Among the artifacts and items on display inside the Washington Historical Society Museum at Fourth and Market streets is a uniform worn by a member of the Washington Cornet Band, along with a photo of the band and even one of the batons used by the band conductor.
And now, like a Graphophone speaker from the past, the museum has a recording of the band from the early 1900s playing “The Fort Omaha March.”
Listening to it is a little surreal, said Museum Director Marc Houseman, adding that when he played the recording for the first time not knowing its local connection, he actually teared up.
“When you live with this stuff every day, and then all of a sudden you can hear them . . . ,” Houseman commented. “I can see their pictures, and I can find the song they played and listen to somebody else play it, but to hear these guys playing it, I never dreamt!”
The Washington Cornet Band recording comes from a set of 22 wax cylindrical records that the museum had sent last year to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass., where new technology was able to scan the recordings on the cylinders to pick up the sound and save them in a modern, digital format.
The wax cylinders, which were all more than 100 years old, had been donated to the museum by the Elmar Schmidt estate about 30 years ago, said Houseman. The family owned the Schmidt Jewelry Store on Main Street, and for four generations the family saved everything, he noted.
“What’s really super unusual about these is their size,” Houseman, told The Missourian in July 2015, for a feature story on the cylinders. “They are huge, 5 inches across. They come in these cool packages, and many have a note inside that tells what the recording is — the date and the artist.”
The special boxes they are stored in state that they are “especially for the Graphophone Grand,” which differentiates these from smaller size wax cylindrical recordings that Houseman has occasionally seen sold in antique stores.
“The machines they played on were very expensive in their time, so for a local Washington family to have bought one of these, played and recorded things, that was a pretty big deal. It would have been pretty expensive,” said Houseman.
He imagines the last time any of these recordings were listened to was 100 years ago.
“They were probably listened to a couple of times, and then by 1905, they were the old junk that they stuck in the attic . . . they were old news by 1910.”
Could Have Been Recorded in His Home
Another local recording that Houseman didn’t know was among the bunch gave him goosebumps when he was able to decipher what the voice introducing the recording was saying.
All of the recordings are pretty scratchy sounding, which isn’t unusual for 100 years ago. And since most of the wax cylinder containers didn’t include any identifying information, Houseman had to replay the recordings over and over again, listening closely to understand what was being said:
“ ‘Guitar and mandolin duet, played by the something-brothers of Washington, Mo.,’ ” said Houseman. “I can’t make out the last name. It’s a one-syllable last name, but then the voice says, ‘Played by . . . for John H. Thias,’ who was born in my house.
“That could have been recorded in the Thias house, which is where I live now,” Houseman remarked. “Thias died in 1913, so we know this recording is prior to that, which I wonder if they could have been playing it for him as he was dying. He died at age 42 and he didn’t die suddenly. He had an illness.”
Scratchy Sound, But ‘So Cool’
The scratchy sound and rough quality is present on every recording from the wax cylinders and was to be expected.
“They sound terrible, at best, but it’s what I expected,” said Houseman. “They are on wax that is around 110 years old.”
The scratchy sound mimics the constant turning of the cylinder, and it is more prominent than even the sound of the music that was being recorded. But once you listen to the recording long enough or often enough, the scratchy sound becomes more like white noise, and the other sounds become more clear.
Houseman said that is exactly how he was able to determine the song being played and what the man introducing the music was saying, in cases where the song printed on the slip of paper inside the containers didn’t correspond with the recording.
“I probably played these 50 times over to get the names and details,” he said.
After he had what he thought was the name, he typed it in YouTube to find a recording of the song so he could determine if they were the same.
The digital recordings were provided to the museum on a black, wallet-size device that worked like a flash drive. Each song was provided in at least three formats that offered varying levels of sound quality, so the museum staff could select the one they liked best.
Each song is around 2 to 2 1/2 minutes long.
Most (18 of the 22) recordings are commercially produced, like a prerecorded record purchased from a music store. But four of the recordings are of local musicians performing in the early 1900s right here in Washington.
“That’s tremendously exciting,” remarked Houseman, noting when they shipped the cylinders to Massachusetts, they only knew of two recordings that were local. “We know that whoever’s voice it is, which I guess we’ll never know, was recorded right here.”
Since the wax cylinders were donated from the Elmar Schmidt family, Houseman believes the voice is likely someone in that immediate family, since the recordings were most likely made on their machine.
Connecting With History on Another Level
The other two local recordings are ones the museum staff had been expecting, since the information was marked on their containers:
Dr. Otto Muench (who has descendants living in the area) playing a violin solo of “Swanee River” and the Washington Orchestra playing “Bells of Honolulu.”
Still, to hear the recordings, rough as they are, brings life to history that, even for historians, can often be flat and one-dimensional. It’s connecting with history on another level, said Houseman, hearing in addition to seeing.
“The closest thing we have in comparison to these (recordings) is motion film from Frank Nouss (of Fan Photo) . . . He captured things that no one else did,” Houseman said.
Probably the most interesting film footage Nouss captured is when the coal chute that straddled the train tracks to provide coal for the steam-powered trains was imploded in the 1950s because trains had switched to diesel power.
“Washington had this huge coal shoot right across from Elijah McLean’s house . . . a humongous concrete structure. In 1953 they say, ‘We don’t need it anymore,’ so they are going to dynamite it, and they let the kids out of school and everything to watch this explosion. And Frank Nouss captured it on film,” said Houseman.
That’s the kind of history that no one else has, and exactly the reason Houseman “nudged” the museum board to send the cylinders to the conservation lab.
“Where else are we ever going to hear these recordings?” asked Houseman. “We have locally recorded music and talking from 1905. Who else has that?”
If You Want to Hear Them . . .
The museum is planning to put the recordings in a format that people can access. That may be transferring them on to a CD that people can purchase for a nominal fee or putting them on the museum website so people can listen to and download them.
The goal isn’t to try to make money from the recordings, said Houseman. The museum did receive many nice donations to help cover some of the expense of getting the recordings.
Anyone interested in hearing the recordings may contact Houseman at 636-239-0280.