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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 05 2013

Eriksmoen: North Dakota composer was originally a medical doctor

The man who composed the music to the North Dakota State Song and the college song for North Dakota State University was a former medical doctor who lost his Fargo practice after a fire destroyed all of his medical records and equipment.

In financial desperation, Dr. Clarence Putnam began teaching various courses at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) and soon organized a music department at the college. He turned a fledgling instrumental group into a prestigious marching band that earned numerous awards and was christened the Gold Star Band.

Clarence Simeon Putnam was born Sept. 16, 1859, in Barre, Vt., to George and Eliza (Jones) Putnam. George was a druggist and city postmaster, and Eliza had been a trained opera singer.

Eliza began teaching her son music at a very young age, and by the time he was 6, he was singing in the choir. When he turned 9, he was playing the cornet at musical events.

George was also a trained musician, and when the Civil War began, he enlisted with the 8th Regiment of the Vermont Volunteers and became a member of the regimental band. Band members marched along with the other volunteers and also were engaged in the fighting.

Shortly before Gen. William Sherman was to embark on the Savannah Campaign in Georgia, better known as the “March to the Sea,” George became ill and was taken to a hospital in Baltimore.

On Nov. 27, 1864, George died. After the survivors of the 8th Regiment returned home, the residents of Vermont observed “Decoration Day” on March 30, 1870, to honor the soldiers (living and dead) who had served in the war. The 8th Regimental band marched and played for the occasion, and 10-year-old Clarence took his father’s place as the band’s drummer.

No matter where Clarence lived for the next 72 years, he always marched in the parade for Decoration Day (later known as Memorial Day).

Clarence Putnam’s passion was music while attending school at the Barre Academy. At the age of 17, he was asked to become conductor of the 8th Regimental band. After graduating from high school, he worked two years as a clerk in a drug store and at a grocery store.

Putnam then enrolled at Dartmouth University. Although he excelled academically, his strongest driving force was music. To try to quench his musical interests, he traveled to Boston to study music.

His voice instructor was the noted opera composer George W. Chadwick, and his instructor of harmony and directing was conductor Carl Zerahn. Putnam was then awarded an understudy role in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “HMS Pinafore.”

After returning to Barre, his mother asked him to quit music and enter medical school. As a former opera singer, Eliza knew it was very difficult to make a good living in the music industry.

In 1880, Putnam enrolled at Philadelphia Medical School and also took medical classes in New York. He did his internship at Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia, earning his degree in 1883.

Following graduation, Putnam set up his first practice in Moorhead. After 18 months, he moved to Ada, Minn., where he practiced for four years before moving to Fergus Falls, Minn., for two years.

“His country practice proved too rigorous for his health.” Not only was he busy making house calls, but Putnam also organized and directed local bands and orchestras and took an active role in the Minnesota National Guard.

In 1891, Putnam tried to restore his health by shedding his hectic lifestyle and accepted a medical position in Superior, Wis.

After regaining his health, Putnam, in 1896, attended postgraduate work in surgery in Chicago.

He then resumed his medical practice, opening up an office in Casselton, N.D. Three years later, Putnam relocated his practice to the Edwards Building at 20-26 Broadway in Fargo.

On Jan. 4, 1903, the fire insurance on his office expired, and five days later, a fire consumed the building, destroying Putnam’s records, extensive library and equipment.

Finding himself in a desperate financial situation, Putnam contacted John Worst, president of NDAC. Worst was aware of Putnam’s extensive academic background and offered him a position teaching arithmetic.

Two days after the fire, Putnam was in the classroom, giving instruction in “hygiene, sanitary science, materia medica (pharmacy), therapeutics and other classes where no other instructor was available.”

Three months later, Putnam would be given another challenge – one that he would love: teaching members of a college band.

The band had been formed early in 1902, under the direction of Harry Rudd, a local musician. Rudd purchased 15 cheap instruments from a Minnesota farmer for $50 and organized the first rehearsal. Nine boys showed up.

By the end of the year, the band had grown to 27 members. Band members made themselves known by parading down Broadway in an old stagecoach promoting upcoming NDAC football games.

In April 1903, Rudd left Fargo, and Putnam was offered the position of director. Because of his love of teaching music and his musical knowledge, Putnam would soon turn a rag-tag group of musicians into one of the most prestigious marching bands in the upper Midwest.

(We will conclude our biography of Clarence S. Putnam next week as we focus on his illustrious career at NDAC.)


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen, of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.