SIX DECADES OF SWEET HARMONY
It all began in 1938 in Tulsa, OK. Owen Cash wanted to preserve the then- fading barbershop music he’d listened to growing up. So he invited a group of men to join him there in Tulsa.
They sang a cappella from the roof of a local hotel and the sounds of harmony that floated through the air stopped traffic below.
Fort Dodge local Herb Dick, who was in fact an actual barber, was present and witnessed firsthand the powerful effect the music had. He returned to Fort Dodge with resolve to keep the music alive.
It would be nine years before the Fort Dodge chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society would be formed officially, in June 1947. The group’s original name was simply The Fort Dodge Chapter of SPEBSQSA. That stands for Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.
In 1961 it was decided to adopt a choral name. After consideration and voting was complete, the men chose the name which had been submitted by Merlyn Groot —- Town and Country Chorus. Merlyn was an active member till he died in May, 2005.
Eventually the barbershop chorus became attached to the Fort and was accepted as a corps of the Dragoons. Wanting to reflect the nature of that relationship, the group changed its name once more in 1990 to Harmony Brigade.
The Harmony Brigade has had a bit of a nomadic life in relation to its meetings and rehearsal places. The first few meetings took place in the ballroom of the Warden Hotel. They then moved to the basement of the Elks Club building, which at the time housed the appliance salesroom and administrative offices for the Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric Co., a local supplier of the utilities. The Elks Club was on the 2nd and 3rd floors.
Through the years, the singers have met at Herb Dick’s barbershop, Wiewel Drug’s basement, the Parish Center at Corpus Christi, St. Edmond’s band room, the basement of Happy Joe’s Pizza Parlor (now Harvest Baptist Church). After a return to the Elk’s Club basement (which was dubbed Harmony Hall), the group later moved to their own “quarters” with street access in the Warden Apartment building. Current “home” is at the First Congregational Church on Williams Drive.
While in the Warden Apartment building, the group had their own rehearsal area with chairs at one end of the room and the risers always “up” at the other end. Sound equipment was set up to utilize when desired. The space provided a recreational and office area in addition to a room for photos, programs, publicity boards and other memorabilia to be displayed, plus room for the storage of stage props and equipment. Much of the history items are now housed in Terry Parker’s basement and the sound and lighting equipment in Chuck Nerem’s shop.
Through the years there have been 11 Directors for the group. In order of service they are: Freeman Groat (still active in Tennessee), Al Heath, Paul Franklin, Orlando Nicholson, John Janssen, Jim Blaha, Maurice Thornes, Dick Johnson, Stu Martin, Del Brandt and the current director, Clair Nerem.
The Harmony Brigade has many commitments throughout the year. Foremost is the annual show, usually presented in April each year. Originally styled as a Parade of Quartets with the Chorus playing a minor role, the show evolved into featuring the Chorus with usually two outside quartets invited to participate. These quartets have included a number of International Champions and other renowned regional quartets. Most recent champions appearing were the Acoustics; OC Times, placing 2nd three months later and placing first internationally the following year. The show has had a Saturday matinee-evening format in current times. A third performance on Friday evening was presented in the 1980’s through the early years of the new millennium.
Each February the group delivers singing Valentines to people in Fort Dodge and surrounding communities complete with a rose and a card. During the summer, when many church choirs take a break, the chorus does an annual tour of churches providing four-part harmonies of a religious nature. This generally includes a dozen churches in Fort Dodge on a given Sunday in August, with singing in other communities’ churches on two other Sunday mornings.
The Brigade has participated for some 30 years in singing at the annual VFW Memorial Day services held in North Lawn Cemetery. — Fall Fest in downtown Fort Dodge is another annual occasion for singing. And Christmas caroling in Nursing Homes is another group activity.
Being a “small” chorus, the Harmony Brigade has competed with other District choruses over the years. This springtime activity of competition and convention were hosted in 1982 and again in 1987 for the 5-State Heart of America District. Much praise was given the local chapter in the organization and fulfillment of the 3 day event. International President, Gil Lefholz, congratulated the chapter, mentioning that he didn’t have to wait once for an elevator as is “normal” in larger city venues.
Through the years, Fort Dodge has produced several top quartets. Most notable was the Foreman Quartet in the late 1960’s. In addition to being crowned District Champions in 1967, the quartet did a USO tour in the Far East in 1970. At present, the chorus has two local quartets.
Something new to the Brigade’s calendar the last four years is sponsoring the Youth in Harmony program. It is designed for high school age boys and girls and brings them in for a day and evening to learn about barbershop, learn a couple of songs, and perform them in concert that same evening. All area schools are invited. Participating schools in this area so far are Humboldt (the host school), Eagle Grove, Laurens-Marathon, Iowa Central Community College, Pocahantas, Fort Dodge High, Webster City and Story City. Assisting us with the evening concert is the Algona Barbershop Chorus. HyVee has provide the evening meal for the students and staff. Additional funding has been grants from the Humboldt Community Foundation, Union Pacific Foundation and the Barbershop Harmony Foundation. The evening concert is free and well attended.
Chapter membership is currently about the same number as 60 years ago —about 26. Peak numbers around 65 members occurred in the 1960’s. The number of other singing organizations in the area has increased over the years, with several members singing dually. Still, barbershop singing is a unique form of singing and a great hobby. New members are always welcome.
The Brigade meets weekly on Tuesdays October thru April 7pm and May thru September 7:30pm at the Congregational Church on North Williams Drive.