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Otto's Band

Grace Shackman

Playing “The Victors” in manuscript and sending soldiers off to war, they gave the city its sound track for half a century

In a temporary stage illuminated by gasoline lamps, Otto’s Band gave summer concerts on the County Courthouse lawn in the early decades of the twentieth century. The audience, who in the days before radio and record players had few opportunities to hear music, was very appreciative of all the pieces, but the highlight was always “The Holy City.” Everyone was quiet as bandleader Louis Otto rose and played the sentimental religious solo on his cornet. When Otto finished, he was answered by Ray Haight, playing his trumpet from the Allenel Hotel across Huron Street. “It was the most beautiful thing I ever heard,” the late Ralph Lutz, who played in the band, recalled in a 1974 interview. “I’ll never forget it.”

Otto’s Band, under slightly varying names, entertained townsfolk and commemorated important events for almost fifty years. Henry Otto Sr. started the band in 1875, and his son Louis took over in 1895. The musicians, numbering about twenty, marched in parades, provided music for dances, gave concerts, and sent soldiers off to the Spanish-American War and World War I. Under Louis’s leadership they became a professional band, the first local members of the musicians’ union. Among their many accomplishments is the honor of being the first to play the U-M fight song, “The Victors.”

Photograph of Henry Otto's Band posing in front of the courthouse

Henry Otto's Band

Music was a vital part of German American culture. Marion Otto McCallum, niece of Louis Otto and daughter of band member Henry Otto Jr., recalls that “a good share of the population” came out to see the band whenever it played. “There were other little bands, but Otto’s was the band as far as I can see,” McCallum explains. “It was a good part of our living at that young age.”

According to family stories, Henry Otto Sr. left Germany because he was tired of fighting for the king. He first came to North America during the Civil War era and lived in New Hamburg, Ontario, near Stratford. In 1870 Henry moved to Ann Arbor with his brothers, Valentine and Jonas. He returned to Canada in 1872 but came back here for good in 1875 after receiving an offer to join Jacob Gwinner’s band.

Henry and his wife Margaret--also a German immigrant who’d initially settled in Canada--built a house at 558 South Fifth Avenue. Today, Fingerle Lumber takes up most of the neighborhood, but at the time it was still pasture and swamp. When he wasn’t playing music, Henry Otto was a blacksmith who specialized in shoeing horses. He carried on his trade at 215 South Ashley, now site of the Schwaben Halle, with his sons Jonas and George.

Otto played many different instruments, but the violin was his favorite. He taught all of his six children to play instruments and formed his four sons into a youth marching band. After Jacob Gwinner died, Otto formed his own group with son Jonas, then fifteen, as one of the players. He led the “Ann Arbor City Band” for twenty years before passing the baton to another son, Louis. Henry Sr., who by then was fifty-five years old, was probably quite willing to give up marching, and Jonas, thirty-five, was also willing to leave it to younger members of the family. Louis, who was just sixteen years old when he took over, played the cornet and trombone; another brother, Henry Otto Jr., played the tuba in the new group.

When Louis Otto took over, the band was a small group that played primarily for fun. Under his leadership it grew into a highly skilled, professional organization.

The younger Otto initially named his group “The Washtenaw Times Band,” presumably after a newspaper sponsor. In 1901 he found a long-term sponsor--the Masonic lodge to which most of the players belonged--and renamed the group “Otto’s Knights Templar Band.”

Both Louis and Henry Jr. lived near their father and could easily consult him on music matters. Louis lived at 402 Benjamin Street; he had a day job as a painter at the Walker carriage factory on Liberty. Henry Jr. lived at 818 Brown and worked at Sauer Lumber Company, just west of his parents’ house on Fifth, doing finish carpentry, such as trim work on doors. The Sauers must have been understanding bosses: McCallum remembers that her dad had no trouble getting off work to play engagements.

McCallum’s family had one of the first telephones in the neighborhood, because her dad had to know about practice sessions and performance dates. “He practiced a couple nights a week,” she recalls. “He’d come home from work and get dressed for practice and walk into town.” If a concert was scheduled, “he’d leave the house with perfectly pressed pants [and] shined shoes. He’d be dusty or snowy when he returned, but when he left, he was perfect.” In rain or freezing cold, Otto’s musicians always met their commitments. “All that walking, carrying all those heavy instruments--how did they ever get around without collapsing in the heat or cold?” she wonders today.

After a performance, band members sometimes gathered in Henry Jr.’s living room to continue playing. “My brother Nelson and I would sit on the staircase,” McCallum recalls. “We didn’t dare bother them. It was very serious, professional playing.”

Townsfolk celebrated most holidays with the help of Otto’s Band. On Memorial Day the band paraded to and from Forest Hill Cemetery to honor soldiers of past wars. Louis Otto played taps, which another musician echoed from farther away. A 1914 picture shows the band returning from the cemetery, marching down North University toward State, with a boy riding a bike alongside. The rider is Henry Jr.’s son Jonas--who later got in trouble with his dad for riding so close.

Photograph of Louis Otto's Band, marching on Memorial Day

Louis Otto’s band marching down North University, returning from playing at a Forest Hills Memorial Day program. Note Jonas Otto, son of one of the band members, riding near the band. He was later reprimanded.

On the Fourth of July the band played at Island Park. It was credited with making the island a popular picnic spot. Once, when band member Julius Weinberg was preparing to set off fireworks, a prankster beat him to it, causing much consternation among the band members, some of whom had to hide behind trees to escape injury. On Labor Day they marched from downtown to the Schwaben Park at Madison and Fifth for the annual picnic of labor union members. In between were the summer courthouse municipal concerts, which sometimes included group singing led by the band. After automobiles became popular, some attendees listened from cars parked around the courthouse and added to the applause by honking their horns.

During the winter the band played indoors at weddings and at the Masons’ ball, held yearly at the armory. A smaller group, about half the band, also played for the skaters at Fred Weinberg’s ice rink at Fifth and Hill (Weinberg was married to Henry Otto Sr.’s daughter Mary; Julius was his son). The players sat in a little hut in the middle of the ice, closing the windows periodically so they could get warm.

Otto’s band was composed of townsfolk, and all were Germans or of German ancestry. At that time, town and gown generally kept to themselves--but they would come together to make music. Thanks to such a collaboration in 1898, Otto’s Band was the first to play “The Victors,” composed by U-M music major Louis Elbel.

Elbel and Louis Otto were friends. “I remember my father telling of Louis Elbel writing ‘The Victors’ and coming down to our [house] and playing it for father’s comments,” Louis’s son Ferdinand recalled in a written reminiscence. Working from Elbel’s manuscript, Otto’s Band played “The Victors” at the very next U-M football game, and the song became part of the band’s concert repertoire.

Otto’s Band played frequently at early U-M football games, either on its own or supplementing the U-M band when there were not enough student players. “In nineteen two, three, four, townspeople made up about a quarter of the band,” says Bob MacGregor, who has done extensive research on the history of the U-M band. In 1905 Otto’s Band and the U-M band both went to Chicago for a game. A section of the stands collapsed, and the musicians ended up helping with first aid more than playing music.

In 1914 Ann Arbor musicians organized a branch of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 625. Otto’s became the first union band in the city, and Louis Otto was elected the union’s first president.
Three years later the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. If the German American band members felt any misgivings, they gave no public sign. Otto’s Band played a prominent role in Ann Arbor’s public commemorations of the war. On August 15, 1917, the Ann Arbor News reported that an estimated 10,000 people gathered to say good-bye to a group of recruits leaving for training at Camp Grayling. “Hundreds walked to the station alongside the marching troops,” the paper wrote, “headed by Otto’s band, and keeping step to martial music.”

When the war ended in 1918, Otto’s Band was again out in full force. After parading through Ann Arbor, the band was asked to come to Chelsea to help the village celebrate.

Otto’s Band is believed to have played for the last time on June 30, 1922, at the laying of the cornerstone for the Masonic Temple on Fourth Avenue (replaced in the late 1970s by the federal building parking lot). Though only in his forties, Louis Otto died two years later, in 1924.

No recording was ever made of Otto’s Band, but people who played in or heard the band remembered it and talked of it the rest of their lives. Robert Steeb recalls how his father-in-law, band member Ernest Bethke, used to chuckle about a mistake he once made when marching south on Main. The band turned smartly onto Packard--all except for Bethke, who missed the turn and, to his chagrin, found himself marching alone down Main Street.

Rights Held By
Grace Shackman