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Musical memories
Boley's book traces local bands, bandmasters
Joe Boley book pic
"Have Baton Will Travel" is the title of retired Great Bend bandmaster Joe Boley's book illustrating the history of municipal bands and their bandmasters from 1874-2022. The book's cover photo is of the military band organized by director Elmer Ellsworth Epperson in Great Bend in 1895.
There were a number of bands, all dependent upon their director. They varied from groups that couldn’t blow their nose, to guys that really built something.
-- Joe Boley

In the days before Alexa, radio and the phonograph, there were community bands. The national craze for brass bands began in the 1800s, and as Kansas ascended to statehood, the settling of the prairie was accompanied by live musical entertainment – first of the military, then later, non-military genres. 

The band’s repertoire relied heavily upon its director, who was tasked to provide music that the audience found fun and familiar: popular songs, marches and patriotic pieces. The band was called upon to play at all sorts of in-town events and depending upon its ability, even traveled away from home from time to time. 

Local newspapers and their editors were known to laud the local band as a focus of community identity and pride, and were consistently applauding their own home group as “the best band in the state.”

Great Bend resident Joe Boley is not only part of the history of the Great Bend Municipal Band, but also immersed in it. First hired as the Great Bend band director for USD 428 in the summer of 1958, he was hired by then-manager Loyall Komarek the following summer to direct the city band. 

Now, he has written a book telling the story of Great Bend’s band tradition.

One director’s story

Although Boley retired from directing in 1994, he continued to be an active participant in music activities in the community until 2018. His last two performances were the summer band season and a big band performance for the Barton Community College music department Christmas fundraiser dance at the Great Bend American Legion.

Boley’s literary journey began in 1997, with a paragraph about the town band sent to the Kansas State Historical Society that was featuring a major display about city bands in the state.

Have Baton, Will Travel

Boley’s book, “Have Baton, Will Travel,” was born out of a need to codify 25 years of research on the area’s local musicians and their leaders, he said.

“Curiously enough, in 1997, the state historical society in Topeka had a display wanting to include us. Kurtis Koch was directing at the time and he asked if we had anything we could send them. I told him I had a collection of stuff that went back to about 1912, so there was enough stuff to send,” Boley said.

“That’s what got me started. Then, I started collecting more stuff. I looked at a lot of library microfilm. It’s not all complete; there are some gaps in there where I might have missed something. It was just done as I could.” 

Boley’s research took him back to the “glory days” and before. “I estimated the ‘Golden Years’ as about the 1880s, because everybody had to have a band – especially the editor of the newspaper, because he knew that it brought people to town.” 

While Great Bend’s band was officially begun in 1874, the l880s through the 1900s saw 10 cities, 12 unincorporated towns, 17 villages (now extinct) and 22 townships in Barton County with bands. Communities with bands included: Bardeen, Beaver, Claflin, Dubuque, Ellinwood, Galatia, Heizer, Hoisington, Millard, Odin, Olmitz, Otis, Pawnee Rock, Red Wing, Stickney, Susank and Verbeck, along with Great Bend.

Township bands included Cheyenne, Comanche, Eureka, Logan, and South Bend. There were also a number of church bands.

“There were a number of bands, all dependent upon their director,” Boley said. “They varied from groups that couldn’t blow their nose, to guys that really built something.”

One of Great Bend’s more noteworthy early directors was Elmer Ellsworth Epperson, known as “Epp.”

Epperson came in during 1885 and directed in 1886. He was proficient as a solo performer on the tuba and “alto horn” (cornet) as well as bandmaster.

Great Bend’s first building in 1886 to use electric lights was Stauffer Hall, which hosted the Great Bend Citizen’s Band. They were busy that year. 

They led the parade on Decoration Day, followed by a host of open-air concerts. A bandstand was built after an aggressive campaign with concerts once a week. Kansas Gov. John A. Martin attended the Old Settlers Reunion at Dalzie’s Grove in June.

In July, Epp commissioned an eight-member “Ladies Band” that began giving concerts that September.

Epp returned to the podium from 1889-1907 and organized a six-member military band that performed in decorative regalia that included hats monogrammed with “Epperson” across the front. Including their regular tradition of concerts at Lafayette Park (the Barton County courthouse square), the band traveled by train or car to publicize shopping in Great Bend while sharing performances with bands in other communities.

Getting it together

Boley’s research would often uncover surprising circumstances that involved the directors and their bands.

“They often had things going on on the side,” he said. One director became an optometrist while directing the band. “Other guys did various things; they might have run a restaurant.”

A number of directors had no formal training, but their military training contributed to keeping the band together.

“Most of them were showmen; they knew how to entertain an audience,” he said. “The innate characteristic is wanting to compete and show off.”

Epperson’s return after his short absence was heralded by a poster at the rehearsal hall denoting that “He’s the man.”

Boley noted that he couldn’t squeeze all of his research into one book.

“I’ve got a lot of stories that I just couldn’t get in,” he said. “Following the trails of those guys is tantamount to keeping track of all the places they were at. They could live in one town and direct a band in another town.

“I did the best I could getting down each one, right down the line, with a little something about each one,” Boley said.

Boley’s book is what some may call “a quick read.” It would be wise, however, for readers to linger over the vignettes, as they trace not only the histories of the bandmasters involved, but also the evolving nature of the impact that the music and musicians had – and continue to have – on the community.

Dedicated to his wife Darlene, who passed away in 2021, Boley’s tome is a labor of love: For the assembling and poring over the years of collected research to share with those who contribute to and appreciate the “discoursement of sweet melodious aires” that still waft on the winds of the Golden Belt.