The El Dorado Springs Municipal Band, organized in the 1880s, performs three weekly concerts during the summer.
EL DORADO SPRINGS – With a flick of his baton, Gary Hardison leads the El Dorado Springs Municipal Band in both timeless songs and tradition. For at least 130 years, the ensemble has brought music, marches and memories to the town’s people. And today, its members echo their ancestors: During summer months, three free, weekly concerts offer ears a tune back in time.
“There’s nothing quite like it,” says Ben Vickers, a trumpet player in the band. “Even whenever nobody comes, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun.”
The Ozarks evening, warm and welcoming as a summertime hug, fades into haze as the group begins to play. Some tunes are Sousa-style favorites that march to the bass drum; others are classic and contemporary, such as a medley from “Oklahoma!” All are announced by band manager Teri Biddlecome, and all are sight-read: The group doesn’t rehearse.
Flickering fireflies fill the audience, as do people sprinkled throughout the park. Some listeners stay in their cars or perch along the city park’s rock wall. A Frisbee is tossed as the sound of once-familiar tunes get the chance to live again — if only for a few minutes.
“I know there are really old tattered pieces that are from the 1800s,” says band member Riley Taylor of some of the band’s songs. “So it’s really cool and exciting to kind of see what our culture was back then,” he notes.
“If they could tell stories, that would be amazing.”
Beginning the band
The town’s band — originally known as the Wonder City Rube Band — is pictured in 1886. (Courtesy of “The Band Plays On”)
But the band’s music does tell a story. That tale dates to the mid-1880s, just a few short years after El Dorado Springs came to be in 1881. It was a time of explosive growth for the town, which began after a thought-to-be medicinal spring was discovered.
“Bathhouses, hotels, retail businesses and churches were quickly built to accommodate the health seekers,” reported “The Band Plays On,” a booklet published for the band’s centennial in 1985. “Opera houses, a skating rink and swimming pool were developed later for the recreation of tourists and residents, but the earliest recreation revolved around the park.”
That central location is where the band had its birth in either 1885 or 1886, at which time it was known as the Wonder City Rube Band. As recorded in “The Band Plays On,” it wasn’t long before the band became a central figure in the growing community:
“The band was called on numerous times when special events were going on, such as greeting the first train to arrive in El Dorado Springs in 1898, a gala event at the Grand Central Hotel in 1899, and escorting the first auto through town in 1908. It made its first radio broadcast in Salina, Kansas and played at dedication of the band shell at Ft. Scott, Kansas. The Park Band became goodwill ambassadors for the city.”
As time passed
The bandstand circa 1920 (Courtesy of “The Band Played On”)
Some things — like the band’s name — have changed with time. Another example is the admittance of women, who were first allowed to play in 1919. (However, several years later, the town also began a second, women-only group called the American Maidens Band.)
The “new” gazebo, where the band performs today, was built in 1937: It was a community effort for which locals were asked to contribute. But their gifts weren’t necessarily monetary. “Pieces of broken pottery from China, petrified wood from Bates County, marbles and a large round rock with quartz in it lie among the sandstone base,” records the band’s book.
But over the years, at least one thing has stayed the same: The group’s dedication, proven through its members.
“To me, it’s a sense of history,” says trombonist Brent Hillsman, who was high school when he joined the group nearly 40 years ago. For him, the history he refers to be is part of his own: For years, he played alongside several of his family members. “So it’s a little bit of a tradition for us,” he says.
Lauren, Terri Biddlecome’s granddaughter, watches her grandmother perform during a recent concert.
The same is true for band manager Biddlecome, another of the group’s longtime trombonists, who plays next to her husband. “It’s a big family thing, because if parents are in this, they bring their kids,” she says, recalling the time her children spent in the park listening to concerts.
One of those “kids” is Sarah Holz, Biddlecome’s daughter, who today plays flute with the group. “We three kids had to sit there on that rock wall and we couldn’t get up,” she says of concerts from days gone by. “I always knew I was going to play in the band.”
And in a bit of life-level deja vu, Holz now brings her young daughter to concerts. When asked, the youngster already wants to join when she’s old enough — but until then, she’s practicing. Sitting near her trombone-playing grandparents, she watches, listens and waits for her turn to play, waving her hands in time with the director’s baton.
Gary Hardison directs all the band’s concerts, just as he’s done since 1980.
The person waving that baton is the aforementioned Gary Hardison, who has been part of the ensemble for 55 years. “I started because that was the thing to do back then if you played in high school,” he says, who entered the group as a trumpet-playing freshman.
As time passed, so did his skill set: After an education in music, Hardison was asked to become the group’s conductor in 1980. He replaced the previous director — a man by the name of W.W. Sunderwirth — after the former leader passed away.
It was Sunderwirth’s wife, Lillian, who requested Hardison take the baton. The band’s longtime (and much loved) manager, she is still remembered through concerts today. “A lot of the stuff (we do) is in memory of Lillian, and honor,” says Hardison.
Some examples include opening each season with “And the Band Played On,” concluding each Sunday concert with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and including “God Bless America” in every single performance. All are traditions that Sunderwirth helped propel. But as many of the members note, the band is built on tradition: That, along with simple enjoyment, draw its members back time and again.
“I just like it,” says Hardison of working with the band. “Every year I think, ‘I’m not going to do it again next year,’ but I do.”
Finding the future
The band represents a wide range of ages: High schoolers are eligible to join, and often stay with the group for years.
While many of the band’s members are longtime participants, there are a few newcomers as well. “One-fourth … are either high school or college kids, and they need the extra money,” says Hardison.
Yes, money. Because while it’s no king’s salary, each band member gets paid — usually around $25 a concert — based on his or her experience. “So they’re part of the reason we’re going to have people,” says Hardison of the band’s younger members. “There’s no place else around this part of the country where they can go and get paid what they get paid down here (per hour).”
The funds come from a city band tax, which was enacted in 1921. “It’s not that much per person at the end of the year,” says Hardison. “It’s just enough that we keep music coming in (and) we can pay the players. We usually break even every year.”
A threat to that tax came in 1960, when some citizens petitioned for its abolition. But people on the other side of the issue, such as Bess Dove, rallied in support of their city’s institution:
“El Dorado Springs without a band would be like November without a Thanksgiving — a December without a Christmas.
Anyone who has no sentiment for the past has no fiber for the future. But the band does not belong only to the past — it is a vital part of the present. … If you tax money wasn’t “wasted” on the band, you can rest assured that it would be “wasted” some other way. Take your spite out on the General Fund, but don’t go kicking’ the hound-dog of the band around.
That park would be deader than a dodo without the band — and the town would be, too. Visitors appreciate it even if some of the home folks don’t. In fact, it’s time we’re waking up to what we’ve got here in this man’s town.”
In the end, the tax wasn’t removed.
But for some of the band’s members, playing isn’t about the money anyway. “Personally, I would do this for free,” says 18-year-old Taylor. “We play a lot of the same music, and sometimes that gets a little old, but usually every night, something crazy happens. Something unexpected. Or sometimes we’ve seen something we’ve never played before and it’s just interesting.”
And his friends are there, too. “Usually we hang out afterwards, sit here and talk,” says Vickers, now 19 years old. “There’s a lot of good people up there. We joke around and we just have a good time.”
Want to listen?
The El Dorado Springs Municipal Band performs on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during June, July and August. The hour-long concerts on Fridays and Saturdays are at 8 p.m., and on Sundays 2 p.m. For more information, visit El Dorado Springs’ website.