Singer Band

This photograph shows Singer Band members dressed in Revolutionary War style uniforms of the type worn during the Centennial parade down the streets of Philadelphia in July 1876.

photo courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society

It was said the room was ablaze with electricity the night Roger Heffelfinger died.

The Mechanicsburg area man was staying at the Granger’s encampment about five miles west of Philadelphia in early July 1876.

As a drummer with the Singer Band, he marched on July 4 down cobblestone streets in the Centennial parade that took the ensemble close to Independence Hall.

Only a century had passed since history was made in that building, so the band leader thought it appropriate to have the group play “Yankee Doodle” to the cheering crowd.

Archival material stored in the Cumberland County Historical Society paints the picture of thousands of people shouting themselves hoarse with patriotic fervor. “The tune caught the ear and the uniforms caught the eye ... Certainly no one who witnessed the spectacle will ever forget it.”

The Singer Band had recently procured new uniforms that were in keeping with the 100th anniversary of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. They were soliciting Cumberland County residents for donations.

“The new uniform was in the style of the dress of the Continental Army of 1776,” the official online history of the Singer Band reads. “The coat was dark blue with tails turned back and the broad lapels were faced with buff; the bright brass buttons of the coat shone like gold. The waistcoat was buff colored. Knee breeches were of blue cloth, and there were leather leggings and shoes with silver buckles. To top it all was a tricorn (a three-cornered hat) with a black pompon.”

The American Volunteer newspaper in Carlisle reported the band had been chartered by the Grangers to provide music for several days around the Fourth of July. But the gig was cut short by the sudden death of Heffelfinger who “was considered the favorite of the organization, being a young man of a jovial disposition and of generous impulses and had endeared himself to all who knew him.”

Confused accounts

There is some confusion in the record over when Heffelfinger was killed. July 4, 1876 was a Tuesday. The official history reads as though the death took place on Wednesday, July 5, but the newspaper reports from that period say the death had taken place on a Monday.

The Volunteer and the Carlisle Herald received the news from the Patriot in Harrisburg and published the report in their July 13 weekly editions. The Valley Sentinel quoted the Mechanicsburg Independent in a report published on July 14. So it is unclear whether the death took place on July 5 or July 10. While sources agree lightning killed Heffelfinger, the circumstances leading to his death also vary.

The Volunteer and Herald ran the same story that Heffelfinger was standing in a building, with a hold of a wire, which operated one of the ventilators in the room. A thunderstorm had rolled through the area setting the stage for a tragedy.

“A flash of lightning struck the building and descended along the wire,” the papers reported. “(The shock) ran down his left arm, crossing his body and along his right side, passing out of the boot of his right foot, into the ground, killing him instantly.” Both newspapers described another victim of the lightning strike.

“A young man, a companion, who was standing beside him, was also knocked down and considerably stunned, but not seriously injured. Our informant stated that the room was literally ablaze with electricity.”

The Independent reported the following account of how Heffelfinger was in his room reading when the storm came up and he rose from his chair to help the janitor close the ventilators.

“As he grasped one of the wires by which they are regulated, the lightning struck it and passed down his arm, across his breast, down his right side and out of the role of his shoe, entering the body at two places.

“His roommate seeing the accident called for help, which immediately came but was useless as he was killed instantly. Three doctors were present who used all their skill to resuscitate the already lifeless body.”

The Independent described Heffelfinger as a good natured young man who had no enemies. “It is said that those who knew him best, loved him most,” the newspaper reported mentioning the funeral service. “We have no doubt it has cast a gloom over the entire town. The bereaved parents have the sympathy of this entire borough and especially those who were even slightly acquainted (with) him.”

The beat goes on

The historic Singer Band of Mechanicsburg continues to this day to rehearse and hold concerts. Details can be found at www.singerband.org. The modern ensemble traces its history back to the Keystone Cornet Band, which formed sometime in 1854 or 1855.

When members joined the military during the Civil War, the group changed its name to the Seventh Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Band led by Harry Greaves. It became the Singer Band in 1862 after David S. Singer, the cornetist of the time. The band had an excellent reputation for about the next 75 years, according to the online history.

I.S. Eberly, founder of the Eberly Lumber Yard in Mechanicsburg, was the band’s director after Singer. During his years, the band was recognized as one of the finest in Pennsylvania leading it to be called on to perform at the Centennial celebration of the U.S. in Philadelphia in 1876.

By 1930 a local electrician named Lloyd A. Bender became the band director. He later ran for Cumberland County sheriff, and the Singer Band played at political meetings to help him get elected several times, the online history reads.

While Bender was director, several concerts were held for prisoners in the Old County Prison on East High Street in Carlisle. The Singer Band also played for many of the summer festivals held by local fire companies. The fire companies also sponsored a lot of parades to show off their apparatus, uniforms and equipment. The online history mentions how the Washington Fire Company frequently hired the Singer Band to travel and play in parades as far away as Sunbury in Northumberland County and Winchester, Virginia.

Interest in The Singer Band faded during the 1950s, but revived in December 1980 with help from the late Leonard Reid, the former owner of Reid’s Instrument Shop in Mechanicsburg. “George Shaffer, a former musician in the U.S. Army Band in Washington D.C. became the new director and led the band until his retirement in December 2000,” according to the online history.

Vanessa Murawski, a music teacher in the Howard County Maryland School District, became the latest band director last fall.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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