Long ago, in the Lewis County town of Denmark – just a few miles south of Fort Drum, coincidentally – lived a family famous for its drumming skills. The Clarks’ unusual abilities began with the father, Orrin Clark, who served five years as a militia drummer.
Among his many children were sons George (born in 1844), John (1853), and Hiram (1856). Less than three weeks after his seventeenth birthday, George enlisted in the army, joining an infantry regiment. Displaying a musical talent similar to his father’s, he served as a drummer (the official military rank was Musician) for the next three and a half years.
It’s natural to assume that military drummers synchronized the marching of soldiers, but they also played a critical role during battles by providing audible communications amid the thunderous din of guns firing and shells exploding. Officers’ orders directing troop movement were delivered through drumbeats, the most stirring of which was the “long roll,” which meant to attack. Other beats were used to signal retreat or regroup. By the late 1800s, drums as signal devices were replaced by bugles.
After the war, George’s prodigious talent was displayed in the North Country at public gatherings, concerts, and parades. He took on all challengers in “drum-offs,” and none could match his abilities. One, described as “a Prussian lad,” came from Europe to take on the so-called “world champion” snare drummer. While the challenger played successfully on seventeen drums at once, George easily topped him with twenty-one.
Most of the Clark family members were excellent drummers, but it was George, John, and Hiram who formed a drum corps shortly after the Civil War ended. They became widely known for amazing drum sequences and solos—quite an accomplishment for a group that included George in his mid-twenties, and his two brothers in their early teens.
George played with many top bands and ensembles, and in 1879, he embarked on an overseas tour. Performing before many crowned heads of Europe, he played with an orchestra, but riveted crowds with his spectacular solos on fourteen drums at once.
At the same time back home, Hiram was re-called for frequent encores by appreciative regional audiences, and John was described as having “a world-wide reputation as a wonderful performer on drums.” The Clarks played regularly at Evans Mills, and performed at venues ranging from church bazaars to political gatherings to city concerts.
In adulthood, the boys lived separate lives, but by coincidence found themselves together with other members of the old drum corps during a July 4th celebration in 1902. It was a memorable reunion for all as their old fifer joined in and a crowd gathered in admiration.
Lovell Clark, also from Denmark in Lewis County but no apparent relation to the Clark brothers, was also a drummer of great ability who took his talents to the military. As part of customary procedure, he also drummed marchers in procession to the first execution (a hanging) at Watertown in 1828. He remained an active drummer well into old age.
In his early nineties, Lovell was still cutting hay with a scythe, and fit enough that he continued cutting and hauling his own wood supply. He finally passed away in November 1900 at the age of 94, proving that, like the Clark brothers, those Lewis County drummers were tough to beat.
Photo: Unidentified Civil War drummer boy (Library of Congress).