“Marching to the beat of a different drummer” is one thing … but what about 27 different drummers?
Actually, those 27 drummers beat as one on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 17, 1927, as Kankakee’s American Legion Post 85 Drum and Bugle Corps marched down the street in Paris, France.
The Kankakee drum corps — made up of 39 Post 85 members supplemented by 38 musicians drawn from other Legion drum corps across the state — was in Paris as part of the Illinois delegation to the Ninth Annual National Convention of the American Legion. The French government had invited the Legionnaires to hold their 1927 convention in Paris to mark the 10th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I. More than 20,000 men and women members of the American Legion and its Auxiliary traveled to France for the week-long event (the American troops who arrived in France in 1917 were called the American Expeditionary Force; the 1927 Legion arrivals styled themselves as the “Second AEF”).
The full group of musicians did not practice together until Sunday, Sept. 4, only three days before the start of their journey to Paris. In its Tuesday edition, the Kankakee Daily Republican reported, “During the last few days, the men have drilled almost constantly and have marched many miles through the streets of the city, perfecting their drills.”
At noon on that day, the drum corps members were guests of honor at a banquet at the Hotel Kankakee, then “marched through the downtown streets and executed a number of the new and difficult maneuvers which they have perfected.”
Hours later, at 3 p.m., the men boarded a northbound Illinois Central train for Chicago, the first leg of what would be a more than week-long journey to Paris. After a dinner reception in Chicago, the group left aboard a special Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train bound for Washington, D.C., and New York City.
On Sept. 8, the musicians filed aboard the Cunard ocean liner Caronia, bound for Le Havre, France. After a five-day Atlantic Ocean crossing and another railroad journey, they finally arrived in Paris.
The convention would formally begin on Sept. 19, with a huge parade through the heart of “The City of Light,” but the Kankakee drum corps provided an impromptu “preview” on Saturday, Sept. 17.
Under the headline, “Kankakee On Parade! Paris Gasps And Bows,” the Daily Republican reported, “There is a strict and hitherto unbroken law that no parades may be held in Paris without a permit. But when the big band from Kankakee ... marched down the avenues of Paris, drums beating and bugles blowing, did the gendarmes stop ‘em? No!”
Competition to win the national championship and be named the official drum corps of the American Legion took place on the second day of the convention.
In its Sept. 21 edition, the Daily Republican informed its readers, “The Kankakee composite American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps yesterday won second in the national competition at Paris, France. The Miami, Fla., drum corps won first and is the 1928 official corps. ... Although Kankakee people and many people in other Illinois cities had firmly believed that the local post would this year win the championship, the news that they finished second and ahead of scores of the world’s finest organizations was received here with rejoicing and pride.”
Since its debut in 1921 playing instruments borrowed from a drum corps sponsored by Kankakee’s Masonic Lodge, the Kankakee Post 85 Drum and Bugle Corps had built a proud winning tradition. In 1923, only its third season, the Post 85 corps took first place at the state American Legion convention at Danville. The group would repeat as state champion in 1924, then take first-place honors again in 1926 and 1927. Nationally, Post 85 finished third at the 1925 convention in Omaha, Neb. The following year, in Philadelphia, they battled for the national championship with a corps from Fort Dodge, Iowa, losing by a fraction of a point in the judging.
With the exception of a period in the late Depression and early World War II years, Post 85 sponsored a drum and bugle corps from 1921 to 1975. The organization spanned generations. As music educator and Momence native Kevin McNulty put it recently in a Facebook post, “After WWI the Vets formed groups, and then the kids of Vets comprised most corps after WWII.”