Terry and Prairie County stake claim to one piece of Montana’s most idiosyncratic history – a band of musicians who invited themselves to a President’s birthday party, and made a great friendship in the process.
First called Joubert’s Landing in recognition of the man who built the supply route along the Yellowstone River, Terry, Montana was renamed after Alfred Howe Terry, a general in the Union Army who commanded forces in the Dakota Territory after the Civil War. The original Terry Cornbelt Band formed in Terry, in 1909, one year before Terry was incorporated. At that time, Terry would have been a double railroad town, influenced by the presence of both the Northern Pacific and Milwaukee Railroads. Most of the original band members were business men from Terry, but some were considered genuine “cowboys,” while others hailed from other nearby towns, including Fallon, where the bandleader, Carl Anderson, lived. Their purpose was simple: supply their communities with good quality music and the promise of a jolly time.
After splitting up for a few years, the group reemerged in 1915 with a fundraising dance held to secure funds for uniforms and new instruments. Starting in 1922, the Terry Cornbelt Band, bedecked in new chaps, dusters, bandannas, and cowboy hats, held weekly summer concerts at the town bandstand.
The most famous event surrounding the Terry Cornbelt Band was their trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to play at the Summer White House of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the U.S. whose 55th birthday was on the Fourth of July in 1927. Coolidge, a Republican, served as President from 1923-1929, and was first thrust into the position after President Warren G. Harding died unexpectedly while in office.
According to the journals of band member Billy Grandfield, the Terry Cornbelt Band had just returned from Glendive, where they had played at the town’s celebration of the opening of the branch line of the Northern Pacific Railroad to Circle-Brockway. During their stay in Glendive, band members were treated as guests of the officials of the NPRR in their private cars. Someone asked the question, “Where do we play next?”
One of the members responded, in an "off-hand manner,” according to Grandfield: “For President Coolidge’s birthday!” Another voice chimed in, “Why not?” Another member of the band, W.R. Flachsenhar, a State Representative, parroted the question, “Why not?”
Inspired, Flachsenhar soon corresponded directly with the President’s secretary on the matter. Soon, a wire arrived with the President’s invitation for the band to appear at his summer White House, about 35 miles from Rapid City, on July Fourth at 1:30 p.m. According to Grandfield, “we held a practice meeting on that night and was ready to go next day, making the start and on the way.”
As a present for President Coolidge, they chose a pair of chaps made by Al Furstnow’s Saddlery, in Miles City. The original invoice shows the purchase price of “1 pr. Coolidge chaps” at $36.00, minus a “special reduction” of $8.50, for the billable total of $27.50.
Seventy-seven people packed in 22 vehicles and caravanned to the Black Hills, including a designated official car, a truck for instruments, and a chuck wagon. First stop was an evening of music in Fallon. The route then traversed through the Montana towns of Mildred, Ismay, and Baker, and then through Camp Crook, and Buffalo, South Dakota.
The morning of the July Fourth visit, Grandfield wrote that some of the group “seemed a little excited on thought of meeting with the President and his wife… But most of us old hands went about our tasks, just like meeting with Presidents were an everyday thing with us.”
The band marched past hundreds of people who lined the road on both sides until they came to the entrance to the Summer White House lawn, when the sentry on duty stepped aside and stood at attention while they passed. They followed Colonel Edmund W. Starling up the driveway and onto the lawn, where they formed a circle in concert formation. In a few moments the President and Mrs. Coolidge appeared, and the crowd and the band joined in a loud cheer.
“We played a piece or two, and the President came down on the lawn from the House,” journaled Grandfield.
Colonel Starling motioned Rep. Flachsenhar, who on behalf of “the Terry Montana Cowboy Band” – the band settled on the new moniker during the drive to The Black Hills – and the people of Montana, presented the President with the chaps of light-colored leather, embossed with silver studs around the edges, and letters CAL in silver down each leg, and a medallion monogram on the bottom of each leg, hand-engraved, with the words “Presented By The Terry Cowboy Band,” above a picture of a cowboy riding a bucking bronco.
Representative Flachsenhar said a few chosen words that were received by the President “with a broad smile and a handshake.” The Boy Scouts then came forward and presented the President with a horse, saddle, spurs, shirt and kerchief.
Subsequently, a four-year-old from Terry named Frances Lillian Hewitt presented Mrs. Coolidge with a beautiful bouquet of pink roses, and the Terry Montana Cowboy Band and friends received an introduction to the President and the First Lady in sight of thousands of people who lined the road and covered the hillside.
After this the band played a few selections; a song was sung by Korse Johnson, the drum major, which “caused the President and his wife to smile.” Afterwards, Mrs. Coolidge approached Johnson and requested that the words and music of the song be sent to her as soon as the band returned home. The President donned his cowboy rig and the band played more tunes.
Soon, the Summer White House servants arrived with loads of trays, and a large half-circle formed with the Cowboy Band in the center, and their families and friends from Montana on one side. After the birthday cake was unveiled, the band played another number or two, and the horse that was presented to the President by the Boy Scouts was led into the circle, and the bridle reins were placed in the President’s hands.
“Most everyone kept expecting to see the President mount his horse,” wrote Grandfield. “But as he had not done much riding before he came to the Black Hills, he refrained from making any attempt to ride. But he led it around the lawn while the movie men took pictures…”
Coolidge cut his birthday cake and served it to his guests. At about 3 p.m. the President returned to the house, and Mrs. Coolidge retired to the porch of the house overlooking the lawn, having “assured herself that everybody enjoyed themselves,” recalled Grandfield.
To conclude the memorable event, the Terry Montana Cowboy Band played several more numbers, saluted the observers, and marched away to camp. Within a few hours, the band was embarking on the route to their next gig in Belle Fourche the following night.
The Terry Cowboy Band later made several other long journeys, including to Gallatin Gateway for the official opening of that entrance to Yellowstone Park on June 29, 1929, to the Minnesota State Fair in 1934, and to the Golden Jubilee of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, also in 1934. The band also played at the celebration of the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad between Glendive and Circle, starting with a rousing set as the initial passenger train arrived in Circle, on June 2, 1928.
Newspaper clippings, photos and posters of the performances of the Terry Montana Cowboy Band may be found at the Prairie County Museum, in Terry. According to papers at the museum, the last documented event was a concert combining the Terry and Glendive bands in 1947; the Terry Montana Cowboy Band officially disbanded in 1953.
The President’s chaps are now located in the Coolidge Room of the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, while Al Furstnow’s Saddlery, in Miles City, where the chaps were made, stayed in business for almost a century, from 1894 until 1982.