By Nancy Fine
For Burns Times-Herald
Harney County citizens are known for their resourcefulness, resilience and community pride. The Sagebrush Symphony Centennial Celebration float committee, headed by Dave Calkins, is upholding those traditions with the re-creation of the historic Sagebrush Orchestra’s early 1900s violin-shaped float.
The new float will kick off the Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra Centennial Celebration, Saturday, Sept. 11, and make its first public appearance in the Harney County Fair Parade.
Harney County Arts in Education Foundation is sponsoring the event to honor the orchestra’s founder, Mary Dodge, and to raise awareness and support for music and arts education in Harney County schools.
The seeds for our nation’s first youth symphony, the Sagebrush Orchestra, fell on Harney County in 1910 when Mary Dodge and husband, Mott, an irrigation project engineer, arrived in the county.
Dodge’s zeal for music was contagious and she taught violin to many local children. In September 1910, the Sagebrush Orchestra was formed. Soon, local homesteader, Signor Marrigolli, a master flautist and trained orchestra conductor from Italy, joined the effort. By 1912, the children had performed their first concert. The youth played in Eastern Oregon towns and amazingly, gave performances in the Willamette Valley as well.
When the Dodge family left Burns in 1918, the local orchestra faltered. But several Harney County students continued with Dodge in Portland. Through Dodge’s determination a series of orchestras evolved, the crown jewel being today’s Portland Youth Philharmonic.
The original Sagebrush Orchestra was pictured on a violin float made famous by a R. W. Heck photograph. The float was known to be in use between 1913 and 1916, but few details about it survived through the years.
The oral history of Agnes Foley Kennedy offers a tidbit of information on the builder. She said that on July 4, 1913, “… there was a parade in Burns and the members of the Sagebrush orchestra were one of the features … riding through town seated on a huge violin that had been fashioned for the occasion by Daniel Jordan, a master craftsman and carpenter. He had made the violin to the most minute scale.”
Gwendolyn Lampshire Hayden mentions the historic float in her “Really Truly Stories Book 2.” She recalls seeing the float housed in the Lampshire garage in downtown Burns and shares the thrill she experienced riding on the float.
The new float is the inspiration of Linda Neale. Her grandmother, Ruth Sanders Leupold, was a violinist in the original Sagebrush Orchestra and later lived with Mary Dodge in Portland. As a child, Neale remembers viewing her grandmother’s photo of the original float.
She says, “It spoke to me — more than a thousand words — of music, of children, and of the ineffable qualities of Harney County. So, when the Sagebrush Centennial Celebration idea was born, I just felt the float needed to be a part of it.”
Using materials donated by Parr Lumber, Calkins, his wife, Sharla, and their daughters, Katy and Whitney; Ken Peckham; and Brian Garo went to work on the project. Using a period violin from the 1900s, Calkins made a scale drawing on graph paper for the outline of the float. Katy Calkins, 13, assisted her dad by doing a free-hand drawing of the scroll for the violin’s neck.
Peckham snapped three-inch square chalk lines onto four four-by-eight foot sheets of particle board. He then transferred Calkin’s smaller scale drawing to the larger grid. The outline was cut out and a more flexible material was used to form the curves on the sides of the Paul Bunyan-sized, 28-foot-long, eight-foot-wide instrument. In the tight curves, two-by-two inch boards were spaced every three to four inches for reinforcement. And, after 111 hours of creative workmanship, the violin is ready for finishing touches.
The new violin float will literally find its foundation on one of Harney County’s mainstays — ranching. The rolling base for the larger-than-life violin is an old Farmhand wagon and the violin’s bow is being made from lightweight aluminum irrigation pipe.
Mary Dodge’s legacy is being carried forward by the celebration’s volunteers. “We are doing this for our kids, we want to continue to have music and all the other arts in our schools,” said Sharla Calkins. “If it was important in 1910, it surely is important now.”
In addition to the parade, the float may be viewed during the fair at the Harney County Fairgrounds.
The celebration is made possible by the Harney County Arts in Education Foundation and through generous donations from Leupold and Stevens Foundation, Robert W. Chandler Foundation, Georgia Leupold Marshall, the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Oregon Cultural Trust grant, other non-profit foundations, individual and community support.
The Portland Youth Philharmonic will perform a benefit concert for arts in education in Harney County on Saturday, Oct. 30, at 7 p.m., Burns High School Auditorium. Tickets will go on sale Sept. 20. Reserve and general seating tickets will be available from Gourmet and Gadgets, 340 N. Broadway St. in downtown Burns. General admission tickets will be sold by the Harney County Chamber of Commerce, 484 N. Broadway St., Burns; and the Round Barn Visitors Center, Diamond. Mail order tickets may be obtained after September 20 by calling Dick Jenkins at 541-493-2070 or Debby Peckham, 541-573-2427. Seating is limited.