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Chasing the Music Man is a true family history story that unearths a true genealogy detective for the ages! Come along on research journey as I discover some unbelievable facts.
Table of Contents
The Family History Story Research Begins
This article was written about my great, great grandfather Duncan Summers. Duncan is one of my favorite ancestors from my family tree. He was quite a character and loved to get into mischief. After his escapades in 1896 Iowa, he flies the coop again. I am in hot pursuit, but I do feel he may have outfoxed me this time.
The Phantom Ancestor – Chasing the Music Man
Like many amateur genealogists you occasionally reach a point in your research where you can go no further with a particular person or subject. Your research literally comes to a standstill. All types of angles are explorable, but your proverbial brick wall stands firmly in its place. In my case, Duncan Summers, my great, great grandfather was not only my brick wall, but also, my families.
Since the end of the 19th century, the knowledge of the whereabouts and life of my great, great grandfather Duncan Summers has been pursued by several individuals in my family. His son, Rufus Adolphus Joseph Somers (he changed the spelling of his name from Summers to Somers) once declared, “My father deserted me, my mother, and sister in 1886. I was only a year old at the time.” My grandmother and aunt, both family historians, searched until their deaths for the elusive Duncan, without finding any success.
Sometime after their deaths I was bitten by the genealogy “bug.” Of course, like many people I caught this “bug” too late. Most of the older generation had passed on before I could ply them with family questions. I unlike most had a grandmother who loved to write notes and keep them for years in binders. These notes became invaluable to me as I began my research. In the case of Duncan Summers, my grandmother left only a few lines of what she had learned from her father, Rufus.
According to the family history story, Duncan not only deserted his family he may have became an actor, a circus performer, and/or musician. How any one knew of these things, since Duncan left his family and never returned remains to be seen. With so little to go on, Duncan’s story was virtually shelved until I decided to give my newly found genealogical skills a go at it.
Breaking New Ground on Our Family History Story
I began my research with the website Ancestry.com. I did know that Duncan’s children, Rufus and Gertrude were born in London, Ontario. His wife, Nellie Myers was born in Chatham, Ontario. I did not know where Duncan had been born, but thought that Ontario would be a good starting point. I entered his name in the Ancestry.com search engine along with using different variants of the spelling.
As a result, I had several good hits doing this which included a marriage record and Canadian census records for 1861, 1871, and 1881. The marriage record did belong to him and my g.g grandmother, Nellie Myers; but unfortunately it listed only their names, where they currently lived, and the marriage date of 13 Apr 1882. No parents, ages, or place of birth listed. All the census records had the same information. The Duncan Summers listed was born in Quebec in 1857 then moved by the 1871 census to London, Ontario.
In 1881, this Duncan is still living in London with his parents. I checked the Drouin Collection, again through Ancestry.com. This collection houses thousands of parish records for Montreal, Quebec between the years of 1621-1967. In this collection, I found the birth records for not only the Duncan in the census records, but his seven other brothers and sisters. I had a strong hunch that this was my Duncan Summers, but how could I prove it.
Then, I began searching message boards in hopes that there would be someone with information on this particular family history story. Luck was with me. I checked the Public Member Trees on Ancestry.com for Duncan and siblings. I had one match. It was for an Alice Eleanor Summers who was born in Quebec in 1864. This Alice is the youngest sister to the Duncan Summers in the census records. I quickly wrote the Tree’s creator asking him about his family. He replied that he was very new to genealogy and only knew his great grandmother’s name. He said he recently inherited an album of very old photos from his Summers line, but had no idea how to identify them. I told him that I was researching his Summers line with the anticipation that they may be my family, also.
My Family History Story Research Continues…
Now, at this point I was grasping for straws, but I asked him if any of his newly acquired photos had a man using props; such as a musical instrument, wearing an outrageous costume, or perhaps a circus photo. After checking, he emailed me saying that he had one photo of a man holding a baton, standing next to a very large musical horn. Could this be my Duncan? He scanned and sent the photo. The photo revealed a tall distinguished man with a top hat looking to be perhaps a conductor of a band. The photo was taken in Creston, Iowa at the J.E. Agnew studio. I was so excited with this picture. Did the man resemble Rufus Somers or was it just my imagination?
What to do next? I decided to try Union County, Iowa’s genealogical website for information on the city of Creston, Iowa in hopes they may have something. Nothing, there. I then did a Google custom search for J.E. Agnew photography and found they were no longer in business. I tried every website that I could think of which might have applied. It then dawned on me that perhaps I could find something in a newspaper research website. I went to the Newspaper Archive and used their free index. I put in Duncan Summers, the dates from 1882-1920, and the state, Iowa. Bingo! Newspapers from seven different cities in Iowa popped up containing articles pertaining to Duncan Summers. I quickly subscribed to the Newspaper Archive and began reading the stories from Iowa. What I found was totally incredible!
The Real Duncan Summers?
After I pulled up the features on Duncan Summers, I discovered that he was a fraud and scam artist. Duncan apparently was going by the name of Professor Harold Land. Harold Land was Creston’s music professor who taught the city’s juvenile and ladies bands. He also was the director of the Union County band and gave open air concerts in the city weekly. According to a piece written on 24 May 1895, in the “Adams County Free Press,” Corning, Iowa it states, “Director Harold Land’s band played to an audience of about five hundred last Tuesday.”
In the 26 Dec 1895 article in the “Iowa State Register,” Des Moines, Iowa my ancestor Duncan Summers was arrested on a charge of lewdness, together with two young girls who were living with him posing as his sisters. Apparently, the girls’ mother, a Mrs. Gilmore Smith wrote a letter to the mayor of Creston informing him that the man they have as director and leader of the ladies’ military band is a fraud. Mrs. Smith goes on to say that, “Land’s right name is Duncan Summers and that he deserted a wife and two children in Canada in 1886. She says that Land has ruined three of her daughters and he is a demon-“a second Holmes.” The story reveals that Harold Land alias Duncan Summers is a lothario who lives with two sisters in sin.
The story of Professor Harold Land alias Duncan Summers is followed and repeated in numerous leading newspapers throughout Iowa over the next six months. I also searched the Newspaper Archive for the name Harold Land. This exploration provided me with articles showing a different side of my ancestor. Before the scandal he was reported as being a prominent man in the community, whom citizens looked up to with the highest esteem. Not only was he the leader of several bands, he also was the city’s printer and telegraph editor.
As I read and learned more about the make believe life of Harold Land I realized that his life seemed to parallel the main character, Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s musical, the “Music Man.” The names were very similar, both were musical imposters, and both lived in a small town in Iowa.
With this in mind, I contacted the officials at Mason City, Iowa to see if they would know who Meredith Willson based his character, Harold Hill on. Mason City was the birthplace of Meredith Willson and it is where the “Music Man” museum is located. I was informed by the Historian Archivist at the city’s library, “That many of us believe that Dixie, Meredith’s older sister, was responsible for the basic story of the Music Man.” Apparently, the story written was called, “The Silver Triangle” and unfortunately the one and only copy is gone. He concluded, “Unless someone produces the missing copy, we really can’t say for sure much about the character’s outlook.” I truly feel that my Duncan could haven been the inspiration behind the “Music Man” story, but even if he isn’t I couldn’t have asked for a better tale.
I continue to track my Duncan. Indubitably, he is on the run with a new name and new adventures.
Other Family History Story Projects
I hope you enjoyed this family history story as much as I did researching it! If you liked this article, next you may enjoy another family history story called, “The Man With a White Hat.”