North Dakota American Legion State Band celebrates 100 years of history

North Dakota American Legion State Band celebrates 100 years of history

The history of military music and bands has been a part of the North Dakota American Legion since 1919. Nearly a dozen drum and bugle corps were scattered throughout the state with two of the earliest coming out of Williston and Jamestown. The music has been continuous for the North Dakota American Legion State Band that has survived, thrived and is going strong in its 100th year in 2024.

The history of the North Dakota American Legion State Band goes back to when a group of World War 1 veteran Legionnaires took a volunteer band to St. Paul, Minn., wearing their Army uniforms. They slept in tents in the snow and represented North Dakota at the 1924 American Legion national convention.

The original band stemmed primarily from the former 164th Infantry Band (1st North Dakota National Guard) that served on the Mexican Border in 1916 and in Europe in World War I, and reorganized after returning home. The first band officers were from Lisbon, N.D. – William Jones, president; A. Galbreath, vice president; Albert “Abbie” Andrews, director; and Walter G. Curtis, secretary-treasure.

The first band manager was Walter Curtis who also was the first Department of North Dakota commander from 1925-1926; succeeding him was Ken Fitch from 1927-1963; William Sweeney Jr. from 1964-1975; Orlyen Stensgard from 1975-1989; and present manager is Bruce Holtan who was appointed in 1989. Directors were Abbie Andrews from 1924-1928; Lois Wright in 1928; Arnold Forbes from 1929-1947; charter band member Edmond “Shave” Green from 1947 until his death in 1975; Donald Piehl from 1976 until his death in 200; and the current director is Glen Wolf.

Under the management of Ken Fitch, the band became the first musical unit in the United States known to use a female out in front of the band introducing what is known today as the majorette. The first majorette in 1927 was Miss Harriet Phillips of Fargo. The last use of majorettes was in the late 1970s.

The band was recognized by World War 1 Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing as the “Livest Band in the World”.  Music continues to be a great way to honor our country and touches veterans’ memories and celebrates their time in the service. The band has appeared at every Department of North Dakota convention since 1925 with the exception of the World War II years when conventions were severely curtailed, and 2020 when the convention was cancelled due to COVID concerns. The band has appeared at 39 American Legion national conventions where past performances included marching in the convention parades, playing big band dances for the TriStack reception sponsored by North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, and playing at the Four Corners reception. In 2007, the band was recognized as the National Champion Marching Band at the national convention in Reno, Nev., and again at the 2014 National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

The role of the North Dakota American Legion State Band has evolved over the years with appearances not only at department conventions and winter conferences, but also national conventions. The band has provided music to many prominent Legionnaires and participated in the:

- 1941 homecoming of newly-elected National Commander Lynn Stambaugh of Fargo, N.D.

- 1951 inauguration of Thomas Whelan of St. Thomas, N.D., as U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua.

- 1957 inauguration of John Davis, a past department commander from McClusky, N.D., as governor of North Dakota.

- Ken Fitch Appreciation Day during the 1963 state legislative assembly when the longtime band manager’s colleagues in the House of Representatives wanted to recognize his service.

- January 1965 state legislative session in honor of longtime Department Adjutant Jack Williams.

- 1966 election and installation of former Gov. Davis as National American Legion commander in Washington, D.C.

- 1988 election and installation of North Dakota Supreme Court Justice and past Department Commander H.F. “Sparky” Gierke of Watford City and Bismarck as national commander in Louisville, Ky.

The music provided by the North Dakota American Legion State Band invokes memories of the Legionnaires time in the military. Performing military service songs or a favorite march, the reason for music continues to be ceremonial, tradition and Esprit de Corps.

The annual department convention in June continues to provide an opportunity to share music throughout the weekend before the joint sessions and for the Auxiliary, music for past department commanders dinner and ballyhooing in the community where the convention is held. The music continues into the evening with the “Dance Band” providing music after the convention banquet for their listening and dancing pleasure.

In 1982, the band participated in the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.  A return trip was made in 1995 to help dedicate the Korean War Memorial. And in 2004, the North Dakota American Legion State Band was the only Legion band to participate in the dedication ceremonies for the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The band was very busy for this dedication, playing a concert on the National Mall and at the Smithsonian, and marching in the annual Memorial Day parade. With the versatility of the band, a performance at the National American Legion Association VIP reception was performed by the Dance Band. The World War II dedication was made even more special by the introduction of the band’s performing World War II veterans – Don Loder of Cooperstown, N.D.; Ed Koshney of Cando, N.D.; Kermit Rosendahl of Fairmount, N.D.; Elmer Buckhaus of Hankinson, N.D.; and Leo Ehli of Lidgerwood, N.D.

Membership in the band has included veterans from World War I (the last charter member passing away after 66 years with the band), World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq and also includes generational family members and members of the Sons of The American Legion and the Auxiliary. The average years of service of the current band is 20 years and currently ranges as high as 53 years of service. This demonstrates the dedication of our membership in support of The American Legion music programs.

The North Dakota American Legion State Band has much to celebrate and is proud of what has been accomplished. Dedication and recognition to the Legion was evident when past member Don Loder of Cooperstown, N.D., was honored as Legionnaire of the Year and provided taps for over 500 veterans; and past member Lynn Schroeder was awarded the State Legion Press Award. To preserve the sound of the band, recordings of marching band music were completed with the second recording titled “On Parade and More”.  The band also had two recording opportunities for dance band music – “20 Guys from North Dakota” and a few years later “America the Beautiful – North Dakota Style”. 

The North Dakota American Legion State Band is excited to continue the legacy that began in 1924 by performing at the 2024 National Convention in New Orleans to top off our 100th year.

Band announcer Cathy Keogh and Bruce Holtan, band manager, are members of American Legion Gilbert C. Grafton Post 2 in North Dakota.