Horner Museum Tour Guide Series
By Jennifer Lee
(Originally published in Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, ©1992 Horner Museum)
The DeMoss Family Bards for over sixty years (1872-1933) delighted thousands of audiences throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe with their musical entertainment. From their home in Eastern Oregon, the family traveled to the remotest mining camps, the most distant frontier towns and communities, contributing greatly to the life and culture of the Pacific Northwest at a time when means of communication were limited.
James M. DeMoss was born in 1837 and was raised in Iowa by devout Christian parents. His mother was a teacher of vocal music, so by a very early age he could sing well enough to be a part of a quartet. She also taught her children how to read and write using the Bible and hymn books as aids. In the writing of James' childhood he relates that he was not permitted to read fairy tales and novels. His father would not allow his children "... to go to any kind of a social gathering such as a dance or what they call play parties, he said that there would be wild oats enough sown with out [sic] children hunting for places to sow them."1 Later James DeMoss concurs with his father in this matter. "If I wanted Salvation, I would never go to a dance to find it."2
With this Christian upbringing, DeMoss joined the United Brethren Church; the young convert taught music at the age of sixteen. He went to college and studied music and religion; a few years later he began to preach. In 1858, he married Elizabeth A. Bonebrake, a talented singer and musician and the daughter of a preacher.
The DeMosses headed west to Oregon in 1862. Upon arriving at the Powder River, "... he was so much delighted by seeing the swarms of salmon disporting in the clear waters of the stream, and was moreover so well pleased with the surroundings of the place, that he stopped at this point, locating and building a cottage hotel, where now stands the town of North Powder."3 He put in a toll bridge over the river and this enabled him to make a good living. In addition, he continued his preaching and missionary work. One source states that he "... preached the first missionary sermons to the settlers east of the Blue Mountains, and for ten years was known as the leading camp meeting and Fourth of July singer in eastern Oregon."4
From North Powder, the DeMosses moved to Cove, Oregon, where he also established a toll bridge across the Grande Ronde River. In addition, he erected the first sawmill in the Grande Ronde Valley. By the late 1860s DeMoss transferred from the United Brethren Church to the Methodist Church because, "... my teaching singing school brought by jeolous [sic] preachers who seemed to envy my cultivated musical voice."5 This transfer caused him to note, "... I had full liberty as a singer [with the Methodists] sutch [sic] as I did not have before."6 He and his wife began teaching music as a profession in Walla Walla, Umatilla region, Cove, and the Grande Ronde.
James was zealous and energetic. His son George later wrote about his father. "He worked all day in the mill and would conduct revival meetings or singing schools week nights besides maintaining two regular church services on Sunday ... he was interested in every good thing that would build up the Oregon country."7 In a biographical sketch of the DeMosses, one source notes, "This zealous Christian couple, James M. DeMoss and Elizabeth Bonebrake DeMoss, started their work with great success in portions of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, gaining many souls to Christ."8
By the early 1870s, the couple had seven children of which five survived. All five of them, Henry, George, Minnie, Lizzie and May, demonstrated unusual musical talent. With their parents they gained recognition and popularity throughout the Grande Ronde Valley.
In 1872, encouraged by friends, James and his family determined to spread their music, talents, and the word of God to other communities by touring and presenting public concerts. All of his children were under the age of twelve and believed to be musical prodigies. The family traveled under the name, "The DeMoss Concertists of Oregon." James DeMoss writes:
... my wife and I decided to go to Iowa and as my children were good singers, and Minnie who was past 2 yrs of age could sing songs and I bought a portable Masen [sic] & Hamlin organ and started east with a span of mules to a large hack and gave concert [sic] on the way[.] ... [T]he first concert where I charged admission a the door was at Cove, Oregon, the price of admission was one dollar ...9
Later that trip, they entertained at the Boise Mines in Idaho. These concerts caused George to note, "The miners were especially fond of Mother's singing and they would toss money on the platform when she was singing her beautiful solos."10 They had other showings of enthusiastic support from their varied audiences; after this first tour the family was launched into a musical career that was to last over sixty years.
The next ten years they spent in the Midwest where the children received an education; and all were converted and joined the Methodist Church; they also continued traveling and entertaining all over the region. George writes of their reception by their cowboy audiences. "Our cheerful program of sacred, classical and patriotic music was well received and at times they would encore with their revolvers, by shooting out of the open windows or hammering on the floor with their guns."11 The family played over forty-one instruments in a variety of arrangements and wrote many of their own songs. Among many of the "musical feats" the DeMosses performed on stage was one by Henry who "... seems to be a prodigy in the musical line. He produced 'Old Hundred' on the organ with one hand and 'Yankee Doodle' with the other, at the same time singing, "Home, Sweet Home'."12 Also, George could do the amazing feat of playing two cornets at the same time, one a tenor and the other a soprano. In earlier years, often James would lecture on the science of music during a performance from his published chart called the Key to Music. During these years he also composed a cantata called "Joseph, the Hebrew Governor of Egypt," and other sacred songs.
They traveled by railroad, stage, and team bringing their entertainment to scattered settlements and cities from Mexico to the Northwest Territory. George DeMoss related, "we never played for a dance or drank their liquors but we had the very best of order and the old miners, trappers, and prospectors would come many miles to hear our concerts."13 As one newspaper notes, "The DeMoss quartet always held sacred concerts with churches, and was not a theatrical group."14
In 1882, while in San Francisco, Henry, just twenty years old, longed for Oregon. Homesick for his adopted state, he composed the famous song, "Sweet Oregon." Lizzie DeMoss Davis later wrote in 1937:
I recall we were filling some concert engagements in the churches and social halls of San Francisco [and] has just recently come west over the Union Pacific, then the nearest R.R. to Oregon, and the nearest my brother had been to Oregon for 10 years which inspired him to write the song.15
For years, Henry's song was virtually the only state song Oregon had. From that time on, at the close of each concert the family sang "Sweet Oregon."
By 1883, the family had staked out a homestead in the middle of Sherman County, Oregon. The site became known as DeMoss Springs, a "temperance town" where no liquor was allowed. Throughout their concert years, the twelve hundred acre ranch served as a retreat for the family from their exhaustive tours. DeMosses still live at DeMoss Springs today.
Tragedy struck the family in 1886 when young May died of malaria while in California. Later that year their mother Elizabeth passed away in Oregon. The remaining DeMosses continued to entertain. By 1887 the appellation "Lyric Bards" was added to the DeMoss name because of their ability to compose both words and music. James DeMoss remarried and the four remaining children--Henry, George, Minnie and Lizzie--often entertained separately from their father and his new family. Minnie wrote in her journal in October, 1890:
... we four were gradually taking over the concert work, Father becoming interested more in the city missions, evangelistic work ... Father being a very effective evangelistic singer and his wife could enter into that work with him as she could play the piano sufficient enough to play the hymns for his work though not a concert musician hense [sic] could not have any part in our concert work.16
Their fame had grown so that through the help of Senator John Mitchell of Oregon they were asked to give concerts at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. For this event the versatile family composed songs for every state in the Union which amounted to forty-four songs. Later they entertained at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905 in Portland and the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915.
A new era began for the DeMosses in 1897 with the sudden death of sister Minnie. She was an integral part of the DeMoss Quartet as poet, composer, vocalist and instrumentalist. Up to her death, the family was self-sufficient. Consequently, for the first time in almost a quarter of a century of performing, the DeMosses invited musicians from outside the family to join the group: Aurelia Davis and her brother, P. Waldo Davis joined the entertainers. This same year in Nevada the family purchased the Hank Monk stage coach for $150.00. The coach had been one of the well known Ben Holladay transcontinental stages with Monk as the driver. The rig was known to have transported many famous dignitaries. With their verve for adventure, the newly reorganized group of five camped from Nevada to Oregon in the noted coach, entertaining communities along the way. They continued using it in subsequent years for their performances around the Northwest.
From 1896 until his death in 1912, James DeMoss remained mostly at DeMoss Springs, Oregon, raising a new family that was not as musically talented as his first family. He was appointed postmaster at DeMoss Springs and served in that duty for three years. Then he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in the same community. For short periods, he would take time off from his ministerial duties and give concerts and services of song.
For the next thirty-three years, the composition of the Bards changed. P. Waldo Davis married Lizzie DeMoss, and they had "Baby Herschel" who also performed on stage. He was popularly known as "Director of the Band". George DeMoss married Aurelia Davis, and they had Elbert who at the age of two years delighted audiences. Henry DeMoss married Julia Hall in 1901; she was a singer and musician from Cove, Oregon. The performers tried different musical arrangements. The Davis family (P. Waldo, Lizzie and Herschel) separated from the DeMoss Entertainers in 1910. The remaining DeMoss Entertainers consisted of George, Aurelia, and Elbert, Henry and his son Homer. Frequently other musicians would participate with the family. Always, however, they kept their entertainment to the style of James DeMoss. Lizzie DeMoss Davis was later to write:
Memory, just a memory, how my parents in the earlier days made the wold [sic] of a highly moral type of entertainment and God helping us we kept our program in mold, striving to make people happy, shedding a bit of sunshine to humanity as we sang of God, of temporance [sic] and nativeland.17
After James stopped touring, George became the main impetus and strength behind the entertainers. He carried on his father's strict religious zeal and temperance. For example, Herschel Davis (son of Lizzie DeMoss Davis and P. Waldo Davis) relates that his Uncle George considered any music that was not patriotic, religious or classical, as "wicked music".18
When the entertainers toured, they booked rigorous, demanding schedules for themselves. Every small community in an area would be visited. Wherever a piano or organ was located would be the place the concert would be held. Most of the time it would be churches, city halls, music halls, opera houses, or school houses. An example of their exhaustive scheduling where they performed every day, can be found in the 1908 journal (37th annual tour) for the month of October. All the following communities are in Oregon:
4 Sang service
5 Lone Rock
8 Winlock Mills
11 Probably sang the service
13 Long Creek
14 Fox Creek
15 Mount Vernon
16 Canyon City
Et cetera 19
Journals from other years also show this day-to-day scheduling of concerts.
In 1933, the DeMoss Family Lyric Bards played their last tunes together as a performing family. George died in that year after performing his famed musical feat of playing two cornets simultaneously. Of the more than 12,000 concerts given over 60 years, George had not missed one. Without his energy and enthusiasm behind them, the family musicians dissolved as a touring group. Individual members of the DeMoss family continued playing and teaching music locally in Oregon and still are active in music circles today.
Perhaps the family performers would not have continued much longer, even if George had been there to inspire the group. Competition from chautauquas and the radio, popular since the twenties, reduced their audiences. In addition, the advent of the motion picture dramatically changed people's taste for entertainment. The Great Depression probably had some effect on their declining popularity. One source speculates that innovation in American music during the twenties caused "... the DeMoss entertainments of the same period ... seem conspicuously rustic and prosaic."20 It was unlikely their style of entertaining would appeal to the roaring twenties society.
In conclusion, by the end of their long career, the prolific DeMosses had scarcely missed a city or region in the United States where their music did not resound as they sang in praise of God and country. Fired with a self-appointed mission to spread religion throughout the world with music, the family had amazing endurance and perseverance. They were always loyal to Oregon, favoring ranching lands in the eastern part of the state. In his history of Sherman County, Giles French aptly characterized this remarkable family when he wrote:
They had no interest in farming, and no adaptation to it. Their stock brand was a fiddle. Their enjoyment was to carry the word of God in song and sermon all over the world and they were satisfied with handclaps and handclasps in appreciation whether there was food in the locker box under the concord's seat or not.21
1 "This is the writing of James M. DeMoss copyed [sic] from a tablet give [sic] me by Herschel Davis." (Typescript) Date unknown, p. 2 DeMoss Records. (Hereafter designated as "Writings of James DeMoss.")
3 An Illustrated History of Central Oregon Embracing Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Wheeler, Crook, Lake and Klamath Counties. (Spokane, Wash.: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1905), p. 297.
4 "Prof. James M. DeMoss". (Poster) printed on the back: "A Historical Sketch of Prof. James M. DeMoss", ca. 1902. DeMoss Records.
5 Writings of James DeMoss.
7 George DeMoss. 55 Years on the Concert Platform: The DeMoss Entertainers, America's World Famous Concert Family. (New York: by the author, 1928), p. 2
8 An Illustrated History of Central Oregon, p. 494.
9 Writings of James DeMoss.
10 George DeMoss, p. 4.
11 Ibid., p. 6.
12 Unidentified newspaper clipping, ca. 1895. DeMoss Records.
13 George DeMoss, p. 6.
14 "Mrs. DeMoss - Cochran's Remains Brought from Calif.", Obituary column, (unidentified source, 1896), DeMoss Records.
15 Lizzie DeMoss Davis, handwritten looseleaf pages, 1937, p. 1. DeMoss Records.
16 Minnie V. DeMoss. DeMoss Family Journal from December 15, 1888 to 1890. DeMoss Records.
17 Lizzie DeMoss Davis, p. 2
18 Herschel Davis, personal interview with Jennifer Lee. (Eugene, Oregon: May 11, 1979), p. 34. Horner Museum Oral History Collection.
19 Concert Book for 1908, 37th annual tour. DeMoss Records.
20 Gay Blankenship, DeMoss Family Musicians: Lyric Bards of Oregon, (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society, 1958), p. 147.
21 Giles French, The Golden land: A History of Sherman County, Oregon, (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society, 1958), p. 147.
Blankenship, Gay G. DeMoss Family Musicians: Lyric Bards of Oregon. Unpublished Masters thesis, University of Oregon, 1966.
Davis, Herschel. Personal interview with Jennifer Lee, May 11, 1979, Eugene, Oregon.
The DeMoss Family Records. Special Collections, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon.
The DeMoss Family Records. Horner Museum, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.
DeMoss, George. 55 Years on the Concert Platform: the DeMoss Entertainers, Americas[sic] World Famous Concert Family. New York: by the author, 1928.
French, Giles. The Golden Legend: A History of Sherman County, Oregon. Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1958.
An Illustrated History of Central Oregon Embracing Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Wheeler, Crook, Lake and Klamath Counties. Spokane, Washington: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1905.
Lemon, E. B. Personal interview with Jennifer Lee, March 16, 1979, Corvallis, Oregon.
Roach, Beula DeMoss (sister of Homer DeMoss). Personal interview with Jennifer Lee, October 11, 1990, Corvallis, Oregon.