The Band Plays On August 24 2009, 0 Comments
The Band Plays On
*Article submitted by Connie Furtney
Forest, Ontario, Canada is located about 30 miles east of the US border City of Port Huron, Michigan. It is in the heart of a farming community near Lake Huron. As with a number of community bands during WWI and WWII some of the musicians made their way into Canadian Military bands. The Excelsior band is probably the longest continuing operational band in Canada, because the Allentown Community concert band is the oldest in North America.
Forest is a great town in which to live for many reasons. One of these is the fact that we are one of the few small towns left which has its own band. The Forest Excelsior Band has been around since 1884! That means that this year, 2009, is the 125th anniversary (“quasquicentennial” - try saying that three times fast!) of the band. One of our band’s claims to fame is that it is the oldest civilian band that has been in continuous operation in North America. The Forest Excelsior Band has even received recognition in "Ripley’s Believe It Or Not."
In this day and age of Internet, video games, Wii and television, it is hard to imagine a time when a town band was a vibrant force in the day-to-day activities of a community, and indeed a main source of entertainment. Yet, this was exactly the purpose that the Excelsior Band once fulfilled. In 1884, a group of 25 musicians, all male, formed a civilian precision marching band. Their very name set high standards for the band— “Excelsior” , meaning “excellence”, was the inscription found on a Crimean War trumpet, and was taken by the band’s moniker. Smartly clad in gray braided uniforms, the band certainly lived up to its name in those early years with its achievement of high honours in many national competitions in Toronto.
A Time of Changes
During WWI, the band went through many changes. Members left to serve their country, remaining members provided music for the local soldiers. Once peacetime returned, several bandmasters, many of whom were local residents, led the band. Each summer the band would board a special Canadian National Exhibition (C.N.E.) train at the Forest train station. They would travel to Toronto and return home with happy news of awards and trophies. In 1930, the band achieved First Class Honours in the C.N.E. national competition. This was one of many awards that the band achieved during this era. During the Great Depression, the band’s many concerts and marching engagements became much anticipated local traditions. Examples of such engagements were the annual Christmas Carol Sing held around the Christmas tree near the old Town Hall, a New Year’s Eve concert, Forest Fair performances, and numerous ceremonial functions.
In 1984, the Forest Excelsior Band turned 100 years. Band Centennial pins were created and worn proudly by the forty-plus members as they played a Canada Day concert on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Later that summer, the band also played at Queen’s Park to mark Ontario’s bicentennial.
The Past Quarter-Century
In the past twenty-five years, the band has transformed from a concert band to a “big band” format, specializing in swing, jazz, and current popular music. Several talented vocalists have performed with the band. The 2007 purchase of new uniforms, funded fifty percent by a grant from the Forest Community Foundation, have kept the band looking as sharp as ever. Recent engagements under the direction of current bandmaster Dan Dumais have included some of the traditional performances at local Christmas parades, community concerts and ceremonial events, but have also included such varied experiences as dance competitions and playing three consecutive years at a Sarnia high school prom!
More Sweet Music to Come
The band’s future looks promising. Many enthusiastic members, including many young and talented musicians, a fresh look with new uniforms, a dedicated bandmaster and a growing body of loyal fans, have positioned the band well for its next quarter-century and beyond. The band is truly grateful to the support it has received in the Lambton Shores area, and is looking forward to celebrating many more anniversaries!
*The writer is a contributor to the Lambeth County Shores newsletter, published quarterly in Forest. Our thanks to her for permission to publish!