More than Trees in the Big Tree Collection: The Murphys Hotel & Daily Doings in 1880s Calaveras County, Part Two

May 6, 2020
Franz Kunst
Murphy's Independent Cornet Band M2147_b032_f03-2_001

Here we are again exploring some of the riches contained in an 1880s hotel register from Murphys California, an item from the Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection relating to the Big Tree of California, 1853-2002. You can catch up on the background of this unique volume in Part One.

This register reveals something about the cultural life of the area and the kinds of entertainment available both to residents and visitors. Among the troupes passing through Murphys were musicians, dancers, comedians, and at least two medicine shows. Brass bands of various kinds were common in Eastern California, and community bands from Columbia and San Andreas were among those who performed in town. The Big Tree collection also includes a photograph of the local Murphy's Cornet Band posing on a fallen sequoia (see photo above).

Columbia Cornet Band 1886.05.06

Columbia Cornet Band May 6, 1886


San Andreas Cornet Band1 1885.09.1

San Andreas Cornet Band2 no date

San Andreas Cornet Band September 15, 1885 & undated


At least two African American groups, the Kentucky Jubilee Singers and the McKanlass Genuine Colored Concert Company, stayed at the hotel while on tour. The entries for both groups contain the names of each performer. This is especially interesting for the Jubilee Singers, as it establishes for certain that they had female members. Although the recordings are almost certainly lost, the brown wax cylinders they made for the U.S. Phonograph Company in 1894 are probably the first documented sound recordings by Black women. The only evidence of their existence is a description in a catalog published by the record company; each cylinder was individually recorded, and they were only available for a short time. I suppose it's possible that some of these singers participated in the recordings thirteen years later?

Part of a wave of choral groups following the success of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers in 1871, the Kentucky Jubilee Singers toured nationally, and appear to have been involved with San Francisco composer Frederick G. Carnes, who used their name in sheet music published by A. L. Bancroft beginning in 1879. Most available information about the Kentucky Jubilee Singers is via Tim Brooks’ invaluable Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919. 

Kentucky Jubilee Singers & Continuation Troupe 1881.06.04

Kentucky Jubilee Singers & Continuation Troupe June 4, 1881


 Professor McKanlass, World's Champion Violinist and Banjo King

Miss Emma Montell, Queen of Colored Vocalists

Rosie Conchita, Jubilee Contralto

Little Adelina Patti, Youngest child on stage

Master Willie, Boy Phenomenon

Mr. A.L. Sales, Wide Mouthed Comedian”

McKanlass Genuine Colored Concert Co.1886.11.01

McKanlass Genuine Colored Concert Company November 11, 1886

Fortunately there is a little more available about William H. McKanlass and his troupe, as his son William R. McKanlass (performing here as "Master Willie" with his sister Patricia, aka "Little Adelina Patti") went on to greater fame in the 20th century.  The senior McKanlass was born around 1858 in Oklahoma (then Indian Territory), later worked in Kansas, and eventually moved with his family to Ohio. Trained on the violin as well as the cornet at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (graduating  in 1883), McKanlass was the first African American music teacher in the Cincinnati public school system, and later served as Chief Musician in the Ninth Cavalry of the U.S. Army. Throughout the 1880s and 90s, McKanlass led an ensemble comprising his children and other entertainers under various names including the Great McKanlass Colored Specialty Company, the Great McKanlass Colored Comedy Company, the McKanlass Alabama Warblers, Wm. McKanlass Colored Minstrels and the McKanlass Colored Merrymakers. The group toured the country successfully, and their appearances are frequently advertised in contemporary newspapers.

Around the time of their Murphys appearance, they were mostly traveling up and down the west coast - Sacramento in February 1887, Los Angeles & Santa Barbara May 1887, Montana 1888, Oregon in both July 1886 and May 1890, and British Columbia as late as 1906. Singer Emma Montell receives separate billing in some of the promotions (her specialties were "Coming Through the Rye" and "The Old Folks at Home"), as does Master Willie on drums, banjo, tuba and trombone. Sales (sometimes spelled "Sayles") also appears often with the company. 

mckanlass montana white sulphur springs 1888 June 14

Mckanlass Company advertisement, Rocky Mountain Husbandman (Montana) June 14, 1888


In July of 1885, a "Free Open Air Concert" was given by the Hamlin's Wizard Oil Company No.18. Hamlin’s Wizard Oil was first produced in 1861 by former magician John Austin Hamlin and his brother Lysander Butler Hamlin. Although primarily a liniment, it was advertised as curing “pneumonia, cancer, diphtheria, earache, toothache, headache and hydrophobia.” The oil was promoted on the road by various troupes who also sold songbooks. Some of the more well-known performers with Hamlin’s include singer and composer Paul Dresser, composer and publisher Charles Davis Tillman, and writer James Whitcomb Riley.From their inscription, there would appear to be at least 18 Hamlin troupes touring the country, although it’s unknown whether there were more members than the three names here: director Harry Christie, his wife the organist, plus tenor Chas. A Gerard.

Hamlin's Wizard Oil Company No.18 1885.07.14

Hamlin's Wizard Oil Company No. 18 July 14, 1885


The Vigor of Life Concert & Minstrel Company appears to be another troupe promoting patent medicine, this time an alcohol-based concoction that at one time contained opium among its ingredients. Vigor of Life was advertised as curing “Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Fever and Ague, Inflammation of the Kidneys, Nervous or Sick Headache, Lame back or Side, Dysentery, etc." While noted bartender William Boothby and actor George Beban are recorded as having been part of traveling Vigor companies, they are not named here.

Vigor of Life Concert & Minstrel Co. 1886.05.21

Vigor of Life Concert & Minstrel Co. May 21, 1886


Fred and Myra Mackley were the Merry Mackleys. About the only thing I could dig up on them was a listing for an appearance at San Francisco’s famed Woodward’s Garden in 1882. Accompanying them for their Murphys performance are Flora Franks and Frank Whitney, the former possibly the same entertainer who was the subject of at least two tobacco cards and is referred to as a singer in various newspapers around this time.

Merry Mackleys 1881.04.07

The Merry Mackley's April 7, 1881

Merry Mackley's Daily Alta California, Volume 34, Number 11682, 16 April 1882

Merry Mackley's in Woodward's Gardens ad, Daily Alta California, April 16, 1882


The Boulon & McGinley Company was a family group with two McGinleys and four Boulons who toured up and down the west coast (and possibly beyond) with manager M. B. Thorpe. Eva McGinley was well-known enough as a “character-change artist” to have a promotional cabinet card produced, but just about the only references to the group are in hyperbole-laden newspaper advertisement articles.

Boulon & McGinley Co. - George Knight 1887.05.24

The Boulon & McGinley Co. - George H. Knight May 24, 1887

On the same page as Boulon & McGinley’s notice, a photographer from San Francisco named George H. Knight signed in to the register. Well it turns out there are many extant images taken by George Henry Knight (1851-1922), including several from Eastern California around this time and a larger series documenting the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. The California Historical Society, the Huntington Library, and a few other archives have some Knight prints, but the largest collection appears to be held by California State Chico, with 38 photos (part of the Ruth Hitchcock collection) available.

Although the physical volume is in need of rebinding and other conservation, we are entertaining the idea of photographing it in its entirety. Big data projects might be hindered by the variety of scripts and their irregularities, but other people with other interests will almost certainly pull out other names than I did, and digitizing will make it far more available (and anything would be an improvement over my impromptu snapshots!).