You might think that there would be little or no connection between the Municipal Band and the Charlottesville Fire Department, but in fact there is a long and distinguished connection between the two organizations. Here is some of that history.
Charlottesville’s first fire company was established in March of 1855 and the town’s first fire house was constructed on the west side of Court Square in the summer of that same year. Over the next 70 years the company would occupy several different buildings in the downtown area and grow in both size and types of equipment owned and used. Before 1890 all hose reels and other equipment was pulled by the firemen themselves. Then in 1890 the company started to employ horse-drawn equipment and would continue the use of horse-drawn engines until 1920, when the horses were nostalgically retired and the force became completely motorized.
It was common during the 19th and early 20th centuries for civic organizations such as fire companies to sponsor bands. Such musical groups gave employees a way to socialize outside of work hours and also gave the companies a means to promote themselves to the public. As early as 1900 the Charlottesville Brass Band – in actuality probably the same group as the Citizen’s Band, the Municipal Band’s immediate predecessor – was associated with the local fire company and is known to have paraded with the company on various occasions. By the early 1920s the fire company had its own well-established band and drum corps. In fact Harry Lowe, the future conductor of the Municipal Band, had joined this group in June of 1919 and others who would become members of the Municipal Band are also listed on the department’s 100-Year Roster.
As you know, the Municipal Band was organized in the late summer of 1922 and made its first public appearance just six months later. By August 1923 the Band was marching with the fire company locally and in the big parade at that year’s Virginia Firemen’s Convention held in Fredericksburg. At that convention the group won the $100 first prize for best uniformed company with band, beating out long-established bands from Harrisonburg and Alexandria. Not bad for a band barely a year old!
The Municipal Band would go on to win many additional marching and concert competitions over the years while attending State Firemen’s Conventions with Charlottesville’s local fire fighters. Trophies from some of these events still reside proudly in the Band’s archives. In 1925 the Band achieved a milestone no other Virginia fire company band ever had before, winning first place in both the marching and concert competitions.
Such accolades didn’t always come without controversy, however. At the 1927 Firemen’s Convention held in Alexandria the Music Committee Chairman for the band contest, Roger C. Sullivan, disqualified the Municipal Band because conductor Harry Lowe played and conducted at the same time. It was not unusual for conductors of bands and orchestras to do this during the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, and the three contest judges overruled Mr. Sullivan. The Municipal Band ultimately placed second in that competition.
The Municipal Band accompanied Charlottesville’s firefighters to their annual conventions for some sixty years, proudly marching with the group wherever they went and winning many prizes and trophies along the way. Although in recent years the Band no longer attends state firemen’s conventions, we still maintain a close relationship with Charlottesville’s Fire Department, most recently helping the company celebrate the grand opening in 2014 of its newest fire station located on Fontaine Avenue. Both the Fire Department and the Band have come a long way since 1923, and we look forward to many more years of community service and camaraderie still to come!