The Townsend Club Band

In April 2006 we received three jackets, two pairs of trousers, and a cap and tie from uniforms for the Townsend Club Band in Falconer in the mid 1930s, the “heart of the Great Depression.” The donor was Ed Turner who for many years was the bandleader and music teacher at Southwestern Central School. He and his younger brother, Robert, and their father had been members of this Townsend Club band.

Dr. Francis Townsend in California in 1934 came up with a suggestion to alleviate or cure the Depression: have the federal government give each citizen over age 60 $200 every month to spend. This was to be financed by a national sales tax. The idea proved nearly as popular as free money, especially the first part. A national organization and local clubs formed, including one in Jamestown and another in Falconer.

The men in the Falconer group formed a band. Today most people when they hear the word band assume rock band. In that era a band, unless otherwise specified, meant a brass band. “Big bands” or swing bands were just coming on. Country bands, then largely confined to the south were known as “string bands.” There were jazz bands, polka bands and others, but no rock bands.

Brass bands, harking back to their military origins 100 years earlier, have always had a fondness for spiffy uniforms. The Falconer Townsend Band got its uniforms from a firm that supplied service stations with employee uniforms in those days. At that time gasoline was sold not only at general stores, local forerunners of the subsequent chain convenience stores, but typically at “service stations,” often combined with garages, where the service consisted of someone, sometimes in a uniform, who would operate the pump and fill your tank for you plus check your oil (which had to be changed every 500 miles, not 5,000 like today) and radiator coolant (which in the summer was just water and in the winter a mixture of water and wood alcohol) perhaps even check and adjust your tire pressure or wash your windshield if asked. Expecting the customer to pump his own gas would have been considered substandard business practice and potentially dangerous. Expecting a woman to do so would have been recognized as boorish and disrespectful. The gasoline, by the way, was proudly advertised as containing a lead compound that increased the octane rating.

In 1936, the Falconer Townsend Club band was the official band for a Townsend Plan convention in Cleveland. The band had pictures of itself made up in advance to sell. The conductor, Charles Metcalf, was paid for a while by one of the New Deal government agencies to serve in that capacity for which he otherwise volunteered. One time, according to Turner, Dr. Townsend, himself, came to Falconer, and the band’s drummer, Art Myers, got to carry his luggage.

The Townsend organization and the corresponding popular movement ultimately fizzled, but it was the intellectual grandfather of Social Security, instituted in 1935.

The uniform consists of trousers, jacket and cap. It is fashioned from cotton twill fabric in royal blue and decorated on the collar, cuffs and cap, as well as the sides of the trousers with gold colored soutache braid. Gold colored brass buttons were used to close the jacket. There were also buttons closing two breast pockets and two pockets at the bottom of the jacket. The cap is flat on top with a leather brim and trimming of gold braid.

The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County’s history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.

Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.

If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.