill was an East Aurora High School graduate, and taught at his alma mater from 1885 to 1887.  He went on to become a renowned concert violinist, composer, and textbook author, and ultimately the Dean of Indiana University’s School of Music. (p. 45)

Other significant moments and venues in Aurora’s music history:

  • The first phonograph in Aurora was brought to town in the late 1870s and displayed in Dr. Pond’s cancer hospital on North Root Street. (p. 47)
  • In 1855, Chauncey Miller played the flute for Chief Shabbona of the Potawatomi tribe in Illinois; the flute was bequeathed to the Aurora Historical Society. In 1858, Mr. Miller played baritone horn in the band at the Lincoln Douglas debates in Ottawa, and was a drummer for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
  • Professor E.A. Stein organized a concert orchestra which included the famed Maud Powell as a first violinist. Their repertoire ranged from opera to dance selections, but they “never condescended to play for dances, however.” (p. 42)
  • The Coulter Opera House (northeast corner of Downer and Broadway) was built in 1876 (?) to accommodate balls, masquerades, fairs and bazaars. The building still stands and is now home to an apartment complex and commercial offices.
  • Sylvandell Ballroom (1917)
  • Concerts in Lincoln Park and Phillips Park

Some surprising discoveries can be found in Dr. McMullen’s work:

  • According to friends of Maud Powell’s, “This famous woman who had played before the crowned heads of Europe and to music lovers on every continent, admitted that the fame received was not worth the price paid for it. Indeed, the price was great for herself and for her family.  For her fame and skill, Maud Powell Turner gave up childhood, could not lead a normal life, worked like a slave, her father was deprived of her home life, and her brother was bereft of the care of a mother when such care was most needed.” (p. 64).  Nonetheless, Maud Powell’s fame helped foster cultural change allowing women to have more on-stage opportunities and professional recognition. (p. 75).
  • The Matt Kusel Musical Show, offered by a German comedian, featured an 1890 tent show on the island with 12 girls in song and dance routines, attired in short skirts plus three or four comedians. “Numerous complaints of immodesty were received, so Kusel had to limit his shows to men only, and when the complaints and pressure became too great, later to abandon the shows entirely.  It is reported that the entertainments was like a Sunday school cantata compared with the musical shows of today.” (p. 75)
  • Dwight Godard organized professional bands in the 1880s because school bands were “practically nonexistent. Groups numbering from 20-30 members…played for most of the parades, picnics, concerts, races, ball games, and other entertainments…Godard rode a white pony at the head of his band when the grup marched in a parade…when autos became popular, he rode in a Brush runabout…Godard must have had a flair for showmanship.” (p. 79).  His marches were played all over the world by bands, orchestras, pianists, and other instrumentalists.  His “Cosmopolitan March” entertained American troops in Guayama, Puerto Rico.
  • On September 30, 1903, the Aurora City Council considered an ordinance that would have prohibited the playing of pianos or other musical instruments after 9:00 p.m. Mayor John M. Raymond said, “…the ordinance was not to prevent piano playing, but unreasonable thumping.” (p. 101)
  • Charles E. Gridley (born 1875) was trained as a snare drummer for the 4th Regiment Band, where he played “the daddy-mommy roll, seven stroke roll, and flams…” (p. 123). In 1895 he joined W. S. Cleveland’s Greater Massive Minstrels, “one of the largest minstrel companies on the road.”

Some interesting recollections from “old-timers” (Dr. McMullen’s term):

  • Ed White to Lutz White: “Do you remember when every mother in the gay 90s (1890s that is) thought her child was to become a musical prodigy and slaved and slaved to buy a piano and when the wonderful instrument was installed how proud she was?”
  • Tenor soloist John Fauth in a letter to the Beacon News: “When I was a young man and in the remote 70s, 80s and 90s (19th century), when there were no radios, moving pictures, phonographs and the like, Aurora was a musical town.  Everybody was more or less interested in music.  There were many societies, clubs, and organizations devoted to this art.  Every season there would be many outstanding concerts, operettas, cantatas, oratorios, etc. presented by home talent.  Every church supported a choir of unusual talent and we had such well-known musicians among us…”
  • “In 1929 the country was engulfed in a Depression, but that did not seem to hamper the activities of school music. In fact, research will undoubtedly bear out the belief that the Depression really helped to encourage school music.  Many students who were really interested in music had no other outside activities and would spend a greater amount of time practicing, of course, part-time jobs were just not to be had; so that conflicting item was eliminated…During this period, school bands definitely gained momentum in an endeavor to achieve popularity and fame…both East and West side school bands met with a great deal of success and brought fame to their respective schools and the community as a whole.” (p. 138)
  • To raise money for uniforms, music, and instruments, the East Aurora Boys Club staged a minstrel show. According to McMullen, writing in 1955 (p. 145):  “From one performance a year, it grew to two, and recently the auditorium has been filled to capacity three nights in a row.  Band directors from all over the world have written to East High School asking how to stage such a minstrel show, and that alone tells the story of the fame the show has spread.”
  • Aurora was the “honor city” for the Major Bowes Amateur Hour one evening in 1939 (p. 171)

Aurora Schools of Music included:

  • The Columbia Conservatory at Claim and Fourth Street (June 1903)
  • Kells Studio of Fine Arts on South Fourth Street (1917)
  • Toenniges Conservatory, Aurora Conservatory of Music

Notable Aurora Orchestras and Bands:

  • The Blackhawk Orchestra, organized in November 1918; broadcast over KYW, WTAS, WLS, WORD (Chicago, IL); WCC (Davenport, IA); and WCCO (Minneapolis, MN); 1938 became the Civic Orchestra of Aurora
  • Maud Powell Orchestra, organized in 1935 – all women; merged in 1936 with the Blackhawk Orchestra
  • Godard Band
  • Edward Miller Orchestra
  • Commercial Club Orchestra
  • Denney Dance Orchestra
  • Fox Theatre Orchestra
  • Joe Baumagertner Dance Orchestra
  • Lewis C. Miller Exposition Band
  • Aurora Symphony Orchestra (1931)
  • WPA Band (Depression-era)
  • Aurora Masonic Band
  • Aurora Municipal Band never happened; in 1937 “…some farsighted Aurorans attempted to organize a municipal band, but the people of Aurora voted no on the issue. After going through a depression, many people did not want to have their taxes raised for any type of recreational luxuries. It is a shame that the band tax was voted on at the same time a school; tax was underway.” (p. 161)
  • American Legion Band (1937) – Roosevelt-Aurora Post 84
  • Marmion Military Academy Band (1937)

Notable Choral Groups:

  • Palestrina Choir (1937)
  • West Side Schools – Sten G. Halfvarson (1938)
  • Madonna High School
  • Fox Valley Festival Chorus (Barber-Greene)

Missing from Dr. McMullen’s work:

  • Information about the Blues and the Bluebird Recordings – though in fairness to him, he appears to have been focused on Aurora’s educational institutions in his research;
  • Information about non-white practitioners, with the exception of a couple of items:
    • October 23, 1911 performance of “Negro singer E. Azalia Hackley, a coloratura, who “demonstrated voice culture and Negro spirituals.” (p. 103)
    • Negro Artists (p. 182) – “Aurora can be proud of its Negro citizens in all walks of life, and can especially be proud of their musical achievements. These Negro musicians have been active in church, school, and community musical activities, and undoubtedly have added much not only to their own musical culture, but to the culture of the entire human race.”

Dr. McMullen’s conclusions:

“Music in Aurora was stimulated by the coming of the railroad, made the city more accessible for visiting artists and teachers who wished to stay for only a short time, or to make Aurora their permanent home.  This railroad also stimulated musicians to travel to Chicago and to other large cities for their musical instruction as well as to hear outstanding musical performances…the proximity to metropolitan Chicago was a leading factor that promoted good music in Aurora…records show that outstanding soloists, small ensembles, and the entire Chicago Symphony Orchestra traveled to Aurora many times to present musical performances…many outstanding Chicago music teachers taught part-time in Aurora.

“The desire and need for music…was emphasized by the fact that the people of Aurora supported a conservatory, several schools of music, and numerous private music teachers.  Music in the public schools was also supported by the citizenry.  The people also must have had a desire and need for music; otherwise, they would not have supported the many civic and professional groups.

“This present study (1955) could also point the way to a writing of a history of music in Kane County and could eventually contribute to the writing of a history of music in the state of Illinois.” (pp. 204-206)



Topic:  John Rex McMullen’s “History of Music in Aurora, Illinois” submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Doctor of Music Education degree, Chicago Musical College, August 1955

Researchers:  Karen Christensen; Robert Winder, Aurora Public Library

Source:  PhD dissertation on file at the Aurora Public Library