Sarah Lim: Research Reveals Story Behind 'Monster Band'

May 16, 2013 

Back in March when I helped select a band picture from the museum archives for the premium section "Looking Back," I did not have much information other than it was taken in front of the Commercial Bank building on the corner of Main and Canal streets in Merced sometime in the 1910s.

Recently, as I was researching for the upcoming Merced County music history in exhibit, I came across the photo again. This time, I dug a little deeper and found a fascinating story about the "Monster Band" concert.

The photo was most likely taken by well-known local photographer Frank D. Robinson.

Robinson was born in 1875 on his father's farm near Merced Falls. Instead of remaining on the farm, he took an interest in traveling and learned the new art of photography.

When he returned to Merced, he entered a partnership with John C. Simon and opened the Simon & Robinson Studio specializing in portraits. In 1911, he purchased the Thullen Studio in Merced and began his commercial photography career. One of his greatest achievements was photographing the construction of the old Exchequer Dam in the 1920s.

In addition to the cars that appear in the band photo, Robinson's career as a commercial photographer narrows the time frame when the picture was taken to around 1911.

A further clue is the renovation of the Commercial Bank building as seen in the lower level of the building facing Canal Street. The building housed both the Commercial Savings Bank of Merced and the First National Bank of Merced.

I remembered reading something about the expansion of the banks from a Merced County promotional pamphlet.

Published by the Merced Evening Sun in July 1913, the pamphlet says: "These banks have always occupied commodious quarters, but during the past year they have enlarged their places of business until they occupy the whole lower floor of their spacious building."

So 1912 is the year when the photo was taken, but why was there such a large ensemble of band members?

From counting the big brass drums, there are at least five groups in the photo and one of the drums is labeled "Dinuba Concert Band."

A search in our collection's database with the key words "band" and "1912" yielded several hits. I narrowed it down to an entry entitled: "The Official Program of Society Circus."

Celebrating Merced

On May 22 and 23, 1912, the Women's Improvement Club of Merced organized the Society Circus. This two-day event with a circus, dance, parade and band contest was aimed at promoting Merced's wonderful business climate.

The program listed all the entrants in the band contest and Dinuba Concert Band was one of the nine bands.

Other bands included Atwater Concert Band, Hilmar Concert Band, Livermore Concert Band, Modesto Boys' Concert Band, Porterville Concert Band, Storms' Modesto Band, Sanger Boosters' Concert Band and Oakdale Concert Band.

There is no doubt this photo depicts the event because Dinuba is one of the band contestants.

To find out more about the band contest in this Society Circus, I went straight to the newspaper — the weekly Merced County Sun dated May 24, 1912.

There were actually seven contestants when the Porterville and Oakdale bands canceled because of internal problems. During the contest in Courthouse Park, Storms' Modesto Band under the direction of Professor F.E. Storms won first place, Atwater came in second and Dinuba third.

The grand finale of the band contest was a "Monster Band" concert consisting of more than 150 men in front of the Commercial Bank building in downtown Merced.

According to the Merced County Sun article that describes the May 23, 1912, event: "This morning at 10:30 o'clock every band that participated in the contest held yesterday, with the exception of the Livermore Concert Band, joined with the Merced Concert Band in making one monster band. … Never in the history of the San Joaquin valley has there been as large a number of band musicians brought together to play the same selections at the same time and under the same direction as upon this occasion."

The size of this performance earned it the title of "Monster Band" concert. To capture such a large assemblage of musicians, photographer Robinson must have been on the rooftop of the O&G building, which was cater-cornered to the Commercial Bank building.

The success of the band contest as well as other events in the Society Circus certainly boosted Merced as a cultural and business center in the San Joaquin Valley.

Concert bands continued to be an integral part of the social fiber and music scene in Merced well into the 1920s.

Exhibit needs a hand

On a related note, I need your help. I am busy gathering information for the music exhibit that will open on June 27. The period covered is from the 1850s to 1980s. If you have information and would like to share it, please contact the museum office at (209) 723-2401.

Now on display: "Wherever There's Fight: A History of Civil Liberties in California" exhibit.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at

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