Edward Schwamb and the Crescent Zouave Fife and Drum Corps

Today’s Schwamb Shares entry travels outside the mill building to explore some of the cultural life in the small emerging Crescent Hill neighborhood, a section of today’s Arlington Heights established in 1872, several blocks west of the Charles Schwamb mill. A vibrant mix of artisans, recent immigrants, and Boston professionals settled into the new suburban homes off Lowell Street in the evolving Crescent Hill neighborhood. Churches, community halls and a train station brought people—including many Schwamb family members—together there for work, worship services, plays, and music.

After their early joint venture from 1853 to 1862, the three Arlington-based Schwamb brothers—Jacob, Charles, and Theodore—operated independent mills that were nearly contiguous along Mill Brook, offering aid and support to each other. Certainly, the Schwamb Brothers helped one another with their business ventures; after all, the Mill Brook literally connected the mills, a watery metaphor for familial cooperation. After the brook’s waters turned the eighteen-foot diameter waterwheel at the Charles Schwamb mill, it traveled in a channel to the Theodore Schwamb establishment and then downstream to Jacob Schwamb’s smaller mill. So, too, the families grew up mere blocks apart, close to each other and to the burgeoning village center of Arlington Heights.

Above, a somewhat fanciful picture of Arlington Heights in 1884, showing the Charles Schwamb mill (18) and the Theodore Schwamb mill (22). By this time, Jacob Schwamb’s sons William and Edward had a workshop closer to Grove Street on what is now Massachusetts Avenue.

Miss the music at the Old Schwamb Mill? Me too. Listening to Irish fiddles, classical violins or country swing in the honeyed light of the old moulding machine space is a nearly transcendent experience. Music and the Mill seem a heavenly fit.

In fact, for decades, keyboard instruments (including a beautiful piano) were stored away at the Mill. The piano had been given to Carl William Schwamb by Arlington’s First Baptist Church in gratitude for his many acts of musical kindness to the congregation. Whether Carl brought it to the Mill or it made its way there after he and his wife had passed away in not known. It is said that Carl William, the son of Schwamb Mill founder, Charles, much preferred music to milling, although he dutifully joined the family firm in 1875.

The Charles Schwamb Mill was only one, initially the most prosperous, of three Schwamb mills in Arlington in the 1870’s, and Carl William was only one of several musically talented Schwamb cousins. Several second and third generation Schwamb cousins excelled at music. While Carl William played church organ and wrote music curriculum for the Arlington public schools, Peter Schwamb, the MIT-professor son of Theodore, conducted the Follen Church choir, and Eliza Schwamb, Jacob’s youngest daughter, taught piano her entire life.

But none of the younger Schwambs combined entrepreneurial and musical talent as well as Edward, the youngest son of the eldest Schwamb brother Jacob, who managed and led a smashingly successful marching band, the Crescent Zouaves.

The Arlington Heights Crescent Zouave Fife and Drum Corps began in February 1906, nurtured into existence through the efforts of Liverpool native Jac Tucker, a vaudevillian actor. Mrs. Tucker, aka Eva Williams, was known as “the Duse of the varieties,” providing some acting chops to compliment Tucker’s comedic skills in their joint act. Frequently on the bill — they shared the program with W.C. Fields at one Boston performance — at Keith Theaters in Boston and in New York. (Keith’s prided itself on showcasing “high-class vaudeville” like the Williams & Tucker act.)

Keith’s Theater, opposite the Boston Common, 1906. Library of Congress image
Keith’s Theater, located on Washington Street in the Theatre District, 1906. The Keith Theatre is now called the Boston Opera House and was recently restored to its original glory. (Library of Congress image)

The Tuckers lived with Mrs. Tucker’s mother and her sister and husband, the Bushees, who were also show biz folk. They all shared a home on Crescent Hill’s Montague Street next to their house painter, carpenter, and lawyer neighbors.

Tucker Home, 21 Montague Street, Crescent Hill neighborhood, Arlington Heights. Photo by Al Stevens.
Tucker Home, 21 Montague Street, Crescent Hill neighborhood, Arlington Heights. Photo by Al Stevens.

Tucker proposed a marching band to the boys of his Crescent Hill neighborhood, taught them how to fife, and soon instituted regular practices at Union Hall (the top floor of Arlington Coal and Lumber which also housed the community’s library reading room). Shortly thereafter, Edward Schwamb inherited the leadership role, aided by his nephew Walter Schwamb, and was at the helm for the group’s superb inaugural grand performance in the June 1, 1907, parade celebrating Arlington’s centenary.

Buoyed by the rave reviews (and a special $25 prize from the 1907 parade committee), the Crescent Zouaves acquired proper uniforms featuring short jackets, baggy trousers with a sash and a fez-styled hat completed the look.

Crescent Zouves of Arlington, Mass. Edward Schwamb is in the row second from the back, on the right; Walter, his nephew, is in the middle of the third row. OSM Archives image.

The Zouaves’ costume honored Civil War Zouave-uniforms of special units in turn based on guerilla-style North African Berber fighters. The military of many countries adopted the Zouave look as did drill teams, bands and Victorian fashion leaders.

Painting, “Zouave in fight” by Aleksander Raczyński (1822–1889), ca. 1858

Photograph, Willie Bagley, 4 years old, dressed as Zouave drummer boy, 1864. Library of Congress

The 1907 parade was a grand affair and was lavishly documented. Charles Parker, the estimable founder and editor of The Advocate, the town’s newspaper, wrote a town history, Arlington Past and Present; the parade committee published a special booklet, Town of Arlington, One Hundredth Anniversary, for this occasion; and professional photographers liberally documented the parade participants.

This image shows marchers passing through downtown Arlington with the gaily decorated venerable “Eureka” fire engine, the pride of the Arlington Fire Department. More parade images at Digital Commonwealth, Arlington Historical Photograph Collection, c. 1885 – 1992

Most of Arlington’s male notables served on the various committees which organized and oversaw the celebration events, and several Schwambs were involved: Peter Schwamb and Walter Peirce (Theodore’s son-in-law) headed parade sections and Edward served as secretary for the committee as well as being responsible for the music, fireworks and the collation. At the recap banquet after the anniversary events were successfully completed, Edward received a surprise award, a gold pen, for his efforts. Perhaps his achievements with the centenary celebration and the rising prominence of the Zouaves whetted a taste for politics, as he helped organize the town’s Progressive Party town committee in 1913 and was a town meeting member in the 1920’s.

From Arlington, One Hundred Years Anniversary Booklet

The Arlington Heights Crescent Zouave Fife and Drum Corps marched all over New England participating in parades, political events, and firemen musters. When the Arlington cross country team won nationals in 1913, the Zouaves led the parade in their honor, as they did for Arlington High’s exciting state ice hockey championship win in March—the Zouaves escorted Arlington fans on an impromptu midnight march ending with a bonfire at the Town House. They participated regularly in the huge Boston Columbus Day parades, and manager Edward Schwamb booked them into successful gigs at Loew’s South End theaters. The band prospered, even adding a young ladies auxiliary, until the disruptions of the First World War.

Ed Schwamb lived at 1033 Massachusetts Avenue nearly his entire life. It was the site of his father’s small piano case mill and home. After Jacob Schwamb’s death, two Schwamb sons William and Edward, continued the business with their mother, Catherine Gruehling Schwamb, until her death. William and Edward tried many different ventures at the site: screen production, cabinet construction, house painting, paper hanging, and home decorating. After William’s death in 1906, Edward and his sister Eliza continued to live at the same location, which Edward now owned. Eliza taught piano to the youth of Arlington Heights, and Edward restored and sold antique furniture. In the Old Schwamb Mill ledgers there is evidence that in 1908, Edward Schwamb rented space, power, and equipment for his business at the former Charles Schwamb Mill, now in the energetic hands of the third generation, Clinton and Louis Schwamb, Carl William’s two sons.

Entries under the account for Edward W. Schwamb Co. showing rent, power, and sundries, and payments for the same. Ledger, Clinton W. Schwamb Co., OSM archives.

The archives may tell us of machine rentals and business locations, but they don’t tell us if the cousins ever lingered after work to goof off, analyze the choreography for the latest Zouave performance, or maybe even sing a bit of harmony on “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” (the top tune of 1908).

For basic facts about the Schwamb brothers, their journeys to and subsequent lives in America, we are all indebted to Grace Dingee’s history of the Schwamb family and their mills, “Theodore Schwamb and the Era of the German Mills in Arlington.” Copies are still available in the Old Schwamb Mill’s Visitor Center when we are ready to open again. Additional information about the Zouave band and the Tuckers from a Leonard Collins’ column, “Arlington’s Big Band,” vertical file, Robbins Library Local History Room. Finally, accounts of the Tuckers and other colorful residents—like the lawyer— of the early days of the Crescent Hill neighborhood, can be found in Doreen Stevens, Aimee Taberner, and Sarah Burks, Arlington’s Cultural Heights: 1900-1925.

Doreen Stevens, Director, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust

This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!

3 thoughts on “Edward Schwamb and the Crescent Zouave Fife and Drum Corps

  1. edhg says:

    Anyone (inlcuding, I’m betting, Ed) who knew of the late Patri Pugliesi’s re-enactment group work and interest in 19th c. bayonet fencing would recognize this Zouave unit as well:


    I’ve forwarded the article to Commonwealth Vintage Dancers, the group Patri founded, as well.

    Thanks for all you do!

    Best–DLa Rue


  2. Jerry says:

    Just a note: at the Fogg Art Museum you can see (when it opens again) a great Winslow Homer painting of life in a Civil War camp — populated by Zouaves in full dress! It will give you a better idea of how colorful they were.


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