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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

The Pied Piper of the Purple Sage – Part 1 8/26/2014

Most people don’t know where the first youth symphony in the US was formed. It wasn’t in the cultured halls of Boston, New York, Chicago or even the privates schools of upstart Seattle on the wild west coast. No, the first youth symphony in the United States was formed in 1912 in then remote and nearly inaccessible Burns, Oregon by an energetic and irrepressible petite violinist and educator named Mary Dodge. Two years earlier Mary and her husband, Mott Dodge, had arrived in Burns, located in rough and rugged Harney county, Oregon. Harney had bloomed when the US government had opened up 320 acer homesteads in the high Oregon desert to those who were willing to invest five years of sweat equity to makes something of the plots. Many of those who had taken up the government’s challenge were transplants from the more sophisticated east coast who were looking for a better life and a place of their own. Ironically, part of this better life that they longed for was more education and culture for their children than backwoods Harney seemed able to offer. The first US radio broadcasts were then a decade in the future and with no railroad lines in Harney County and no roads more impressive than the rough livestock trails that crisscrossed the desert, you had to create your own culture and entertainment in Burns or go without. Enter Mary Dodge, who had been classically trained on violin and piano in Boston and New York and who had a passion for music, teaching and especially for children.

Mary herself was no stranger to hardship. Her father died when she was five and her mother moved her to the east coast where she wound up cold and hungry in a miserable orphanage. Mercifully, she was later moved to a Catholic boarding school where she first encountered the joy of her life: music. She took to it with gusto. She eventually became a teacher and moved to Portland, Oregon where she met and married Mott Dodge who was a civil engineer by vocation and a double bass player by advocation. It was his vocation that took the newly minted couple, via steam train and arduous stagecoach and pack horse trek, to Harney county to work on an irrigation project.

Part of Mary’s genius was her audacious belief that not only could she teach music to the children of this modest town, but beyond that, that she could forge a quality symphonic ensemble of competent young musicians from this tiny community of only 1200 souls. With the help and augmentation of a few adult musicians, including Mr. Dodge on double bass and a former Italian professional flutist to instruct the winds, the youth orchestra was launched.

It is hard to overestimate the impact that the diminutive but dynamic Mrs. Dodge and her more diminutive musicians had on the area. The youth orchestra became perhaps the biggest thing in that had ever happened in the rustic western town’s history. Virtually the entire community threw their enthusiastic support behind the project, which was soon christened The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra. A scant two years after arriving in the county, Mary Dodge presented her youth orchestra in its first concert to an astonished and impressed audience that had packed the local Tonawama hall. The quality of the music was far beyond what anyone could have expected from such a collection of rural children. Anyone, that is, with the exception of the unflaggingly confident Mrs. Dodge who never doubted that these young children were capable of musical greatness.

The ensemble caught the attention and imagination of local cattle baron and area booster Bill Hanley and with his backing and promotion the ensemble was touring the towns of Eastern Oregon and playing for enthusiastic audiences by 1915. There are archival photos of the children riding on a specially constructed violin shaped float and playing as the highlight of a local parade. But Bill Hanley’s vision extended well beyond the borders of the high desert and with the support of other local businessmen and the community funds were raised and plans were made to bring the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra to the cultural hubs of Oregon.

Next time: Portland rolls out the red carpet and the Portland Youth Philharmonic is born.

Keep practicing

Craig Birchfield

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