How many of you out there knew that John Phillip Sousa was behind the construction of Florence’s first public tennis courts?
Well, he might not have been aware of it, but sponsors of his local concert were looking for money to build the first public courts at Timrod Park.
The late Dr. Julian Price, a tennis enthusiast, said there were two tennis courts in town in the late 1920s. One was at St. John’s Episcopal Church and a private one at a residence.
Price and a small group wanted one at Timrod Park, and when they heard that Sousa was planning a concert tour in this region and had an open date, they went to work. Sousa agreed to bring his famous band here, and Price and his allies wanted to use their profit for a couple of tennis courts.
Sousa was to play in Columbia and Charleston with time for an additional performance between. Price and the late Dr. W.R. Mead decided it would be a good way to raise money for public tennis courts. Sousa’s organization wanted $10,000, Price said, but they said they did not have that kind of money and proposed that they split the receipts. Sousa accepted, getting 90 percent and the tennis enthusiasts getting 10 per cent.
As it turned out, Sousa got about $7,200 and the tennis project $800. (Dr. Price thought Sousa probably lost money on the deal.) Remember, this was about 90 years ago, and the dollar was much stronger then.
The city gave space at Timrod for the courts, and Florence County chipped in chain gang labor. The Atlantic Coast Line railroad gave cinders for a base, the phone company gave telephone poles, and clay came from another donor. It turned out to be a real local endeavor. They built two courts that are still there, and now there must be about a dozen courts there.
I saw a clipping about people from Lake City who came up to Florence for the concert, and it was said that a very big group came from Hartsville, connected to Coker College. The band played at the old McClenaghan High School auditorium and did two performances, one in the afternoon and one that night.
There were a couple of big moments at the concert. Sousa brought up the band director of the high school, Guy Hutchins, to lead a number. Can you imagine the thrill of a high school band director leading Sousa’s band? And then they did “Dixie” as an encore. Can you imagine the reaction? There could have been Civil War vets in the audience and certainly some who remembered the war.
Dr. Price was in charge of taking care of Sousa, and he took him around town. Sousa spoke to one of the civic clubs. According to clippings, the band stayed on the train while Sousa had a room at the old Colonial Hotel. “He was a very nice fellow,” Price said of Sousa, and “I got to talk with him a lot and really enjoyed it.”
Among the pieces played at the concerts were some by Sousa, Strauss, Berlioz, Wagner and Kreisler. Among those were Sousa marches, such as “The Washington Post March” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The next day, the Morning News reported that the audience “went wild over the concerts and expressed their delight by demanding encores which the bandleader most agreeably accorded.”
The late Brooks McCall told me that he witnessed crowds from big concerts from across the street from the school at his aunt’s house, and he got Sousa’s autograph on that visit. McCall said he kept the autograph in a barn, and one day some kids got in and tore up stuff, including Sousa’s autograph. McCall told that story with a chuckle. If it had happened to me, there would have been no chuckle.
Asked how to increase interest in music among the public, Sousa said, “Start with the children,” Dr. Price said. That seems to me to encourage music programs in the schools.
I think he was right about that, because I remember some of the great music pieces like “Blue Danube” being played for us at McKenzie School, and I’m sure that was part of the reason I love such music now.
Thom Anderson is a former editor of the Morning News.