Published by WesterlyLife.com & written by Zachary Garceau
The following is part six in Westerly Life’s “Behind the Murals” series discussing the history behind all of the recently created murals throughout downtown Westerly. The murals discussed below are dedicated to the town’s musical history, specifically, two major institutions: the Westerly Town Band and the Chorus of Westerly.
The Westerly Band is the oldest continuously active civic band in the United States. While details about the band’s formation and its earliest years are scarce, most historian agree that the first iteration of the band was formed in 1852, possibly by a man named Stephen Phalens, although there are also references to a man named W.B. Lowry serving as the band’s first instructor.
Unfortunately, many of this early band’s musicians left Westerly to serve in the Civil War, and the group’s story came to halt. There are very few existing records regarding this band save for an 1854 program for a performance at the Union Meeting House.
In 1863, in an effort to keep spirits high during the war, a new band was formed with eight musicians and was led by A.J. Foster. 1863 is the year cited by the Westerly Band as its formation date, and this still supports their claim to be the country’s oldest continuously active band.
By the following year, the band’s size had more than doubled, and their performances were highly sought after for various functions around town. The group’s membership continued to grow, and by 1875, a separate string ensemble was formed by several of the musicians.
Support for the local band was apparent, especially when the organization was struck by tragedy. In 1891, a fire caused massive damage to the Porter-Loveland Block on High Street, where the band’s second-floor rehearsal rooms were located. The fire destroyed uniforms, instruments, and records (hence, the lack of information regarding the band’s origins). The group needed $1,329.50 to replace the destroyed and damaged items, and this money was easily raised with support from the community.
Competition among local bands was not unheard of, especially during the 19th century. According to a popular story from 1896, the Westerly band and another local outfit, the Sheffield Band, were offered payment to alternate weeks playing in Watch Hill.
These shows were funded by the Norwich-Westerly Electric Railroad in hopes that people in town would take the trolley to Watch Hill to hear the bands play. When a dispute over money developed, the Westerly Band played a free concert in town on the same night that the Sheffield Band was paid to play in Watch Hill.
Another tale of the band’s exploits is from 1933, during the midst of the Great Depression, when a parade was organized in Westerly to give the town an emotional lift. The Westerly Band was featured prominently in the parade, heading and closing several divisions, which they were able to do by bussing musicians from the finish line back to the start several times.
More recently, the band has made efforts to expand its range, with young and old working together. For much of its history, the Westerly Band only accepted men, however, in the 1950’s the first female musician, Paula Richards, was brought in to the group.
More recently, school musicians have also been encouraged to join the band as a way to expand the group’s membership and also to provide young instrumentalists with more experience. The band, a source of local pride, continues on, now in their 154th year of uninterrupted rehearsals and performances.
Both the Westerly Town Band and the Chorus of Westerly serve as perfect representations of the town’s musical heritage and the two murals in downtown Westerly are a fantastic reminder of the importance of both groups, which deserve to be remembered for their contributions and celebrated for their continued success.