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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 12 2013

Did You Know That: Composer helped establish NDSU music school

Last Sept. 26, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education officially recognized the School of Music at North Dakota State University.

This means the university is now part of a small group of accredited institutions nationwide designated as Schools of Music that offer a variety of academic programs, including the doctorate in performance and conducting.

The origin of the school’s music program began more than 100 years ago when a fire in downtown Fargo destroyed the medical office of a local physician, Dr. Clarence Putnam.

Putnam moved his medical practice to Fargo from Casselton in 1900. On Jan. 9, 1903, the entire building that housed his office, library and medical equipment burned in a fire. His insurance had lapsed five days earlier.

To earn money, Putnam began filling in as an instructor at the North Dakota Agricultural College, now NDSU. Three months later the original director of the newly formed college band moved, and Putnam was offered his position. Having led bands in most of the small towns in which he practiced medicine, Putnam jumped at the offer.

The group that Putnam inherited in 1903 was only a 14-piece band. He organized it into a military band that performed for ROTC functions. To help give this group a driving purpose and distinction, he composed a lively march that became their signature song, “A. C. Cadets.”

A month after Putnam took over leadership of the loosely organized band, the school created a music department with Putnam as director, a position he held for more than 40 years.

As director, Putnam devoted most of his time to teaching music. Besides his band and teaching classes in theory and harmony, Putnam established choral groups, glee clubs, string ensembles and eventually an orchestra. By 1908, he had 172 musical students.

Putnam was busy composing and arranging musical scores for much of the music his band played. In 1906, English professor Archibald Minard began bringing poems to the director that Putnam put to music.

In 1908, Minard showed Putnam his poem “The Yellow and the Green,” which weaved in the colors of the North Dakota prairie. Putnam put music to the poem, and it became the college song of NDAC, and the colors were made the official colors of the school.

Putnam’s cadet band received a big boost in 1909 when 27-year old Harold Bachman, from the northwest corner of North Dakota, decided to attend NDAC. Bachman had played professionally for a number of touring bands, and his musical skills, aptitude and experience made a significant contribution to the college’s instrumental groups.

Word leaked out in September 1911 that Putnam was considering an offer from school and city officials in Aberdeen, S.D., “to take charge of several musical organizations” in their city. To try to persuade Putnam to remain, the Fargo Commercial Club raised money for him to conduct a series of concerts in Fargo. In 1913, Fargo was unable to raise enough money, so at the end of 1913, Putman moved to Aberdeen to conduct the city band and the band of the Aberdeen Normal School, now Northern State University.

Although still an underclassman at college, Bachman was hired to replace Putnam as conductor. Bachman graduated in 1916 and took a job as a high school music instructor in Harvey, N.D.

During World War I, he organized a state band that went with the National Guard to Europe to entertain the troops. Because his band excelled, it became known as the “Million Dollar Band.”

In 1917, the differences between NDAC and Putnam were resolved, and the former conductor returned. Putnam renewed his emphasis on the cadet band at ROTC functions. During the early 1920s, his band started receiving superior scores from ROTC federal inspectors. After receiving its third straight annual 100 percent rating, the band earned a presidential citation and a “Gold Star” rating in 1924. Since then, the NDAC/NDSU band has been called the Gold Star Band.

In 1926, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Minnie Nielson approached James Foley, a former noted North Dakota poet who was living in California. She asked him to compose verses for a song about the state, and he agreed to write a poem. After Foley wrote verses to the North Dakota Hymn, Putnam put it to music. The new song debuted at a public performance at the Bismarck City Auditorium in 1927. Twenty years later, in 1947, the state Legislature made it the official state song.

In 1932, in recognition of his accomplishments, Putnam was awarded an honorary commission of lieutenant colonel by North Dakota Gov. George Shafer. In 1935, he became the first person in this state to be admitted to the American Bandmasters’ Association.

Putnam remained active as music director into his 80s. He exercised daily, kept active mentally, and was a regular fan of the Fargo-Moorhead Twins baseball games. He said, “Calendar years mean very little in a man’s life. Heart, spirit and ambition also indicate a man’s real age.”

Putman died on Feb. 25, 1944. In 1950, a new library was built on campus, and the old Carnegie Library, built in 1905, became the home of the music department. The state Board of Higher Education voted unanimously to name it Putnam Hall.

This structure housed the music department until the construction of the Reineke Fine Arts Center in 1982. In 1977, Putnam was inducted into the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame.

“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.