My grandfather, Clarence “Conny” Scheer, was a jack of all trades – lumberjack, fruit picker, miner, barber. He also, on occasion, sang for his supper. As a kid, I remember him playing the ukulele, one of his many stringed instruments. He would sing, “You Are my Sunshine,” “Good Night Irene” and even some bawdy tunes he learned while in the Philippines during WWII. Gramps started singing for the public when he was about nine years old, under the tutelage of William and Ivy Bischoff. The Bischoffs lived in Bigfork, provided music for local dances, and taught violin, piano, and voice.
As a young adult Gramps entered contests when he had a chance, and I found evidence of this in an article in the July 28, 1938, Itasca Progressive. “The Major Bowes Amateur Hour and dance at the village hall last Saturday night proved to be a function that furnished ample entertainment to all those who took advantage of attending and was pronounced a success both from the financial and social standpoint. The winners are as follows: Rosemary Lorgren first prize as piano accordion player, Jasmer Bros., second prize singing and guitar, and Clarence Scheer third prize for solo singing and guitar. Thanks goes to the judges Mrs. F. Evensen, Sextus Solomson and Lindy Kyndahl. Also to Mr. Graham for the very satisfactory manner in which he carried out the part as Major Bowes.” The Major Bowes Amateur Hour was an American radio talent show broadcast in the 1930s and 1940s, created and hosted by Edwards Bowes. The Bigfork event was not affiliated with the radio show, but because of the popularity the name was used, and Mr. Graham acted as the host.
Circus performances, minstrel shows, and other traveling entertainment have always included northern Minnesota in their circuits, but back in the early years, such events were generally few and far between. Local talent was encouraged and cultivated, sometimes to raise money for a worthy cause, sometimes it was a contest, or other times it was pure entertainment. Below is a smattering of local performance artists.
In 1909, a five-act drama was performed as a benefit for first the Deer River Catholic Church and then the Methodist Church.
A Home Talent Play “The Strike” ~ Itasca News 1-16-1909
“The talk of the town is the home talent play, ‘The Strike’ or ‘In the Shadow of a Crime.’ Which will be staged at Winslow’s Hall next Tuesday night by all local talent for the benefit of the Catholic Church. The show is an exemplification of the conditions of today as between the laborer and mechanic and the big employer, and as the company having the entertainment in hand has the production well mastered, these facts and together with the cause in mind for which the play is given ought to ensure a liberal attendance. It is expected that more tickets will be sold than there are seats in the opera house, and so that all who wish may see the play, it is agreed that if the hall is overcrowded the play will be put on again at a near future date for the benefit of the Methodist Church.”
The cast included the following individuals: Mrs. Odelia Golla, Albert Hachey, James Hewis, Owen Hulehan, Cyrus King, Frank Mohr, Fred Nelson, Laura O’Connell, and Earl Shreve. The performance was considered a great success and the church netted eighty-seven dollars. A second performance was indeed scheduled for early March to benefit the Methodist Church. Many of those who went to the first performance promised to attend again. Some went for the play and others to hear Miss Francis Winsor and Miss McCormick sing between the acts.
When radio became something that could be enjoyed in the rural areas, some radio stations offered opportunities for local talent to be discovered.
Staging Big Radio Discovery Contest ~ Deer River News 4-14-1927
“Broadcasting station WAMD will stage a talent discovery contest at the Grand Theater in Grand Rapids next week. Preliminary contests will be held Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings, with the finals Thursday night.
Six contestants will compete each night in the preliminaries. The audience will choose two, who enter the finals. The winner of the final contest will be given a free trip to Minneapolis, to compete in the statewide contest, when $1,000 in prizes will be awarded.
Several entries have been made from Deer River. They will compete Monday night. The list up to today included Roberta Womack [vocal solo], Marguerite Foley [vocal solo], Helen Holl, Esther Lindgren [vocal duet], Lawrence Brown, Wm. Forsman, and Wm. Stejskal [vocal trio].”
The winners of the first night in the preliminary contest were Lawrence Brown, William Forsman, and William Stejskal. Lawrence was sixteen, and the other two boys were eighteen. The final contest was also at the Grand Theater in Grand Rapids, but I could not find the results of the competition in either the Grand Rapids or Deer River newspapers.
Dances have long been an enjoyable pastime for young and old. If someone with a fiddle would play, others would dance. If more than one member of a family was musical, they might consider establishing themselves as a band for hire. The Fideldy brothers near Cohasset and the Ingstad brothers from Jesse Lake are two examples. Another is the Niskanen family from Good Hope township in the northern part of Itasca County. John and his wife Manda immigrated from Finland in 1913. By 1927 they had four children, and at least eleven-year-old Hans was musical. Hans played the accordion while his father played the drums (see photograph). As a young man, Hans received a generous cash prize for another excellent talent he possessed.
Wins $1,000 in Fur Dressing Contest ~ Deer River News 6-2-1940
“Hans Niskanen, popular young man of Squaw Lake and well known for his ability as an accordion player, this week won an honor well worth winning.
Several weeks ago, the large firm of Sears, Roebuck and Co., Chicago, inaugurated a fur dressing contest, offering liberal prizes for the best dressed pelts submitted. Mr. Niskanen entered the contest, submitting a mink pelt for his entry.
Last Monday Mr. Niskanen received a letter from the company, with which was enclosed a check for $1,000, and announcing that he had won first prize. In a nationwide contest, this is a great honor and Mr. Niskanen deserves great credit.”
In 1929, Deer River organized a very successful talent contest at the Lyceum Theater. It was free to enter, offered cash prizes, and included a pie eating contest.
Home Talent Show Largely Attended ~ Deer River News 4-25-1929
“The home talent contest staged at the LyceumTtheater last night brought out what is believed to be the largest attendance that ever packed the local show house. Long before the regular program began, every seat was taken, and more than a hundred people were standing. Scores were unable to gain admission.
“Two dozen contestants from communities reaching from Grand Rapids to Bass Lake appeared on the program. J.R. Mallatt of Grand Rapids was awarded first for all-round old-time fiddler and also in playing ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me,’ and ‘The Irish Washerwoman.’ W.T. Morrison won first for fiddler over 75 years of age, and Levi Lagos, from Bena placed first in playing a selection of the contestant’s own choosing.
“Other awards went to Ingstad Bros. of Jesse Lake for best duet, Karl Hammergren for best old-time song and accordion playing, Fideldy Bros. for best vaudeville number, John Byers for best stringed instrument number, and Albert DeZutter for the pie-eating contest.” Albert was 14 years old!
I had previously learned that the Fideldy brothers were quite musical and traveled throughout the county to help make ends meet on the family farm. According to the 1930 U.S. Census there were three brothers, Vincent, Jerome, and Ralph. There were five Ingstad brothers on the same census, Carl, Bernard, Thomas, Edward, and Arthur. In both instances I’m not sure which and how many brothers were the musicians.
Certainly, there are many more performers than I have highlighted here, and as always, I love to learn your family stories. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 218-244-2127 to share.
And here is one more story I think you’ll enjoy.
Did You Ever Hear Oscar Pearson Sing? ~ Deer River News 1-19-1933
“Itasca County received special mention from the legislative scribe in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Journal. Discussing Speaker Munn, the Journal said:
‘Mr. Munn incidentally renewed a friendship of 30 years ago when Oscar Pearson of Bigfork, Minn., member of the Itasca County Board, walked in on him at the Capitol Friday. Back in 1904, Pearson was on his way to the St. Louis Exposition. It was a long trip and he paused at Osseo to work a few days to earn his keep. He connected up with Charles Munn’s father, who put him to work on a ditching job, and he stayed there some weeks. Speaker Munn reminded Pearson that he later taught him many hymns some of which he still remembered.’”
Oscar Pearson immigrated from Sweden in 1901 at the age of 18. It was three years later when he met seventeen-year-old Charlie and his father Matthew Munn. Charlie Munn served in the Minnesota House of Representatives 1927-1934. Oscar Pearson was an Itasca County Commissioner when they became reacquainted at the State Capitol.