Saxie Pike — A life of music and showmanshipBY AURORE EATON
March 24. 2014 5:15PM
In the Valley Cemetery in Manchester, a little distance south of the road that leads to the Pine Street gate, there is a simple bronze marker with raised and polished letters that reads "FRANCIS HARVEY PIKE - DRUM MAJ NH INF - CIVIL WAR - OCT 1 1824 - DEC 16 1903 - FONDLY CALLED SAXIE." It is easy to miss, as it lies flat on the ground, its edges covered in grass.
Francis Harvey "Saxie" Pike is one of Manchester's most colorful historical characters. He was a mechanic by trade, but made his mark on the world as a rare kind of showman. He was a flamboyant and much sought-after drum major during an era when local civilian and military bands were a major source of entertainment for many kinds of events. There was no one to match Saxie Pike for panache. Manchester historian Frank Spinney wrote of him, "There was something about his spirit, a supreme self-assurance, a fierce pride in his role that gave him stature…[He] always had a burning conviction of his own importance. Somehow it gave him a dignity and cloaked him with a nobility that others came to believe in, too."
Francis Pike was born in Newport, New Hampshire, on October 1, 1824, the son of Ephraim and Lucy Crossman Pike. Young Francis had a natural affinity for music, and took readily to playing the fife. In his youth he participated in concerts in Newport as part of a local instrumental musical society and also played with the town band. He married Mary Lucretia Sholes of Claremont in December 1842. The couple moved to Manchester in 1845 with their baby, Agnes. Francis found work at the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company Machine Shop. Mary gave birth to two sons, both of whom died in 1853. Later that year their daughter Ida was born. Their son Willie was born in 1855, and their last child, Lucy, in 1860.
For many years the Pike family lived in the Machine Shop Block. This brick tenement housing owned by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company was located between Mechanic and Spring streets (at the current site of the Brady Sullivan Plaza parking garage). This section of Amoskeag "corporate" housing was set aside for the company's machinists and mechanics, a special class of workers who manufactured textile machinery, steam locomotives, and steam fire engines and also produced other metal fabrications for the company. The original Machine Shop was located at the present site of the main building of the University of New Hampshire at Manchester on Commercial Street (the current building is the "new" Machine Shop of 1890).
The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company had its own fire department composed of three divisions. One of these, Niagara Engine Company No. 2, was operated by the men of the Machine Shop. Francis joined this hand-tub company in 1858 and he would play fife tunes to keep up the men's spirits during practices, often to the beat of coworker William Barwick's drum. For amusement, his fellow firemen began to call him "Saxie," a common nickname for New York City firemen at the time.
Saxie Pike and his fife were also in demand at local militia gatherings and firemen's musters. He was one of the original members of the Manchester Cornet Band, which was founded and led by Walter Dignam in 1854. Walter was the organist and choir director at St. Anne's Church in Manchester. Several of the band's members worked for the Amoskeag Machine Shop. In addition to playing fife, Saxie also played cymbals and drums for the band, and he was sometimes tasked with announcing the dance numbers at gala events. He was honored to perform this duty at the dedication ball for the opening of Smyth's Block on Elm Street in January 1855.
Later that year the Manchester Corner Band traveled with a local militia group, the Amoskeag Veterans, to Washington, D.C., as special guests of President Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. Saxie Pike led a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House, where President Pierce reviewed the troops. The Veterans and the band then traveled to Mount Vernon, the home of President George Washington, where they enjoyed a guided tour by George Washington Parke Custis, Washington's adopted son.
Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story - More of the story of Francis Harvey "Saxie" Pike..
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org