Iola, Kansas Band Keeps Playing

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions
on June 16, 2002

A drumroll, please. Kendall Ashford has been playing percussion with the Iola Municipal Band for 52 years. And Betty Yokum and Betty Lucas have played trumpet and trombone beside him for 51 years.

“The only way I’ll get out of the band is when I go to Highland Cemetery,” jokes Ashford, 77.

These musicians and 45 others—an old-fashioned bandstand full—perform free concerts on Thursday nights in June and July on the town square in Iola, Kan., where the band has made music every year since 1871.

Iola’s is the oldest continually playing municipal band in Kansas, echoing back to a time when community bands were ubiquitous across America. They flourished in nearly every town after the Civil War—as instruments became less expensive and leisure time increased—and were a source of community pride well into the 20th century.

“Fifty, 75, or 100 years ago, you couldn’t turn on your TV or VCR. There were lots of town bands then,” says band director Julie Tidd. “Fortunately, the city and band members are committed to keeping this one alive.”

Betty Lucas’ 14-year-old granddaughter, Hannah Lucas, is the youngest band member. Oldest is Richard Steele, 85, who brings his baritone 50 miles from Farlington.

Each concert begins with The Star Spangled Banner. People stand, hats come off, and hands cover hearts as the American flag flutters on the restored 1910 bandstand.

After each song, the crowd claps and motorists parked around the square honk their applause.

“There’s nothing like live music done well,” Tidd says. “It’s pretty easy to tell when the audience likes a number. We hear more horn honking.”

Performances draw 200 to 300 people of all ages in this town of 6,302. Music lovers sit on park benches, blankets, or lawn chairs under sprawling sycamores and elms. A different organization each week dishes up homemade ice cream and cake.

The town band is nearly as old as the town, which incorporated in 1870. The next year, H.A. Needham, a leading member of the Humboldt, Kan., band, was elected Allen County clerk and moved to Iola. He and Col. Henry W. Talcott, another ardent bandsman, formed the Iola Silver Cornet Band. The group bought a circus wagon, painted it and traveled in style to Fort Scott for the King Rex parade, a bobtailed version of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Festival.

Through the decades, musicians have hopped on the bandwagon to entertain at cakewalks, medicine shows, and county fairs. They’ve promoted politicians and peace. When the mayor received official word that World War I had ended, he immediately notified band director John Roberts, even though it was 2 a.m. Roberts began playing his cornet alone and marching around the square. Within 15 minutes, the entire band had joined in, along with half the town, parading to the tunes of Keep the Home Fires Burning and Over There.

The band still performs for the town’s patriotic Memorial Day service each year.

Playing her trumpet in the old-fashioned band is a good tonic, says Betty Yokum. “You can go and toot your horn for a while and forget all your troubles,” she says.

Members rehearse on Mondays. Each concert includes nine selections. John Philip Sousa marches, Broadway medleys, and the state song, Home on the Range, get top billing.

Band members come from every walk of life. “At one time we had two doctors, a pastor, and a woman who owned a funeral home,” Betty Lucas says. “The joke was that we were equipped for anything.”

Betty Skidmore, scooping up chocolate chip ice cream, says the concerts always have been family-oriented. “This is basically a farm community, and families have always come to town on Thursday nights because the stores were open late then.”

On and off the bandstand, Hannah Lucas always has had fun at the concerts. “I remember when I was little, I’d run around and catch fireflies while the band played,” she says.

As long as families keep coming and fireflies keep sparking, the Iola Municipal Band will play on.