Humanities & Cultural
Since its founding in 1915, the Huntington Erie Community Band has provided the musical backdrop for many of the town’s most important gatherings, including the inaugural 4-H Fair in 1931, Huntington’s Centennial in 1948 and the first Heritage Days Festival in 1964. For 54 of those years, Elmer Rahn not only conducted the band, but was the leader who kept it together through its toughest times so that it still provides music to the community to this day.
Born in North Manchester in 1894 to a family of musicians and railroad workers, Rahn picked up the cornet at a young age. After his father died when Rahn was 10, the family moved to Huntington. When he was old enough, Rahn went to work for the Erie Railroad.
In 1915, railroad president F.D. Underwood sparked the creation of local railroad bands along the rail line, which ran from New York City through New York State and along Lake Erie through Indiana to Chicago, including a stop in Huntington. When the local band was formed, Rahn was ready with his horn. First known as Mackrell’s Band, Huntington’s 42-piece ensemble made its debut at a railroad band contest in Salamanca, New York.
The band performed for years, both in concerts and contests in Huntington and around the Erie Railroad areas. And then, in 1922, the railroad strikes began. When the Erie decided to cut wages for some of its worker positions, the newly-formed unions organized strikes up and down the railroad lines.
Most railroad bands took part in the strike, but Huntington’s band continued to play. When the strikes finally ended, every other band disbanded as many members were fired for participating in the strikes. As the lone group still performing, Huntington’s Erie Band was thanked by the railroad with a massive delivery of instruments and music from all the former bands.
The bad news was that most of the local railroad workers and band members were relocated to fill jobs that had been vacated along the rail line, including Huntington’s band director, Jud Miller.
Rahn stepped into the leadership role, with his first task to find enough musicians to put together a working band. Rahn had been studying music in Chicago for the previous two years, so he was ready to take up the baton. He was able to rebuild the band by inviting local school band directors to join, and the group thrived. Huntington’s Erie Band became well-known throughout the state, and even performed at the Indianapolis 500 in the 1920s and 30s.
Conductors — in this case, related to music and not the railroad — tend to have a signature conducting style. Rahn was no different. A man of shorter stature and calm disposition, he was known for his light, precise conducting style, with never a wasted movement. But this did not translate into the band’s sound. With Rahn at the helm, the band produced a large, rich timbre that seemed at odds with how moderate in size it was. For the ensemble, it wasn’t the baton that pulled sound forth from their instruments — it was Rahn.
In the 1960s, new union rules stated that railroad band members had to be paid wages for their time rehearsing and performing. The Erie-Lackawanna Railroad, which was in financial difficulty in a struggling industry, could not afford to pay the extra wages. Once again, Huntington’s Erie Band was in danger of disappearing.
But band members continued to show up with their instruments for rehearsals and performances, ignoring the warnings from the union that they were not to play unless paid. When asked why they showed up, members cited Rahn as the reason they kept coming.
“The charisma. We’re quite sure it’s Mr. Rahn,” said Mrs. C. Wesley Christian, a French horn player and band historian in a 1972 newspaper article on the band.
Rahn supported the band members being paid for their time, knowing that if they listened to the union and didn’t rehearse, he’d have no band. He always put his band members first. The musicians wanted to play for Rahn more than they wanted to be paid, and the Erie Band survived. They continued to play when the railroad was purchased by Conrail and subsequently dissolved.
Rahn died in 1976, but because of his leadership and the dedication he instilled in its members, the Erie Band still provides music for events in Huntington and Northeast Indiana, including one of their most popular tunes, the “Elmer Rahn March.”