Led by “Mr. Music,” Theodore W. Thorson, Crookston’s all-female drum and bugle corps won four straight American Legion Auxiliary state championships, from 1932 to 1935.
Following World War I, drums and bugles from military units were sold to organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. These groups used the instruments to form drum and bugle corps, which lent a celebratory air to local parades and provided a dignified presence for more somber events, such as Memorial Day services. From that initial purpose, statewide competitions evolved.
The drum and bugle corps that formed across the country were a combination of military guards and marching bands. Color guards resembling military honor guards were used, as were drums, fifes, and bugles. A drum major directed both the music and the marching.
Crookston originally had a male drum and bugle corps, but in 1930 T. W. Thorson formed an all-female unit to represent the American Legion Auxiliary. Max Raines took charge of the military drills.
Thorson’s combination of military and musical experience made him the logical choice to train the corps. While a student at the University of Minnesota, he had played in both the University symphony and the University band. It was said that he could play every instrument in the band except the English horn.
Enlisting in the Navy in 1917, Thorson became a bandmaster of the Naval band on the U.S.S. New Jersey during World War I. His training for that assignment included study under John Philip Sousa in the School of Instruction for Navy Bandmasters. He took over as municipal bandmaster in Crookston in 1929. Later he became the music instructor at Central High School and the director of both the Ninth District Legion Band and the Northwest Singers.
The original female drum and bugle corps, which made its debut in 1931, consisted of twelve snare drummers, eight fifers, eight buglers, four color bearers, two bass drummers, two cymbalists, and a drum major, Lillian Raines.
During the difficult Depression years, the women of the corps raised their own funds for uniforms and instruments by organizing rummage sales, card parties, and initiation fees. With the funds, they were able to buy novelty costumes for informal performances. They also bought formal white dresses for memorial services and commemorative drills.
At the State American Legion Convention at Rochester on August 19, 1931, the drum and bugle corps from Crookston was, according to the Crookston Times, the star of the show. The spectators cheered so loudly at the formal exhibition drills that the marchers couldn’t hear the drum major’s whistle over the roar of the crowd. As a result, some of the women marched in the wrong direction, costing them the championship. The loss was their last at the state competition for the next four years. In 1932, at the state convention in Bemidji, the Crookston corps won the overall championship. They also received the title of “best-appearing women’s drum corps” in a related activity.
The high point of the corps occurred in 1933, when the Crookston unit attended the national convention in Chicago. The Crookston corps was chosen over all other units in the country to appear before the president of the National American Legion Auxiliary. They also appeared at Soldier’s Field and at the World’s Fair.
The women’s Auxiliary drum corps was so popular that Munn’s Jewelry Store displayed in its window twenty-nine celluloid dolls, one representing each woman in the corps. The dolls were arranged in formation and dressed in replicas of their black-and-white uniforms.
The state American Legion Convention in Duluth in 1934 was another success for the Crookston drum and bugle corps. Individual championships were won by the drum major Jeanette Wright and by sisters Ruth and Belva Saugstad for bugling and drumming, respectively.
Through the years of competition, the women’s corps was self-supporting, relying on a wardrobe of six different costumes. Merchants of the town financed trips to state and national conventions.
After losing their drum major and drill master to relocation, the group voted to disband in April, 1936, thus ending a five-year phenomenon in Crookston’s history. Thorson formed a similar group at the high school in 1939, a tradition which continued until 1970.
“Central Drum Corps Formed.” Crookston Daily Times, September 12, 1939.
“Cheers for Drum Corps Marred March.” Crookston Daily Times, August 20, 1931.
“Crookston Drum Corps Victorious in Defeat: Greatest Ovation Given Unit.” Crookston Daily Times, August 21, 1931.
“Drum and Bugle Corps Will Serve Crookston Through Summer Season.” Crookston Daily Times, April 23, 1931.
“Drum Corps Members Walk Off Field to Lose First Place at Rochester: Take Third Despite Error.” Crookston Daily Times, August 19, 1931.
“Drum Corps Declared State Champions.” Crookston Daily Times, August 8, 1934.
“Drum Corps Retains Legion Title; District Band Second: Auxiliary Unit Takes Honors for 4th Year.” Crookston Daily Times, August 14, 1935.
“Drum Corps Scores Big Chicago Hit.” Crookston Daily Times, October 7, 1933.
“Formal Welcome Planned for Drum Corps as They Win First Legion Prize.” Crookston Daily Times, August 24, 1932.
“Ladies Drum Corps Forms Social Club: State Champions Past Four Years Disband as Marching Organization.” Crookston Daily Times, April 28, 1936.
“Legion Auxiliary Will Sponsor New Drum, Bugle Corps.” Crookston Daily Times, September 12, 1930.
“Local Drum Corps Earns $675 in Drive.” Crookston Daily Times, June 12, 1931.
“Miniature Drum Corps to be on Display Here Today.” Crookston Daily Times, July 26, 1934.
Polk County Historical Society. Bicentennial History of Polk County, Minnesota: Pioneers of the Valley. Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company, 1976.
“St. Louis-Bound Legion Group Entrains Tonight.” Crookston Daily Times, September 20, 1935.
“T. W. Thorson Chosen City Bandmaster.” Crookston Daily Times, May 1, 1929.
“T. W. Thorsons Selected Pioneer Couple for 1973.” Crookston Daily Times, June 18, 1973.
The Crookston American Legion Auxiliary Drum and Bugle Corps wins its first of four state championships in August 1932.
The Crookston American Legion Auxiliary drum and bugle corps is formed.
The corps performs at the state Legion convention in Rochester.
The corps wins the state championship in Bemidji, Minnesota.
The corps wins state championship in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
The corps performs at the American Legion National Convention in Chicago.
Dolls representing each member of the corps are put on display at Munn’s Jewelry.
The Crookston corps wins its third straight championship, in Duluth, Minnesota.
The corps wins again, at the state championship in Albert Lea, Minnesota.
The corps performs at the national American Legion convention in St. Louis, Missouri.
The corps disbands and becomes a social club.
Central High School forms a female drum and bugle corps.