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Celebrating the legacy of Minnesota's real-life 'Music Man'

A vintage promotional photo presentation shows G. Oliver Riggs in three musical guises. Provided

Joy Riggs learned early about Harold Hill. Third grade, to be precise.

Hill was (and remains) the charismatic con artist in Meredith Willson's famous The Music Man. It was the first stage musical that Riggs ever saw.

In the show, Hill is a fictional itinerant salesman who energetically entices small communities such as River City, Iowa, to create boys' bands, then separates residents from their savings, ostensibly to buy instruments and uniforms before he skips town. Willson's story became a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 1957, 10 years before Riggs was born. As she grew up, The Music Man became a staple of theatrical repertoire, a popular movie and part of her internal hard drive.

Not until she turned 39, however, did she realize that G. Oliver Riggs, her paternal great-grandfather, had been a real-life music man. She learned he had played cornet on horseback in the Montana Cowboy Band, started a firemen's band in Omaha, created and directed about two dozen boys' bands in Minnesota and other Midwestern states, drummed up enthusiasm for band music, sold musical instruments, and raised money for uniforms and, not incidentally, his own salary.

Unlike Harold Hill, Riggs' great-grandpa was no charlatan. He earned a reputation as a stern disciplinarian who insisted his band members, young or old, practice earnestly every day and strive for perfection. It was said he would poke and rap unprepared band members with his baton. She learned that he publicly chided town officials and parents who criticized his methods and opposed renewing his contract. She also learned that in 1946, at 75, he died while trying to create one more band — on the Red Lake Indian reservation in northern Minnesota.

'Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters,' by Joy Riggs, celebrates the musical legacy of her great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs. Nodin Press

"I wanted to like him," she said, and she grew excited by hints that G. Oliver (he spurned "George") once played in the band of March King John Philip Sousa. The famous composer and bandleader often brought his musicians to Minnesota, and although Riggs has failed to confirm her family connection, that did not stop her from spending 13 years researching, writing and editing a book about her great-grandfather's music-man life.

The result: Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters, published July by Minneapolis-based Nodin Press.

Riggs' work is more than a vanity biography of G. Oliver and other relatives she never met. It also highlights the importance of bands in towns such as Crookston, Bemidji and St. Cloud in the first half of the 20th century. Riggs also describes their frequent quests for financial support, from membership fees, contributions and ticket sales to local band taxes. And she recounts rivalries that prompted towns to compete for up-and-coming band directors.

Riggs sets her story in the broad context of world wars, Prohibition and the Great Depression. In alternating chapters, she describes personal obstacles she overcame to complete the project, as well as the intriguing people and quirky stories she encountered along the way.

Take the bizarre tale of Junior, a 300-pound bear whose principal residence was St. Paul's Como Zoo. In the summer of 1931, the president of St. Paul's chapter of the National Junior Chamber of Commerce transported Junior by train to Des Moines, where G. Oliver's St. Cloud band was to perform at the chamber's national convention. Junior reportedly tore up a mattress in the hotel room where he stayed with his handler and later frightened hotel maids when he broke loose in the hotel's corridors.

Riggs describes in great detail the playlists that G. Oliver's bands performed, as well as the colors and ornamentation of their uniforms.

"Some of the music back then was so cool," she said.

G. Oliver Riggs, second from right in the back row, was part of the Montana Cowboy Band. Provided

Sousa, G. Oliver and others programmed everything from marches to arias to keep various segments of listeners coming back. And sometimes there were novelty tunes such as the Squeegee Polka, performed in the Crookston Grand Opera House in 1889 to commemorate the recent invention of the window-cleaning tool.

Riggs' writing routine was hardly rigid. With three growing children at home, available writing time was erratic: "Every day was different." Significant parts of the book were written during retreats at a lodge in Wisconsin. But she also did a lot of writing "in my head" while performing such tasks as walking her dog. After her daughter graduated from high school in 2014, Riggs resolved to complete the book before some of her sources — notably elderly music students of G. Oliver — died.

Over time, her creative rhythms changed. As a self-described night owl, she used to write more after dark. By the end of the project, she preferred writing in the morning, reserving editing for afternoons. And rather than holing up in some quiet, tucked-away space, she found that "it's nice to have people around you," so she often took her laptop computer to Goodbye, Blue Monday, a coffee shop in Northfield, where she and her husband, Steve Lawler, live down the hill from St. Olaf College.

Despite decades of experience as a journalist and blog writer, she said the book put special strains on her family life. Vacations often included heavy doses of research in libraries, newspaper offices and even Civil War battlefields where her great-great-grandfather had fought.

She also worked closely with her father, William Johnson Riggs, a longtime trumpet player, and was touched by his praise when he read the finished project.

At 52, she's not sure whether she wants to tackle another book. But there are hints that her music skills could rekindle after years of being overshadowed by writing and domestic chores.

Joy Riggs appears at an event to promote her book about great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs, 'Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters.' Provided

Growing up, Riggs played piano well enough to perform in concert with other young pianists in Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. These days, the piano in her Northfield dining room mostly sits quiet, but she hopes someday to play an Anton Diabelli duet with her son — as she did with her dad.

As for wielding a baton like her forebears (her grandfather also was a band director), she says, "I've never even thought about doing it."

But she did perform last summer in the annual Vikingland band festival in Alexandria. As a student there, she had played French horn with Jefferson High School's marching band, concert band and pep band and continued those activities at Iowa's Drake University.

In June in Alexandria,"I used one of the school's marching horns," she said, and was delighted that the marching routine "totally came back" to her during the parade. However, since leaving Alexandria, they'd changed the school song, and that posed a musical challenge.

How challenging? Riggs was candid: "Let's say that G. Oliver would not have been pleased."

Dan Wascoe is a retired Star Tribune reporter/columnist and MPR contributor. As a pianist he has performed for the past 12 years with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance/a duo. Since 2004, he also has been a volunteer player of the bells in Minneapolis City Hall.

Minnesota Legacy Amendment