Crookston band director G. Oliver Riggs believed deeply in the power of music — never more so than on one spring day in 1903. That’s when a bear chased him along the Big Fork River near his woodsy property northeast of Bemidji.
“In order to make his escape the gentleman discarded everything he carried but his valuable violin,” the Crookston Journal reported.
Then 32, Riggs shimmied up a tree, just out of reach of the bear’s claws and “drew his bow and played an air from de Beriot,” the story said, “which so pleased and affected Bruin that he went away …”
That’s just one of the anecdotes resonating in a new book about a forgotten but instrumental character in the Minnesota music scene from 1898 to 1946. Riggs, an accomplished cornet and violin player, directed more than 20 youth bands from Crookston to Bemidji and St. Cloud in the early 20th century, when “community bands were as important to midsize Midwest towns as professional sports teams are to big cities today,” according to Minnesota History magazine.
Riggs died in 1946 of a heart attack at 75 while in the process of organizing a band of Ojibwe tribal members and white neighbors near Red Lake.
“My great-grandfather hated the name George, so everyone called him G. Oliver and I’m so proud of his legacy,” said Northfield author Joy Riggs, who poured 13 years of research into her book, “Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The Story of a Minnesota Music Man” (Nodin Press).
A former reporter at the Des Moines Register, Joy Riggs said she had known virtually nothing about her great-grandfather until she began doing research: “I was amazed to learn what a pioneer he’d been in the development of Minnesota’s band music programs.”
She learned that Riggs successfully lobbied for a state band tax in 1927 that allowed smaller municipalities to levy taxes to support community bands. In 1929, the year the Depression hit, he was president of what became the Minnesota Music Educators Association, which still lobbies for more than 1,500 music teachers.
“It’s important to understand the history of music education in Minnesota during this difficult economic time when schools are stretched for funds,” she wrote in 2011. “G. Oliver kept his bands going through wars and the Great Depression, and the communities where he worked were better for it.”
The son of a Civil War veteran, Riggs was born in Iowa in 1870 and first came to Minnesota from Chicago in 1898 to take over the Crookston band, for $100 a month. “At my first rehearsal ... I had eleven players, a large kerosene lamp, one good window light in front, and a million dead flies,” he wrote in 1939.
The Minneapolis Tribune reported about Riggs in 1909 that there was “no question but that he holds a leading position as a band director ... [M]usical authorities place him as the most successful director of amateur bands in the United States.”
In addition to his deftness behind the baton, Riggs was astute in the business of financing town bands. A New York-based music magazine in 1900 called Riggs “a leader who unites the dual capacity of business and music,” qualities it said were “rarely united but ... invaluable when found.” The story added that Riggs’ Crookston band was “the leading musical organization between Minneapolis and the Pacific slope.”
Riggs left Crookston in 1909 for Grand Forks, where he spent a year directing an adult band and organizing a boys’ band. After a stint in Tacoma, Wash., he took a directing job in Havre, Mont., and blew his cornet from the back of a horse for the Montana Cowboy Band.
But the bulk of his influence came in St. Cloud, where he spent 20 years and grew the Municipal Boys’ Band to 300 musicians, ages 8 to 18. They entertained at conventions and marched in parades from Duluth to Des Moines, bridging cultural and economic divides.
“German Catholics, for example, regularly harmonized with Swedish Lutherans and Russian Jews,” Joy Riggs said. “Bankers’ sons marched next to the progeny of stonecutters.”
Despite societal boundaries, her great-grandfather’s Crookston High School orchestra included a few girls in 1916, and Riggs tried to open up other opportunities for girls. When he died in 1946, two of his best students were Ojibwe girls on clarinet and trombone.
Riggs was buried in Crookston beside his wife of more than 40 years, Islea, an accomplished piano player and music teacher in her own right who had died four years earlier. Two of their children died young, while sons Percy and Ronald grew up to be band directors themselves.
Among the condolence notes they received was one from Iowa band leader George Landers, 85, a friend of Riggs’ since the 1880s.
“While we all have to go — I never thought your father was near the end. ...” Landers wrote. “He had done much to assist youngsters in making this old world a better place to live in with music.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.