Essays of a Camden native

Alexander's Ragtime band

By Paul Putnam | Oct 13, 2012

Many of my readers know Frances Alexander Schipper who lives at Quarry Hill and was born in 1908. In 2012 she’s still pretty chipper for her age. A few years ago she told me about her father, Frank Alexander. In 1921 Frank purchased a blacksmith shop on Washington Street behind the Opera House from Alan Spear. He did general smithing and machine shop work, and often sharpened drills being used in the limestone quarries nearby. One day one of those drills had a residue of dynamite lodged in a hollow place where it was not noticeable, but as Frank was working on the tool it exploded in his hand, causing severe damage to his hand and arm and no small damage to the shop.

Frances said two men working with Frank were so traumatized by the explosion they could hardly move at first. Frank’s hand was in shreds and bleeding profusely. He managed to run across the street to the Railway Express Office, and someone immediately put on a tourniquet and called for a special electric trolley car to transport him to the Knox Hospital in Rockland. They immediately dispatched the closest car and sidetracked all conflicting traffic. They soon had Frank in Rockland, alive but not well, and his hand was lost.

This was not a good situation for a man who made his living as a blacksmith and as an orchestra leader and clarinetist. Frances says her dad usually worked two jobs, days as a blacksmith, and nights with his orchestra, playing for dances. She remembers when he worked for the anchor works on the waterfront making $1.50 per week, and would sometimes take his orchestra to one of the islands to play for a Charles Dana Gibson party, making another $1.50 for an overnight gig on the weekend.

Of course Frances points out they didn’t need a lot of money. Even though they lived in town on Pearl Street, they raised much of their own food in a garden out back, besides keeping a few chickens and a cow. They often had butter, milk and eggs to sell. Although they seldom had much money to spare, Frances wouldn’t characterize themselves as poor; at least they didn’t know they were poor. They were just a typical family of the times.

In a time before radio and television Frances says everybody danced, so it was a popular activity, and there were a number of dance orchestras. My Grandfather Putnam played the violin and had his own orchestra with Grandma on the piano. A violin and piano along with one or two other instruments provided good dance music for most occasions. Many from my generation will remember Billy Dean’s orchestra with Myrtle Wheeler on the piano.

Music was popular entertainment, and many homes had a piano in the living room or the parlor. Organs were not uncommon either, the ones that were driven by foot pedals. Folks would gather around the piano or the organ and sing the old songs, or perhaps open a hymnbook and sing a few favorite hymns before sitting down to a game of Parcheesi or whist. Even the kids — gasp! — would do this on occasion.

My parents met at a dance hall in Deer Isle, and they enjoyed dancing all their lives, going up to the Blue Goose in Northport in more recent years, but as a kid I remember them going to dances all over the county in such places as Simonton’s Corner, South Hope, East Union, Breezemere and Oakland Park; downtown there was the Cleveland Hall, the Grange Hall and the Opera House, to name a few.

Most towns and villages had a band for parades and concerts and special occasions. Usually bands gave concerts and marched, and orchestras played for dances and parties. I do find quite a few references to the Camden Band giving a concert, and then playing for a dance afterward.

Frances says they sometimes would literally dance all night. There would be a dance in the evening that lasted until midnight, and then they would have another one at a different place that lasted until four or five in the morning. She says they were generally well-behaved events, with no alcohol that she was aware of, and no smoking! Even in my day, in the 1930s and ‘40s, men usually went outside to drink or smoke at a dance.

Frank Alexander organized the Camden Band in March of 1907. It was a group of about twenty pieces that marched in parades and presented concerts in the opera house or some other hall. In season, they would provide outdoor concerts in the town square, down at Oakland Park, or up at Lake City on Lake Megunticook. Support was raised from the public, but also there often was an item in the town budget for the band.

Apparently Frank was a versatile musician, a good clarinetist and bandleader, but the demand was great and in 1913 Jack William’s "History of Camden" tells me he turned over the baton for the Camden Band to another prominent musician of the day, Clarence Fish. He continued with Alexander’s Orchestra until 1921 and the previously mentioned accident. Frances tells me she remembers one August when her dad had 31 engagements! He would sometimes have one during the day and another in the evening.

As Frank recovered and began wondering what to do to earn a livelihood, the town fathers decided a man with one hand might make a good tax collector. He was elected in 1923, and held that position for the next 27 years.

Charles Dana Gibson was well known for the Broadway shows he produced, and I can’t help but wonder if Alexander’s Orchestra at one of those parties inspired the song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Ruth Wade | Oct 16, 2012 05:21

Thanks, Paul!

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