Midland’s four instrumental music performing groups have rich histories

Midland is often recognized for its connection to science, but the city also has a deep connection to music and an extensive community of musicians. 

How is it that in Midland we find two bands and two orchestras? The answer to that question requires following a tangled web through history and finding the threads leading from the musicians of today to the earliest years of the Village of Midland. 

In researching the history of organizations, it is easy to simply find when they were established and say, ‘That is their history.’ But this does not always represent a complete historical narrative, as history is found in the roots of the community, among the archival evidence and documentary record of the past. 

The histories of the Chemical City Band, Midland Symphony Orchestra, Midland Concert Band, and Midland Community Orchestra of today are found in the long history of musicians who created or participated in various bands and orchestras, sharing their passion for music with the community for 159 years. 

A 1966 history of the Midland Symphony Orchestra identifies the January 14, 1923 performance of a new community orchestra as the first performance of orchestral music in Midland. The new orchestra was only active for two years, and Midland did not have a more permanent organized orchestral group until 1936. The Chemical City Band, the oldest organized musical group in Midland, recounts its origin back to 1910.

While the recorded history of these groups is accurate, it is also incomplete. The history of the Chemical City Band, the Midland Symphony Orchestra, the Midland Community Orchestra, and the Midland Concert Band have roots stretching all the way back to the 1864 Village of Midland.

In 1924, one local newspaper, the Midland Sun, shared John Johnson’s recollection that the first orchestra was formed in 1864 with four musicians: Thorn and Fill Mathewson playing violin, Thomas Turnbolt on clarinet, and John Johnson playing guitar.

The first band formed in 1868 was funded by John Larkin, and was known as “Larkin’s Band.” It included 11 musicians, with Johnson playing cornet. From this earliest account, a single thread links the musicians of the past to the present. A few of the early organized groups, including “The Midland Cornet Band,” “Midland City Band,” “Midland City Orchestra,” and “Teal’s Orchestra,” were all active between the years 1864-1900. 

The earliest “City Orchestra” is found in 1885; members of this group remain unknown. However, by 1892, we can begin to identify musicians in the community, including members of Teal’s Orchestra, led by Frank Teal, from approximately 1892-1912. In Teal’s Orchestra, we find Robert Heisman, who provides the thread we can follow from those early groups and musicians to bands and orchestras of today. 

In 1901, Henry Heisman arrived in Midland. A businessman and musician, he was affectionately known in the Midland community as “Dad.”  Heisman, a “musical genius,” directed up to three bands, including the Midland City Band, Midland Cornet Band, and Midland City Concert Band, which was established in 1907. 

Heisman is credited with organizing two bands. History shows that the Midland City Band has existed through various iterations since 1868. Heisman is likely responsible for reorganizing the band in 1902. Indeed, he was recognized for his leadership and training of the group when the Midland Republican reported that Heisman “…is entitled to, and receives, great credit for the successful manner in which he has trained this large number of players, many of them novices, to perform with such marked ability.”

In 1910, Heisman passed his duties on to Charles Spencer. The band continued performing for community functions and soliciting support from Midland businessmen.

By 1918, the Midland City Band, although still active, was not the organized group that had existed under the leadership of Heisman. That October, “…18 of the old members, with the help of certain public-spirited citizens, got together in the court house…and such an enthusiastic meeting as they held was never held before in the city.”

The Midland City Band was reorganized as The Chemical City Band under the direction of Robert Heisman. Robert came to Midland in 1901 with his father, Henry, and was a member of Teal’s Orchestra and the City Band. In 1905, Robert Heisman played on showboats on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where he met Ted Nicholson. Nicholson, who was invited to Midland in 1928, would create a music education program at Midland High School.

Heisman was leader and assistant leader of the Chemical City Band for many years. Leaders of the band would include Larry Guenther and Bob Ralston, musicians and educators who would continue the long legacy of community-driven groups. In 1922, Heisman established a community orchestra supported by the Midland Community Center. The Midland Republican recounted the orchestra’s first concert in 1923, reporting in part, “The leaders of the orchestra and the group of musicians who first considered the orchestra idea have been surprised by the wealth of local talent that has been uncovered…” Active for two years, the 26-member orchestra, although well received, was not financially able to continue. 

In 1936, the 36-member Midland Civic Orchestra debuted under the direction of Dr. Vern Stenger. Musicians involved in the earlier orchestra and the City Band were found among the members. The orchestra described itself as “…an organization of music lovers seeking to build up a greater appreciation of fine music and to furnish more opportunity for musical expression. Anyone playing an orchestral instrument is invited to try out for membership in the group.” This statement and sentiment echo in the community groups we find today.  

The Midland Civic Orchestra became the Dow Symphony Orchestra, then the Midland Symphony Orchestra, which was attached to the Midland Music Society.

The Midland Concert Band, established in 1976 with support from the Music Society, remains a community-driven group providing an outlet for local band musicians with concerts during the fall, winter and spring.  

In 1991, Dr. Vern Stenger, along with Bob Ralston, Larry Guenther and the blessing of the Midland Symphony Orchestra, established the Midland Community Orchestra, whose mission echoes those of the 1922 and 1936 groups, providing free concerts for the benefit of the community with a volunteer group of musicians seeking an opportunity for musical expression. 

And the Chemical City Band continues its long history of providing free summer concerts for the community.

Members and the leaders of these groups continue the 159-year legacy of community bands and orchestras started in 1864.



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