A Surprise Attic Find Joins The Collection

Historical Article Series May 3, 2020 > A Surprise Attic Find Joins The Collection

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 51, No. 1, April 2015

In January the Marcy family had some insulation work done in their attic.  After the workers left, Helene Marcy used her phone flashlight to examine their work.  She noticed a large black box under the eaves.  She thought one of the men had left behind their toolbox but, instead, there was a surprise inside.  When she opened the box, she discovered an old alto horn along with two music booklets and many loose sheets of band music, mostly hand-written.  “Mansfield Brass Band” was inscribed inside the cover of one booklet.  The other was inscribed with the name of the owner, C. G. Cummings.  Mystified, the Marcys tracked down the three families who had previously lived in the house, but none knew of the horn’s existence.  In February, Helene Marcy donated the horn and music to the Historical Society. 

Horn

The Horn

Upon receiving the horn, we immediately consulted with David Yutzey, one of our members who is a collector of antique brass instruments.  He identified the instrument as an alto saxhorn probably dating from the mid to late 19th century.  The horn is made of nickel alloy rather than brass.  It has three rotary valves and is pitched in the key of E flat.  The wooden case is original and known as a coffin case due to its shape.

Unfortunately, there are no marks on the horn to indicate when or by whom it was made.  However, according to Yutzey, the rotary valves on the horn suggest that it may have been made in Eastern Europe where rotary valves were more commonly used.  The saxhorn, as originally invented by Adolphe Sax prior to 1850, had piston valves, like a modern trumpet.  

Thanks to the generosity of David Yutzey, the horn was recently restored to playable condition.  The work was done by Dick Hansen, a brass-instrument repairman with a shop located in Brimfield, Mass.

The repair work made it possible to determine the exact pitch of the horn by playing it into an instrument tuning meter. The horn is pitched somewhat higher than modern instruments, typical of wind band instruments in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries. By the mid-20th century, most band instruments were tuned lower to make them compatible with the standard of pitch (A = 440) used by symphony orchestras. 

The Music

Yutzey also examined the band music contained in the instrument case and offered to catalog it. There are 103 sheets of music, 91 of them handwritten.  All contain only the part for the alto saxhorn.  Yutzey explained that it was common practice for band members to hand-copy their parts from the printed score held by the band leader.

At least 18 of the pieces were written by Willimantic composer and band leader, Thomas H. Rollinson.  One of his pieces, a quick step, is titled “Atwoodville”.  More about him follows.

C. G. Cummings & the Mansfield Brass Band

The Marcy’s gift launched a research quest to discover more about C. G. Cummings and the Mansfield Brass Band. 

The horn’s owner was most likely Charles G. Cummings who was born in Mansfield in 1844 and died in 1901.  He’s buried in the Hillside Cemetery on Spring Hill Road.  Articles in the Willimantic Chronicle from the 1880s indicate that he lived in Gurleyville.  His parents lived in a house, now gone, that was located at the intersection of East Road and Hanks Hill Road. Surprisingly, sometime after Charles Cumming’s death, his widow married Bradley M. Sears and moved into the Victorian farmhouse right next door to our museum.  Was the horn there before finding its way to the Marcy’s house?

An article in the Willimantic Chronicle, dated March 1, 1882, suggests that Charles Cummings was also a member of the Mansfield Fife and Drum Corps.  The event it describes took place in the old Town Hall which is now part of our museum complex.  It’s hard to imagine a ball being held there!

The ball given under the auspices of the Mansfield Fife and Drum Corps (the last of the season) at the Town hall last Friday night Feb. 24th, was a grand success and will long remain a memorable affair in the minds of those present. The music furnished by E. Jackson, F. Jackson, F. Bliss, A. Freeman and C. Cummings, was good and all that could be desired. Most if not all of the performers are members of the corps thus showing to the world that they have the talent and can furnish music suitable for most any occasion. The corps consists of fifteen pieces, drums and fifes, and are equal if not superior to any in the state.”

Unfortunately little information has been found to date about the Mansfield Brass Band.  There is a reference to it in a letter dated April 4, 1843 that was written by Robert Porter Barrows of Mansfield to his brother Lucius Barrows in Cedarville, New Jersey.  It mentions a brass band “started in old Mansfield [that] now consists of twenty members.”

Barrows describes the instruments in the band as follows: 

  • two ophiclydes
  • two post Horns
  • four clarionettes
  • four bugles 
  • three trombones 
  • one concert horn
  • two valve trumpets
  • symbols
  • bass drum

Barrows also relates, “I have drummed for them some they are doing the business up about right [and] have been paying some attention to teetotalism here this winter.”  Teetotalism was an extreme form of the temperance movement that advocated total abstinence from alcoholic beverages.

The only other reference to the band was found in an article in The Hartford Times, dated April 13, 1844.  It advertises that the Mansfield Brass Band and the Coventry Glee Club were to be the featured entertainment at a fair being held at the Congregational Church in South Coventry.  It was a fundraising event for the Nathan Hale Memorial which would be built two years later. 

For now it’s unknown how long the Mansfield Brass Band existed after the 1840s.  No further references to it have been found.  Did it survive past the Civil War?  Were its members absorbed by the Mansfield Fife and Drum Corps or other bands in the area?  It’s a mystery that remains to be solved. 

Many thanks to Helene Marcy for donating her surprise attic find.  The horn, original case, and music are wonderful additions to our collection.

We are also very grateful to David Yutzey for facilitating and financing the restoration of the horn and his efforts in cataloging the music.  He also researched and wrote the following article about Thomas H. Rollison, the composer of much of the music found in the case.

Thomas H. Rollinson: Willimantic Bandmaster and Composer

Thomas H. Rollinson was the first bandmaster of Willimantic. He was born in Ware, Massachusetts on January 4, 1844 and came with his family to Willimantic, Connecticut in 1853. Rollinson went to Rhode Island to receive his formal musical education, which consisted of training in instrumental music, performance on cornet, piano and organ, and the study of common musical practices in counterpoint, harmony and composition.

Rollinson's School poster

It has been estimated that, in his lifetime, Rollinson published hundreds of original compositions, including marches, quicksteps, galops and serenades, dances in several forms including polkas, schottisches and waltzes, and more serious pieces, such as overtures, fantasies and solos and duets for various instruments. Rollinson possessed many musical skills, which he applied to leading performances by brass ensembles early in his career and creating compositions within a number of musical genres until the end of his life.

In 1858, the Willimantic Cornet Band, allegedly the “first brass band in Willimantic,” was organized, complete with a constitution and by-laws, that included nineteen articles, and with a board of elected officers representing some of the town’s foremost businesses, trades and professional men. Unfortunately, within a few years, the band had to suspend its activities because of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The band’s operations were not resumed until 1868. After some apparent struggling with determining the legitimacy of some of the memberships and with reestablishing the logistics of operating procedures and policies, Thomas H. Rollinson was appointed leader of the Willimantic Cornet Band on August 4, 1868.

After some four years as leader of the Willimantic Cornet Band – reportedly without pay – Thomas Rollinson was formally thanked for his leadership by the band at its March 1872 annual meeting. As a token of their appreciation, Rollinson was presented a silver tea set in recognition of his service to the band.

Unfortunately, by 1876 the Willimantic Cornet Band found itself in disarray and apparently headed for extinction. At the March annual meeting in that year, after much debate on the payment of bills, the collection of back dues, and the sale of musical instruments and other property owned by the band, a vote was taken on the details of disbandment. Committees were established, including Rollinson prominently as a member, to appraise the band’s property and to assure that members in arrears paid a tax of $4 in lieu of back dues owed.

In the summer of 1876, a new Willimantic Band was founded with Thomas Rollinson as director. At the same time a National Band of Willimantic had organized with some of its players being taken from the former band at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Willimantic. Competition from the National Band and the departure of Rollinson from the local music scene in the early 1880’s, doubtless were factors contributing to the eventual disappearance of the new Willimantic Band.

 The exit from Willimantic by Thomas Rollinson was signaled by several events that might today be called “career moves” on his part. He had played solo cornet for one season with the Boston Cadet Band while still a resident of Willimantic. As early as 1879, Rollinson had apparently taken steps to obtain employment in music other than leading the Willimantic Cornet Band. He had joined with A. C. Andrew in running a local music store at 178 Main Street in Willimantic. It was reported, in December of 1879, that Rollinson had accepted a position to lead a band in Mansfield, Ohio, but there is no evidence that he ended up going there. Then, in 1883, Rollinson took the position of director of the Waltham Watch Company Band, which subsequently under his leadership earned a reputation for its outstanding concert and parade work.

In 1887, Rollinson finally found permanent employment deserving of his musical talents and managerial abilities. He was hired by the Oliver Ditson Company to serve as music arranger and as head of band and orchestra music sales. During the time he was at Ditson, it is estimated that Rollinson composed over 400 original works and made arrangements or otherwise authored approximately 1,500 other musical publications.

Thomas Rollinson died at his home in Massachusetts on June 23, 1928 and was buried in the Mt. Feake Cemetery in Waltham. 

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