Sunday, November 19, 2006


(July, 2002) I’ve been working for years on a history of the Franklin Silver Cornet Band. We turn 150 in 2006 and it would be nice to have a reasonably large chunk of our story assembled by then.
In the process of working on the history, I meet lots of interesting people from our community’s past. This week let me introduce you to John E. Butler.
It appears that John was born in the 1850’s. The first trace of him appears in records of the pre-war orphan trains.
The orphan trains are an interesting little footnote in American history. Big eastern cities (primarily NYC) would take their excess orphan and homeless child population and ship it by the trainload to the Midwest, hoping that there would be more families willing to take in these foundlings.
John was born in Galway, Ireland, where his father died. His mother brought him to this country in 1854 and delivered him to an asylum for homeless children. He was loaded onto one of the orphan trains, and it would appear that he never saw his mother again.
John settled in Princeton, Indiana, either in 1857 or 1859. When the Civil War broke out, he was only eleven, too young to enlist as a soldier, so Colonel John T. Wilder recruited John as a drummer boy. His foster father in Princeton had taught him to play the drum.
John served with the 17th Indiana Regiment, which became part of Wilder’s famous “Lightning Brigade.” (As an odd side note, one company of the 17th was the first military group formed in Franklin, Indiana.) They pioneered the use of Spencer rifles in the war; the 17th fought at Shilo, Chattanooga and Chickamauga.
After the war, John eventually settled in Franklin, where he lived for years on the 1100 block of Chestnut Street. In 1897 he founded Marvin Manufacturing Company, and he was the president and general manager of that concern for many years. He also worked on occasion as an oil scout for Standard Oil.
He joined the Franklin Band when he was in his early twenties, probably in 1870. When the band was first officially chartered in 1873, John’s was one of the names on the articles or incorporation.
John was married twice (not uncommon back in the days when people frequently died young). He had a son from his first marriage, John E. Butler, Jr., who moved to Liverpool, Ohio, where his own wife had grown up.
John’s second wife was Cora Rodgers. The same year John started Marvin Manufacturing, they had a son named Willis, who enjoyed a brief career in baseball. Willis played under the name Kid Butler for the St. Louis Browns (who would one day be the Baltimore Orioles). His one professional season was 1907; he played seventeen games out of 155. His batting average was a mere 220, but he played short stop, second base, and third base and had just three errors in his short career.
Willis continued to play minor league ball for several years (he had to take a break while playing for Memphis to recover from malaria); it was during that period that he met a grandson of Confederate General Forrest. Forrest’s grandson, upon learning about Willis’s father, gave Willis a medal to pass on to John. John was proud of that, as he was proud of a photo taken of Willis and pitching phenom Rube Waddell together.
The local paper called John a self-effacing man who preferred to keep his good deeds and honors secret, but against his wishes they published a full account of his return to Princeton in 1916. John was welcomed back to town with a parade and a banquet, and school children turned out in force to see Princeton’s own little drummer boy. The local Sons of Veterans camp changed their name to Camp John E. Butler, and at a reunion of old soldiers, John met a man whom he had taught to play drums while in the army.
In 1917, John’s old commanding officer, John T. Wilder died. That same year Willis enlisted in a unit of athletes and cowboys known as the “Grizzly Bears.” Willis survived the war and lived in California until his death in the 1960’s.
John died in Franklin in May of 1927. He was remembered as a band member, a soldier, and a man who had quietly given much to his community. His is not the sort of life that is celebrated in books, but I have to believe that one could certainly do worse than to live a life like that of John E. Butler.
A PS to this column from a few years back-- while completing the book about the band, I heard from a lady in Princeton who was in the process of writing a children's book about John. Turns out that they still have his drum out there, with a note from him saying that it was the drum he used to play wih the Franklin Silver Cornet Band, "the best band in all of Pennsylvania."

It's some kind of law of historical research-- after you go to press, some really cool lead or bit of information will surface.

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