July 28, 2001
The Civil War over, the Wisconsin village of Port Washington resumed its everyday pursuits, with the main focus on commerce. By 1873 the newly created Milwaukee, Lakeshore and Western Railroad connected the village to Milwaukee and Manitowoc. In 1876, 350 steamships and 450 sailing craft were visiting the port on their voyages up and down Lake Michigan. The Federal government appropriated funds for an artificial harbor the following year, to serve as a maritime refuge from lake storms. But the attempt failed; future tries would fare no better. However the railroads were taking up the slack. Port Washington's industrial base continued to grow. It would take a local businessman, an English expat seeking adventure from the dime novel West inside his head, and an illiterate black vaudeville performer to put Port Washington on the charts.
Mr. F. A. Dennett of Sheboygan was the first on the scene, in 1888. Along with a small group of businessmen he bought an abandoned planing mill from its owners and the city, set up woodworking machinery, and founded the Wisconsin Chair Company. The new firm limped along for few years until, in 1892, they acquired the patent to the MacLean swing rocking chair and found themselves with a best seller on their hands. They soon branched out into school furniture. As business expanded the work force also increased, until by the mid-1890s they employed one sixth of the workers of Port Washington's Ozaukee County. Then, one Sunday evening in February of 1899, a blaze broke out in the main building, completely gutting the structure and destroying the adjacent business block on Franklin Street. But Dennett was persuaded to rebuild and soon Wisconsin Chair was back in business.
In 1913 the population of Port Washington grew by one, with the arrival of 14-year-old Arthur Edward Satherley, late of Bristol, England. He found his way to employment at the chair factory just as its owners decided to cash in on the new phonograph craze by manufacturing cabinets for the large talking machines. The new medium fascinated Satherley. So when the factory's management decided to branch out and begin boosting phonograph cabinet sales by supplying content, he was the right lad in the right place and soon found himself in charge of making disc blanks, from the shellac used to protect the new furniture. A record label was born - Paramount records. Arthur became a pioneer. Not as a stage driver outracing savages on the plains, but as one of the earliest of the new industry's A&R, or Artist and Repertoire directors. Off he set to scout out new talent. It soon became obvious that the label would face stiff competition from Columbia and Victor records. The term "niche market" didn't exist, but the A&R man set out to create one anyway. His thought was to record for the recent immigrant market, one Wisconsin knew well. Much of the furniture company's product was sold in the South; salesmen began seeking out local talent and referring them back to Satherley. His "stable" of artists soon included King Oliver, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alberta Hunter and dozens of others. But it was a performer named Gertrude Pridgett that would put Paramount on the map (until the label was sold in the 1940s). Not under the name Gertrude Pridgett, of course. When discovered performing in Chicago in 1923, she was part of an act called Ma & Pa Rainey and Assassinators of the Blues.
For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor
URLS OF THE WEEK
For background on the early days of the phonograph, wind up your search engine and place the needle (remeber those?) on the site for Jones Telecommunications & Multimedia Encyclopedia
From Leon Scott's Phonautograph, through Edison's Phonograph and The Bell-Tainter Graphophone through The Major Talking Machine Corporations, Recording in the Jazz Age, and Depression and Decline, the articles and related hot links will give you the real low down.
If you want to explore further, a good portal to many great
links can be found at my fellow Salmagundy commentator Peter
Doyle's Between the Wars site at
A browse through Peter's links will bring up such gems as Bear Family Records, the Noel Coward site, a site for der Bingle (Bing Crosby), Past Nostalgia News, the Swing Time site, a number of record companies, and many more. You'll also find a list of recent re-issues, for fans of early recorded music of the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
The Game's Afoot ! !
© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte