At the turn of the century, Merrill might have been called the City of Bands. Bands have been associated intimately with the city’s history since this community came into being on the banks of the Wisconsin River over a century ago.
The present band is one of the oldest municipal bands in the state of Wisconsin. It is an outgrowth of older bands-– Malzahn’s, Potters, West Side, St. John’s, The Imperials, and the Merrill High School Bands.
The concerts of the early days were but a small part of the band’s activities. The bands were the center of attraction during the frequent parades, picnics, and political rallies that highlighted the social life in the “good old days.” The band fans came on “shanks mare” to enjoy their music in those days and they stood around the bandstand or sat on the ground because ringside seats were not provided.
Bandstands were scattered throughout the city and some were quite a distance from the center of town. Some of the old bandstands were at Braatz’s Park (now Riverside Park), Ballschmeiders Park, Kolakowskis Park, and York’s Park. There were also stands on the corner of West Main Street and Foster Street, at the east side of the old City Hall, near the library, and in Cenotaph Park by Park Place on Grand Avenue.
The Merrill City Band was instrumental in providing a band program in the Merrill High School. In 1929, the officers of the band proposed a resolution to the City Council that the school system start a band program. The school would hire a director for band and orchestra, and duties would include directing the Merrill City Band. The resolution was passed by a vote of 13 to 1. The School Board was also in favor of the resolution and Superintendent of Schools, George Brooks, was instructed to receive applications for a music director.
Professor D.C. Burkholder was hired to be the director of the school’s bands and orchestras and also to direct the Merrill City Band. As the years went on, the high school music program provided many musicians for the City Band and even today, many City Band members are former Merrill high school musicians.
During the 1930’s, another band was part of the Merrill community. Carl Hamsing organized Charlie’s German Band, made up of many City Band members. Carl was a shoemaker and wore his “big shoes” (about a size 22) when he directed the band. The band had 12-15 members. They played with the City Band in parades, then changed into different uniforms, and marched with Charlie’s German Band at the end of the parade.
During World War II, 26 members of the Merrill City Band served with the armed forces. The high school members filled in for the men leaving for service. The City Band played at the Depot every time a group of men left for induction in the armed forces.
Merrill City Band directors, beginning in 1911:
1911 E.E. Howland
1912 Silas Johnson
1913 Frank Bliss
1918 Vincent Bliss
1921 Roy Johnson
1923 Prof. F. Kern
1930 Prof. D.C. Burkholder
1940 K. Cuthbert
1942 Mrs. K. Cuthbert
1929 M.F. Talbot also ‘43, ‘48
1944 Jay Jorgenson
1953 Frederic G. Mumma
1978 David Ament
1980 Linda Becker
Art Taylor Sr. and Peter Richardson were also called upon to direct the band from time to time.
Some of the past “old timers” who played for over 40 years were E.E. Howland, Gerald Howland, Oscar Clovstad, Melvin Talbot, Joe and Ray Semling, Max Heckendorf, Clarence Wendorf, Grover Heath, Victor Planso, Frank and Elmer Hitzke, Henry Vonderheid, Les Kienitz, Ole Lokemoen, and Bob Stimers.
A new group of “old timers” is forming, with many members having been a part of the organization for over 30 years, including Linda Becker, Judy Bondioli, Bud Gennrich, Darlene Hanig, Paul Kienitz, Lee Knispel, Cindy Koehler, Dick Lokemoen, Pete Lokemoen, Helen Ourada, Chad Premeau, Patty Roets, and Jay Tlusty. Darlene Hanig and Pete Lokemoen hold the distinction of being in the band for over 50 years!
Les Kienitz was the drum major from 1937–1941, and again from 1946–1985 after returning from army duty in World War II. After the death of Les in 1986, his son, Paul, picked up the baton and has been leading the band in parades on the 4th of July and Labor Day ever since.
The City Band has over 70 active members. Concerts are played at Normal Park on Wednesday evenings in the summer, in a beautiful gazebo donated by the Stand and Lydia Bauman family in 2011. All concerts are played at this site, except the final concert of the year, which is held at Cenotaph Park.
In addition to the Wednesday evening concerts, the group performs for the annual Merrill Memorial Day service, the Tomahawk Pow Wow Days parade on July 4th, and the Merrill Labor Day parade. The band also traveled to the Madison state capitol in 1994 to perform at the Community Band Festival.
The Merrill City Band is an important part of the community. It enjoys a long and colorful history. The group was voted as one of the Seven Wonders of Merrill by the citizens of the community in 2007.
2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the Merrill City Band and what better way to celebrate than with a new performance site in the heart of Merrill.
The Chamber of Commerce voted the Merrill City Band the Not-For-Profit organization of the year for 2016.