Written by Kay Heck in 1989 for Butte Co. History.
The Belle Fourche Cowboy Band was officially organized in 1931, but the history of local bands goes back before the turn of the century. In 1897 a band was organized involving such people as Attorney Tom LaFleisch, Dr. H. H. Champney Dr. B. H. Harms, Prof. Rowland, Paul Bravo and j. H. Pearson. The first school band was started about 1910 by Joe Thullen, son of a pioneer blacksmith. This group was just getting a good start when Thullen moved to California to study art and music. In 1912 John Neal and Charles McClung, Sr. organized a small band which they held together about two years. Neal was an ex-theater musician from Chicago and McClung was the Butte County Register of Deeds.
In 1922, Neal and J. H. Pearson organized a band. Charlie McClung, the son, conducted a benefit concert in the old Pearson Opera House while visiting in the community. It was this appearance that led McClung to Spearfish and band work in the area. At one time Charlie had played trumpet in one of the John Philip Sousa bands in Chicago.
In August of 1927 when the sugar Factory came to town, J. H. Pearson appeared before the Commercial Club and asked for support for a band. The commission voted a one mil levy and McClung, having completed contracts in the eastern part of the state, organized the Belle Fourche Municipal band in the spring of 1928. The Black Hills Round-Up donated $500 and the Chamber of Commerce $250, which covered the budget for one year. In 1928, the high school added a band to their program with McClung as instructor. He remained instructor of the high school band and director of the municipal band until 1946.
At the urging of L. C. Morrison, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and the Roundup, additional band support was received and the municipal band became the first Cowboy Band in June of 1931. The band had 26 members, some of whom were just out of school and some who had played in military bands in World War I.
Members of the original band organized in 1931 included: Kenneth Jay, Wilder Mabbott, Frank Gordon, Ted Thorson, Dale Adams, Jack Feeney, Ted Weiler, Harold Sheldorf, Sylvia Palety, Edith Arnold, Dave Clark, Bob McClung, Vern Gage, Joe Arnold, Dick Whitfield, Cy Elrod, Emery Boyer, Clarence Dodson, Vern Peterson, Bill Noble, Bill Care, Andy Gilbert, Jack Eccles, Harry Critchfield, J. H. Pearson and Director Charlie McClung.
Credit for the colorful attire of the band should go to L. C. (Red) Morrison, who was the Black Hills Roundup manager and Commercial Club secretary in those days. The state had elected Tom Berry, a cowpoke in the Will Rogers mold, as governor, and Gov. Berry was invited to the Roundup. To make the governor feel at home, Morrison persuaded the band to dress as cowboys and paraded them at the Roundup as the governor’s own band.
Director Charlie McClung was quoted in recalling the occasion: “We wore 10 gallon hats, black and white shirts and buff corduroy pants tucked into fancy green and brown boots. We bought the clothes on credit, banking on paying for them out of Roundup profits. That year Roundup went $8000 in the red.” Gov. Berry took the band as his own. He was later invited to the state fair at Huron. Many bands offered their services but Berry said: “Thanks, but I got a band of my own. A high-heel corral band.” He phoned Mayor Dan McCutcheon and told him to send “my cowpoke band down here for my visit to the state fair.”
The Cowboy Band reacted. They rented a bus, which got them as far as Highmore before it broke down. When they finally got to the state fair grounds at Huron they slept in tents, but they were there when the governor called for them. No one really knows how the trip was financed. This was in the middle of the depression and dollars were scarce, but the band made it.
Charlie McClung was a colorful character and much of that probably rubbed off on the organization in its formative years. McClung took fluctuations of quality in stride. “When we sound good, folks talk about our music. When we sound lousy, they compliment our colorful appearance.”
Through the years, the band has brought credit and publicity to Belle Fourche. The band has played summer engagements from Miles City, MT to Colorado Springs, CO, to Sheridan, WY. In 1935, the band was invited to play for visiting dignitaries at the Stratosphere Bowl during the time the National Geographic Society and the Army were making their famous balloon flights.
In 1949, the band took the longest trip in its history. It was invited to be the official band at the “ Pike’s Peak or Bust” rodeo at Colorado Springs, CO. The band was gone for a week and costs were paid by the Colorado Springs Rodeo Association.
In June of 1953, the band was invited to play for President Eisenhower at a gathering of Young Republicans he was addressing at Mount Rushmore. The band was designated as the President’s official band at the occasion.
There have been many Cowboy Band directors, but the best known was the original director Charlie McClung. He was followed by Bob Bartelt, Russell Olmsted, Vic Fondy, Charles Peyton, Gene Melton, Wayne Shuck, Daryl Umenthum, Jim Cargill and Bob French. For a period of years the high school band director usually took over directing the summer band.
In 1983, after a lapse in the band organization, the first mass reunion ever of Cowboy Band members was held. The band’s successful appearances during the 4 th of July holiday renewed interest in the band and now a reunion is held every year during this time with a “round up” being held every third year. The band plays for the three rodeo performances, marches in the parade, plays for the class reunions held at this time and presents a concert in the Chassell Memorial band shell in Herrman Park. The original uniforms have given way to red cowboy shirts, blue jeans, white chaps and white hats. New members are welcome and “old” members come from as far away as Alaska, Hawaii, Ohio—all over.
It is a joy and a pleasure for the band members to be able to bring their music to the city of Belle Fourche, and perhaps, as we march or present the concert, Charlie McClung is there in spirit and maybe we still give credibility to a statement he made about his band at one time: I can get more pep out of that cowboy bunch than any band I ever waved a baton in front of.”