When Cathy Shull was in junior high school, she learned to dance to Glenn Miller’s In The Mood, never imagining that the famous trombonist and Big Band leader was a former resident of her hometown of Fort Morgan, Colo.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1995, when the nostalgia of World War II’s 50th anniversary sparked a swing music revival, that the town of 11,034 rediscovered its most famous resident. “I heard people around town mentioning that Miller had lived in Fort Morgan,” says Shull, who then set out to spread the word. “I told the Chamber of Commerce that we had a great opportunity to bring people to our town and celebrate this great local hero.”
Town leaders loved the idea, and today the town honors the nation’s legendary Big Band leader with a display at the Fort Morgan Museum and a music festival each June.
The museum’s Miller exhibit includes old family photos—one of Miller with the Fort Morgan High School Maroons football team. It was at the high school that Miller started his first band, the Mick-Miller Melody Five. Other mementos include a copy of his 1942 record Chattanooga Choo-Choo (earning Miller the music industry’s first gold record); a ticket he signed at his last civilian concert; and the flag that flew over the Capitol on the 15th anniversary of his 1944 disappearance over the Atlantic.
The town’s festival is appropriately dubbed Glenn Miller SwingFest and annually draws 3,000 music lovers from as far away as Alaska and New York. Shull, who serves as executive director of the Fort Morgan Area Chamber of Commerce, has become an expert on Miller, who joined the local football team when his family moved to town in 1918. Although he was named “Best Left End in Colorado,” and given a college football scholarship, music was his first love.
“He and his brother got caught on the high school roof playing his trombone at midnight,” Shull says. “On graduation day his mom picked up his diploma because he was playing a gig in Cheyenne, Wyo.”
This year’s SwingFest, scheduled June 17-20, will include a music scholarship competition, a multi-media presentation on Miller’s life, an afternoon concert, and a dinner dance. Fans, dressed in ’40s military uniforms and evening gowns, will waltz and swing to the strains of the Glenn Miller Orchestra at the Jensen Onion Warehouse.
“We always pick one of his songs as our theme. Last year, it was Chattanooga Choo Choo,” Shull says. “We expect this year’s event to be our biggest yet because it marks the 100th anniversary of his birthday.”
This year’s festival theme is The Glen Island Special, a song written after Miller hit the big time with an engagement at the Glen Island Casino on New York’s Long Island.
As for Miller fans, they also can tour the famous musician’s old haunts, places he lived and worked, and the cemetery where his parents are buried. Like many Fort Morgan boys, he was employed by Western Sugar, the local 1906 sugar beet plant that once fueled the town’s economy and is still a major employer.
Plans also are underway to dedicate a new park during the festival, marking the opening of Glenn Miller Park. “The park will be located next to our original city hall, which is being restored and should be open and occupied by 2005,” Shull says.
You might say all the hoopla came about because Shull and community leaders rediscovered a former resident and American music legend, who used to toot his own horn in Fort Morgan.