A Legacy in Artifacts

Adler– by Kim Davenport –

Julius Adler is a name I’ve come across many times in connection to musical stories from Tacoma around the turn of the 20th century. His time here was short – 1899-1902 – but he left behind a range of artifacts which document his career as a musician. Amidst the photographs and newspaper clippings which can be pieced together to tell a story of a creative and energetic bandleader, however, is a reminder of one of the more troubling stories from Tacoma’s past.

Finding this single artifact – evidence of his connection to Tacoma’s anti-Chinese movement – has led me to reshape my understanding of Adler. More importantly, though, it has led me to ponder the challenge of weaving together stories from a smattering of historic artifacts. Sometimes, those artifacts are plentiful, well-organized, and provide us a fairly complete picture. More often, they are incomplete, leading us to fill in the blanks, making educated guesses where we can, bringing our modern perspective to a person or situation from the past.

Since I am currently in the midst of working with students in my ‘Musical History of Tacoma’ class as they conduct their own research projects utilizing primary source materials, this seemed like a good time to share the Adler’s story – at least, as much of it as I know.

According to an 1899 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, Adler was born in Germany and received his musical training both there and in New York. By the time he arrived on the west coast (although the P-I claims him as a Seattleite, city directories clearly identify him as living and working in Tacoma) he had composed two operas, numerous popular songs, and had just completed what he intended to be a “new national anthem.”

3510Settling in Tacoma in 1899, he founded the Tacoma Military Band, with the goal of making it one of the finest brass bands in the country. Within just a matter of months, he had recruited members, given lessons on a variety of band instruments, arranged for uniforms (scarlet coats with bright blue trim), and obtained a private streetcar which the group used to get around town for concerts at Point Defiance and Wright Park.

16885Adler also continued to write original music, including the instrumental march ‘Salute to Tacoma’ which was published by the Tacoma Daily Ledger in 1899. Another composition from the same year was his ‘Philippine March’, published by William Randolph Hearst; the song, which promoted American annexation of the Philippines, was included as free sheet music in at least one Hearst-owned newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

This last example should possibly have prepared me for the idea that Adler could be opportunistic – not necessarily an unusual quality in a working musician – but nonetheless I was surprised when I found his name at the bottom of the following poster:


Before I could delve into trying to understand Adler’s involvement in this event, I had to get my mind around the 1902 date. I am familiar with the events of November 1885, when Tacoma became famous for the expulsion of its Chinese population in what would become known as the Tacoma Method. But what was happening in 1902 that would have led to a public meeting on the topic? Let’s hear from the Tacoma Daily Ledger article at the time:

“Tacoma will tonight express itself once again on the Chinese question. What Tacoma thinks about it everybody in Tacoma knows, but the expression is deemed advisable for the benefit of the country at large. The Tacoma Trades Council has called a mass meeting to be held at the Lyceum this evening to take action with regard to the Geary Exclusion Law.”

In 1902, the US congress did in fact make permanent the 1892 Geary Act, which had itself replaced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many west coast cities, which had experienced economic booms in large part because of railroads built by Chinese immigrants, were fighting to limit the number of Chinese who could enter the country, and place heavy burdens on those who were already here.

Newspaper accounts of the meeting present a mixture of motivations behind anti-Chinese sentiment in Tacoma at the time. Representatives of the Tacoma Trades Council, the meeting’s sponsor, spoke in measured tones about big business taking advantage of Chinese laborers, willing to work for less, to bring down wages for all workers. Interspersed with this, however, is blatantly racist language about “little brown men” incapable of assimilation and frequently engaged in criminal behavior.

So, back to Adler whose band “interspersed musical numbers” into the evening’s events. Was he, himself a recent immigrant and composer of patriotic music, a fervent anti-immigrant activist? Was he, as an upstanding member of Tacoma’s civic community, interested in aligning himself with the Tacoma Trades Council? Or was he simply a musician happy to take on what we can assume was a paying job? I have yet to find answers, and my educated guess would be that we will never know.

Screenshot 2019-05-07 at 10.24.46 PM

This theater was built in 1892 as the Olympic, and operated as the Lyceum from 1899-1904. It occupied the same lot on 9th Avenue where the Rialto Theater (built 1918) now stands.


Unfortunately for Adler, on a trip to San Francisco later in 1902, he fell dead in the street, victim of a massive heart attack. One last artifact – a Tacoma News Tribune article from 1950 – provides a view of Adler by some who knew and worked with him. In a gathering to celebrate the 50th birthday of the local musician’s union, Adler was recognized for his work as a bandleader and teacher/mentor to many musicians who would go on to vibrant careers in Tacoma.


Images courtesy of: Library of Congress, Tacoma Public Library, Washington State Historical Society

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