Remembering Springfield’s Boy Scout Band, the largest in the world

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Springfield’s Boy Scout Band on a trip to St. Louis, probably at Union Station, circa 1930. (Courtesy of the History Museum on the Square)


These days, memories of Springfield’s Boy Scout Band are primarily stored in libraries and museums instead of minds. Nearly 70 years have passed since the group disbanded: Today, most of its members simply peer from photos, their stories frozen silently in time.

Ninety-two-year-old Joe George, however, remembers. He was in the third grade when he joined the band 84 years ago.

“(It was) the largest in the world,” says George of the band, which during its heyday numbered more than 400 members. “Everybody just loved it, and anytime we had a parade here in Springfield of any kind, the Boy Scout Band was always in it. And the thing we hated more than anything else was to get behind the horses.”

Despite the passage of time (and dealing with horse droppings now and then), one thing remains clear to George.

“We had a wonderful time with it.”

The band’s beginning

Joe and Walter George, in their Greenwood Laboratory School band uniforms, are shown in the late 1930s. (Courtesy of Joe George)

The year was 1933 when George and his twin brother, Walter, joined the band. They started in the beginners’ group — the first of three levels — which met on Monday evenings on the third floor of the Greene County Courthouse.

“You’ll find out — it’s not a good idea to play the sousaphone,” says George of the large musical instrument, and a fact he knew firsthand.

“One of my friends, who joined the same year as Walter and I did, he played the sousaphone and his dad had to carry it up to the third floor,” George recalls. “I don’t know whether they had an elevator or not, but we were not allowed to use it. So we got lots of exercise.”

The band — dating to 1920 — was already well established when the George brothers began. It wasn’t a new idea: Other cities had similar ensembles, and stories differ on who should be credited with its formation in Springfield. Regardless of who suggested the idea, a meeting was held in October 1920 to discuss plans.

“A number of the business men of the city are promoting the plan and the scouts who attended the meeting last night were enthusiastic over the prospects,” recorded the Springfield Republican on Oct. 19, 1920. “A large number of Boy Scouts signed cards at the meeting last night, saying they would do all that was possible to assist in organizing the band.”

Another meeting, to get parents involved, was scheduled for a week later. Plans progressed quickly: On Nov. 1, the group held its first rehearsal:

“The newly organized Boy Scout band held its first practice Monday night,” recorded the Republican. “Forty-three boys were present with instruments and many others have been unable to secure instruments. It is expected that this band will soon be composed of more than seventy-five pieces. All the boys in the band are members of the Boy Scout organization and their ages range from 11 to 17 years. Prof. R. R. Robertson, supervisor of music in the Springfield schools, is instructor.

By February 1921, the group was ready to show off for parents. A few weeks later, it gave its first public performance, which was a short program during a Rotary Club luncheon at the Colonial Hotel. It was such a resounding success that the club decided to raise money so the band could accompany them to the 17th district’s annual convention in Wichita, Ks., in April.

It’s safe to say that the folks in Kansas liked them, too. “Boy Scouts make big at Rotary meeting,” proclaimed the Republican upon their return. “A picture of the boys appeared in the Wichita papers Friday and the boys proved to be the most popular feature of the convention. Large crowds gathered to hear them at every concert and they were invited to play upon numerous occasions. They were also serenaded and entertained extensively while in Wichita.”

The band’s instant popularity began a explosion of growth. Soon after it began, the second and third-tier bands were added, extending its reach to boys who were younger than the minimum scout age of 12 — and ensuring a pipeline of talent was always ready to supply the well-trained top band.

Its leaders, however, didn’t see the ensemble as strictly for musical education.

“The band is not operated for the sole purpose of making musicians, but rather future citizens,” proclaimed an early band program. “The boys are not even encouraged to select music as their profession, although many of the graduates are now occupying responsible teaching positions. Character development is stressed much more than musicianship.”

R. Ritchie Robertson

R. Ritchie Robertson leads the band in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Springfield! Magazine)


It’s clear that “right place, right time” often play a role in life’s successes, but it’s likely that Springfield’s Boy Scout Band wouldn’t have achieved its resounding success if not for its leader, R. Ritchie Robertson.

“He was a wonderful man. He adored all the boys in the band.” recalls George, noting that the director had special nicknames for the twins. “He called my brother Pete, and he called me Repeat.”

The son of a shoemaker, Robertson was born in Scotland and immigrated to the United States in 1900. “The Star Spangled Scotsman,” as he was nicknamed, eventually found his way to Springfield in 1916 to be the Springfield (now Central) High School music teacher.

“His salary was $1500 a year and his position not considered very important,” printed the Springfield Leader and Press in December 1971. “Sure, he would direct the teaching of singing in the classrooms and maybe in a few glee clubs, but that was about all expected of him.”

Despite those expectations, Robertson felt compelled to act. “He was dismayed to find that the band at Springfield (now Central) High School counted only five members, and that the city was awash in jazz, which was too undisciplined for his taste,” recorded the Springfield News-Leader in May 1999. “Not long after his arrival, the high school band swelled to 80 student musicians, and enrollment in choral and glee clubs soared.”

In addition to raising such numbers, he also grew other organizations from the ground up. According to “Springfield of the Ozarks,” Robertson founded the DeMolay Drum Corps, the Abou Ben Ahem Shrine Band and the Frisco Band before the Boy Scout group was ever in the picture.

Those successes helped form a secure foundation for the Boy Scout Band — and a reputation for Roberston.

“(A) Springfield man, unidentified, was in Chicago and mailed a postcard simply addressed ‘To The Most Noted Man in Springfield, MO.,'” printed Springfield! Magazine in an article about the band. “The local post office promptly delivered the card to Ritchie Robertson.”

A pen-and-ink drawing, in honor of Robertson’s birthday, was given to him by local leaders. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)


Robertson was so beloved by Springfield’s residents that they gave him a brand new car less than a year after the Boy Scout Band began.

“The fairies that are commonly supposed to confine their activities to the dells of Ireland held a ‘coming out party’ in Springfield yesterday,” reported the Springfield Leader on July 7, 1921. “Their material agents in the party were 100 business men of Springfield who each and every one got together like the Democratic minority in a southern election riot and contributed $5 each toward the purchase of a Ford touring car for Mr. Robertson.”

The idea evolved when Robertson mentioned that he’d like to purchase a second-hand car to take his family on a trip. After a businessman heard the wish, he decided to collect the $593 necessary for a brand new Ford.

“All business men added to the fund,” noted the newspaper. “In the meanwhile, it took some maneuvering to keep Mr. Robertson from investing in the second-hand Lizzie. Instructions were even left with some dealers to under no consideration sell him a car.”

A crescendo of success

Springfield’s Boy Scout Band quickly gained fame. Less than two years after it began, the boys paraded past U.S. President Warren G. Harding at the Rotary International Convention in St. Louis. The parade, however, didn’t go quite according to plan: It started raining — but the rain wasn’t water.

“At one time, while the local band was playing in St. Louis, money was rained down upon them from an office building and the musical notes ceased abruptly as the more tangible ones were eagerly picked up by the band boys,” recorded the Springfield Republican on June 24, 1923.

A later issue of Springfield! Magazine went into greater detail about the event:

“While marching down Washington Boulevard, onlookers in the upper floors of the tall buildings began throwing coins and dollar bills at the band,” recorded the magazine. “The 125 boys, seeing the currency falling at their feet, stopped and scrambled for the money, bringing the parade to a halt. It took about five minutes for Robertson and scout leaders to restore order.

“Then the band returned to parade formation, began another march, only to have the shower of money interrupted the procession once more. One St. Louis newspaper stated that ‘the enraged leader shook his head and ordered ‘Forward March!'” This time successfully.”


That presidential performance is only one example of the band’s accomplishments. Another came in 1924, when they played for legendary composer John Phillip Sousa, who was a friend of Robertson’s. The scouts were even given the honor of meeting Sousa at the train station upon his arrival — one they did not give up despite a four-hour wait in a snow storm.

“A snow storm was nothing in their young lives when they were to escort the most famous band leader in the world from the train station to his hotel, and at 6:30 a large number of boys were on hand,” recorded the Springfield Leader on Feb. 5, 1924. “Sousa’s train was late and did not arrive until 10:30 o’clock and by that time the instruments of several boys had frozen up, and they did not play at the station. Amid a flurry of snow, the band, headed by Prof. Robertson and Scout Executive Allen C. Foster, escorted the famous bandmaster to the Colonial hotel.

“It was the biggest moment of their lives when the boys filed into the lobby of the hotel, unclogged their instruments and played a selection for the famous bandmaster. Following the selection, the boys cheered Sousa, who was introduced to them by Prof. Robertson.”

“When Sousa came to Springfield” (Courtesy of the Springfield New-Leader/Sunday News and Leader)


John Phillip Sousa returned to Springfield in 1928 (other trips occurred in 1894 and 1924) for a concert sponsored by the Boy Scout Band. (Courtesy of the SGCLD)

Perhaps an even bigger moment, however, took its place just a few hours later.

“When John Phillip Sousa was here this spring with his band, the great bandmaster complimented Mr. Robertson on the Boy Scout band,” recorded the Republican in May 1924. “(He) permitted it to play with the Sousa organization at the (Shrine) mosque, a thing which Sousa never before had done.”

That same year, Springfield’s Kiwanis Club voted Robertson as Springfield’s most useful individual asset. “This unusual action came in recognition of the untiring and in most cases unpaid work done by Mr. Robertson in fostering the cause of music here,” wrote a Republican reporter in May 1924. “The vote was unanimous.”

As a result, the club launched a drive to send him to Scotland on vacation so “he can visit his old home near Glasgow, see his old ‘crownies’ and have a complete rest and a good time in general.”


Robertson likely needed the rest. In addition to the band’s rehearsals — taking up three nights each week — the group gave frequent performances.

“Every time Ritchie Robertson had a chance to show us off, he did,” recalls George of the bandleader.

Some of those occasions were local events, such as the dedication of Doling Park as a city property in 1929, and a groundbreaking for Burge Hospital (today’s CoxHealth) in 1924. The band served as the official band of Missouri’s State Fair in Sedalia numerous times. Paramount News and Fox Movietone News filmed the band on parade, which appeared in news stories and theaters across the country. In 1926 — the same year Robertson founded the Central High School Kiltie Drum & Bugle Corp — the Boy Scout Band even recorded an album of six marches.

The Boy Scout Band (right) performed at a ground breaking for Burge Hospital (today’s CoxHealth) in 1924. (Courtesy of CoxHealth)


The recordings were initially done in Springfield, but outside interference proved them imperfect and required a redo — and, considering recording capabilities in the 1920s, required much effort.

“To one who does not understand procedure through which the recorders go, it would appear to be an easy task to make records,” printed the Leader in August 1926. ” … It is interesting to note that the boys spent many weary hours before the records were made perfect. In the first place, every member of the recording band had to be placed in just the right position so that the music could blend harmoniously, and this was just a small part of the work. The band was pleased, and the music began, and then the arrangement had to be done all over the again. Then the band began its record, and all would go well until someone would play off time or off beat. Then another was started, and so on until six of the most perfect records ever turned out by the Brunswick were completed.”

Springfield leaders, however, saw the record as worth the work.

“Aside from the release of the recordings themselves, Springfield will derive considerable publicity, for the Brunswick company will present ads in newspapers throughout the nation read by more than 25,000,000 people in connection with its advertising campaign for the Scout records,” noted the Leader.

Click here to hear the Boy Scout Band play a march. (Courtesy of the SGCLD)

That same year, the band’s members became movie stars. C.G. Conn Band Instrument Company, in collaboration with the Brunswick company, decided to “feature the local Scout band in a motion picture showing the influence of music in making true citizens out of the American boy,” reported the Leader in June 1926.

Those reels were shown locally a few months later to a sold-out Shrine Mosque.

“After the last scout had flickered across the silver sheet, the curtain was raised and the organization just presented in pictoral form was sitting on the state, tactfully seated so that each instrument might attain its best effect and surrounded by sage and lighting effects which tended to produce a scene of unusual beauty,” recorded the Republican in September 1926. “Waves of applause greeted the scouts and then as Director R. Ritchie Robertson raised his magic wand, a deep silence fell over the throng as the first notes of the opening overture, ‘The Fall of Jericho,’ were heard.”

Lester E. Cox connection

The Boy Scout Band arrives to perform in St. Louis; Lester E. Cox and Robertson are pictured at center. (Courtesy of American Commercial Photographers/”Lester E. Cox”)


While Robertson was the face of the Boy Scout Band, another local businessman was instrumental (no pun intended) in its success. That man was Lester E. Cox.

Today the namesake of Springfield-based CoxHealth, Cox wasn’t in health care back then. Instead, he managed the Martin Brothers Piano Company, and undoubtedly saw great opportunities for the band.

“(Cox) sold Boy Scout officials on a plan to establish a Boy Scout Band in Springfield,” wrote biographer John Hulston in “Lester E. Cox.” “Needless to say, the Martin Company marketed loads of musical instruments, fulfilling a Cox prophesy that it was easier to separate parents from their money if they prepared Johnny for a school or town band.”

In addition to selling instruments, Cox was a gifted marketer. His slogan — “Teach a boy to blow a horn and he’ll never blow a safe” was widely used, and he leveraged the band to market Springfield to the world. One way was through the aforementioned phonographic record and film. But during his 19 years as manager of the band, he also saw many “Goodwill Tours” for Springfield that took the boys out of town.

“Springfield will derive considerable favorable advertising June 20 – 26 when the famous Boy Scouts band, recognized by business men as the city’s greatest advertising medium, will make its annual tour,” recorded an unidentified Springfield newspaper article, likely from 1927.

“Elaborate plans for spreading the gospel of Springfield’s natural and industrial advantages have been made by the band committee, of which Lester E. Cox is chairman,” the newspaper continued. “One hundred members of the band will make the trip, and 20,000 handsome folders containing ‘up to the minute’ information about Springfield will be distributed by the boys in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Evanston, Ill., and other cities through which the band will pass.”

Promotional booklets were distributed on the Boy Scout Band’s Goodwill Tours. Shown is the 1927 version’s cover, and information on the band. (Courtesy of the SGCLD)


The trips, launched in 1924, were also taken with support from the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. “These were three to five day trips by the band with Springfield businessmen to towns throughout the Ozarks and the state, traveling in 40 car caravans and stopping at eight or nine towns each day to give concerts and to promote goodwill for Springfield,” recorded Springfield! magazine.

According to the article, the band performed in 160 towns in Missouri, plus more than 250 parades in Springfield and the Midwest, by 1930.

Personal memories

The Boy Scout Band, in an undated photograph, is shown near Branson. (Courtesy of the SGCLD)


Those Goodwill Tours offered boys a chance to travel — but they weren’t the only times the band went on the road. In 1933, the band represented Missouri at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Looking back, band member George also recalls an excursion to Norfolk Dam to perform at its dedication, and a trip to the Missouri State Fair in 1936 when the band stayed in tents. “We had an awful lot of fun on those trips,” says George.

There was also the 1936 trip to the Texas Centennial in Dallas, where the band performed for U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “But they took 40 clarinets, and my brother was number 41 and I was number 45, and we did not get to go,” says George.

A few years later, another cause for major excitement turned into a major disappointment.

“In 1939, we were supposed to go to the World’s Fair in New York City,” recalls George. “And that year they had a polio epidemic and so they cancelled. And of course we were just heartbroken. They didn’t want their kids going up there … and taking that kind of a chance. They didn’t have any cure for it except the iron lung in those days.”

Closer to home, he recalls the first Ozark Empire Free Fair — today’s Ozark Empire Fair — in 1936. “We marched on the opening day,” he says. “We walked up and down the midway, marched up and down.”

George also mentions other local parades, which he says usually started at Commercial Street and Washington Avenue. “We marched to Boonville and down to the square,” he says. “In case you don’t know it, that’s quite a hill going (up) Boonville Hill.”

Leaving a legacy

The late 1930s brought a period of change for the band. Robertson began turning over many of its duties to his son, James Robertson, who was a graduate of Drury College (now University) and a fellow at the Julliard School of Music in New York City. That transition was accelerated in 1938, after the elder Robertson suffered a stroke.

That year, an honorary doctorate was bestowed on him from Westminster College in Fulton. Springfield also took time to honor Robertson on Aug. 27, 1938, when the baseball game at White City Park featured a celebration of his contributions. The Springfield Leader and Press promoted the event in advance, noting that there would be a “pleasant” surprise for Robertson.

That surprise, presented in front of a capacity crowd, turned out to be another car. “The auto, a dark red sedan, was purchased by President A.G. Eckerd of the Springfield Cardinals, from funds donated by the Cardinal club, businessmen, school teachers and friends of the popular director,” reported the Leader and Press the next day.

Although he expressed deep gratitude in accepting the present, Robertson said he never could understand “why people say I have done much for Springfield, for Springfield has done much more for me.”

On Nov. 5, 1939, Robertson passed away. “Perhaps his greatest work was in popularizing music in the community,” said Harry Study, Springfield superintendent, after Robertson’s death. “He was certainly one the greatest men in the entire country in his ability to create community interest in school music, and to carry school music outside the schools into general community life.”


The George brothers proved the truth of such a statement. Although they attended Greenwood throughout their younger years, one simple factor convinced them to transfer to Senior (now Central) High School. “Greenwood didn’t have a good band, so we all went over to Central,” says George of the handful of students who transferred for high school.

Both boys stayed active in music — through things like the high school band, dance band and private lessons, in addition to the Boy Scout Band — until they were graduated from high school in 1942. Through those activities, they saw a great deal of Robertson’s son: In addition to the Boy Scout Band, he took over as music director for Springfield Public Schools.

But times were changing. Ten years after the younger Robertson took over the Boy Scout Band, a simple announcement brought the end of an era.

“Springfield’s Boy Scout band, known as the largest organization of its kind in the world, will be disbanded in November, Joseph M. Acuff, chairman of the Band Committee, said today,” reported the Macon Chronicle-Herald in April 1949.

The decision wasn’t because of low numbers: Around 200 boys were still involved in the band at the time. Instead, officials said that the public school system’s offerings had expanded so much that the program was no longer necessary.

Others, however, pointed to a different reason.

“… For many years, national Boy Scout executives had been dubious of the band, expressing the far that boys joined the scouts as a means to membership in the band rather than for the total scouting experience,” clarified Springfield! magazine. “Ozark Council Scout Executive Allen Foster fought attempts to disband the group until his death in 1947. However, succeeding Ozark Council Executive Mel Tudor was not in sympathy with the band. The news of its dissolution shocked the city.”

Recalling the band

Even though the band ended, its memories didn’t. Reunions were held at various times for members, and it even briefly revived in the 1970s. In 1990, a 30-inch-high bust of Robertson was unveiled at Central High School in tribute to the famed band leader.

As time passed, it’s clear that the band remained a source of pride. The proof: Even decades later, participating was so important that it was included in many obituaries.

Former members were so proud that band membership was mentioned in obituaries.


Each obituary, however, means there’s one less memory. “Less and less people know about it all the time,” says local Boy Scout leader Larry Donze, noting the limited number of members still alive. “It’s down to just a couple.”

Those memories are why Donze helped create an exhibit on the Boy Scout Band that’s currently on display at the at the Dr. Michael J Clarke Museum of Ozarks Scouting. Open since January, the exhibit shows pictures and memorabilia from the band — and helps preserve its story, for which Donze voices his admiration. “I think that the fact that it went so strong for (so long) is pretty amazing,” he says.

Want to learn more?

The Dr. Michael J Clarke Museum of Ozarks Scouting is located inside the Boy Scouts of America Ozark Trails Council (1616 S. Eastgate Ave., Springfield), which may be contacted by phone at (417) 883-1636.

Thanks to the work of historian Don Burns, the Springfield-Greene County Library District also has a considerable collection of information related to the Boy Scout Band. It is available for viewing at The Library Center.

Resources

“Band leader honored at ceremony,” Kathy Oechsle, Springfield News-Leader, Oct. 8, 1990

“Boy Scout Band,” Springfield Republican, Nov. 3, 1920

“Boy Scout Band honor guard to world famous bandmaster,” Springfield Leader, Feb. 5, 1924

“Boy Scout Band to appear in motion pictures next week,” Springfield Leader, July 11, 1926

“Boy Scouts make big at Rotary meeting,” Springfield Republican, April 13, 1921

“Brunswick company releases Scout band records,” Springfield Leader, Aug. 26, 1926

“Famed Boy Scout Band to break up,” Macon Chronicle-Herald, April 27, 1949

“Kiwanis Club lauds R. Ritchie Robertson as city’s best asset,” Springfield Republican, May 24, 1924

“Lester E. Cox,” John K. Hulston, 1992

“Music director’s program gave students a sense of belonging,” Mike O’Brien, Springfield News-Leader, May 3, 1999

“Organization of Boy Scout Band nearly completed,” Springfield Republican, Oct. 19, 1920

“R. Ritchie Robertson collection grows at public library,” Lucile Morris Upton, Springfield Leader and Press, Dec. 27, 1971

“Scout band is heard by big crowd,” Springfield Republican, Sept. 4, 1926

“Scouts band is praised,” Springfield Republican, June 24, 1923

“Scout band records to be made this week,” Springfield Leader, June 13, 1926

“Springfield’s amazing Boy Scout Band,” Don Burns, Springfield! Magazine (Volumes I, II, III and IV)

“Springfield of the Ozarks,” Harris and Phyllis Dark, 1981

“When Sousa came to Springfield, Don Burns, Sunday News and Leader, Feb. 6, 1972

“Who says there are no good fairies? Well, you just ask R.R. Robertson!” Springfield Leader, July 7, 1921

2 thoughts on “Remembering Springfield’s Boy Scout Band, the largest in the world

  1. I also know KOZK did a story on the BSA band many, many years ago. I know this because they interviewed my grandfather, Warren Miller, who was a drum major for the band. I wish I could find that old clip.

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