ONE OF THE MORE remarkable stories coming out of the brass band era of 19th century America originated in the village of Fisherville, N.H. The story begins with the founding and short life of the Fisherville Brass Band.
As author D. Arthur Brown described in the first chapter of his 1902 history of Penacook: “The village of Penacook, formerly Fisherville, owes its existence largely to the abundant water power of the Contoocook River, on which the fall is about one hundred feet within the village limits, producing ample power for a large manufacturing community … With the Contoocook River as a central line, the village limits extend about one mile along the west bank of the Merrimack river, and about one and one half miles westward from the Merrimack to the upper falls of the Contoocook River … making it about one and one half square miles of territory.”
Beginning in the 1760s the area that would become Fisherville was a popular site for water-powered saw and grist mills. By the early 19th century other types of industry began to be established there. The little settlement grew to a few hundred inhabitants and was named Fisherville, in honor of two brothers, Francis and Freeman Fisher, who introduced cotton manufacturing to the village around 1836. Eventually Fisherville’s economy also included wool manufacturing; hat and dress making; ax, axle, saw, and hatchet production; and stove, tin, blacksmith, and wood shops.
By the 1880s, the memory of the Fisher brothers had apparently faded, as Fisherville gradually became known as Penacook. This was the name of the band of the Wabanaki Confederacy that had once inhabited the area. Today, the original village of Penacook exists as a section of north Concord that borders the town of Boscawen.
In the 1840s and 1850s there was a kind of fever that spread within the United States regarding band music. This was a time when new brass instruments were being developed, and the ready availability and ease of play of these various horns led to the proliferation of town bands. In 1845, 14 local men got together and organized the Fisherville Brass Band. The band benefited from having George Frank Sanborn among its members, as he had purchased a snare drum in 1840 and could play it well. It is likely that many (or all) of the other men in the band were novices. In any case, they needed instruction, so they hired Prof. Asa L. Drew of Concord as their teacher.
Drew was well-regarded as an organ player and singing instructor. According to historian Brown, he was also “a fine performer on the key bugle, as well as an excellent drill master, and brought this band up to first-class proficiency in short order.” The Fisherville Brass Band was invited to play at many public events in Fisherville and in nearby towns.
In September 1847 the band was hired by the Concord Light Infantry Company, which escorted the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston when it came to Concord to celebrate its 211th anniversary.
Brown recorded this amusing story from that day in his history of Penacook: “On this occasion an incident occurred that was not soon forgotten by one member of the band. On the parade down Main Street, Jeremiah Burpee was playing slide trombone on the left of the front section, the band was playing for all they were worth as they came down opposite the foot of Pleasant Street, but as soon as Burpee had passed that street he noticed that the band was playing much weaker, so he played the louder hoping to encourage the boys, but in spite of his loudest blasts on the trombone the band grew rapidly fainter, he finally stopped for a moment and looked around to see what the trouble was, and to his infinite disgust found himself alone, and the rest of the band just disappearing up Pleasant street. He had been so intent on his music that he had not noticed the turning up Pleasant street by the men at his right.” Burpee would always enjoy a good laugh when recounting this incident.
Despite its success, the Fisherville Brass Band was discontinued in September 1850, for reasons not recorded.
Next week: A second brass ensemble, the Fisherville Cornet Band, is organized.