Archive for June 2015

Illuminating Deva Ellsworth

June 22, 2015

On June 16, 2015, Illuminated History held its fourth annual cemetery tour in which fifteen actors portrayed eternal residents of three historic Perinton, New York, burying grounds: Egypt Cemetery, Schummers Cemetery and Perinton Center Cemetery.  The tour, which was sponsored by the Perinton Historical Society, took place at the Fairport Historical Museum.

In this Illuminated History series, the scripts are based on in depth historical research, although some creative license may have been taken.

The first person to be highlighted from this tour is Deva Ellsworth (1894-1925) of the Perinton Center Cemetery, who was portrayed by Denise McLaughlin:

Who here likes music? Any fans of jazz here? Well, I am Deva Ellsworth, and I was a professional musician during the heyday of jazz. Let me tell you my story.

I was born in May of 1894 on a farm on Ayrault Road. Our house was across from Center Cemetery. There is a school there now, which would have been convenient when I was growing up. Instead, my three siblings and I had to walk all the way down to the end of Ayrault, where it connects to the Palmyra Road, to District School #6. It was a long walk in winter, although we enjoyed it the rest of the year. After finishing eighth grade in the District School, I went to high school in East Rochester. I graduated in 1916, during World War I.

Deva Ellsworth, courtesy of the Perinton Town Historian

Deva Ellsworth, courtesy of the Perinton Town Historian

I was a talented musician, and rather unconventional for my day (thank you, Great-grandma Irena, for my independent spirit!). Instead of staying on the farm and finding a husband, I joined the Madame Meyers Ladies’ Band as the coronet soloist. (I played several brass instruments.) Now John Phillip Sousa was the most famous band-leader of that time, and concert bands were a popular form of entertainment all over the country, but neither Sousa’s band, nor any other professional band, would hire women, unless they were either a vocalist or a harp player! Consequently, women formed their own bands. We were well-received and never lacked for playing engagements, I assure you.

Madam Meyers’ band worked in Atlantic City the summer after I graduated. I found that I enjoyed performing and seeing life outside of Fairport. Subsequently, I toured New England and also out west with several bands. Soon after I graduated, however, the United States joined World War I. My brother Elmwood enlisted right away. My sister Ruby and I, not to be outdone in service to our country, both joined the America Ladies’ Military Band, which was led by the famous Helen May Butler, America’s “female Sousa.” There were about fifty women from all over the country in our band, and all of us had brothers in the service. We toured military training camps all over the U.S. to entertain our troops.

We played concerts at camps in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri, to name just a few locations. However, 1918 brought unbelievable devastation: the Spanish Flu, which killed more U.S. serviceman than the fighting in Europe did. Our band often visited camps that were quarantined, and frequently we were playing only a few feet away from the bed of someone who was dying of the flu. One soldier’s last words were, “Please play that last selection again.” Not surprisingly, both Ruby and I caught the flu; her case was more severe than mine. We both survived, thank God. We had both hoped to go to Europe to entertain troops over there, but the war ended before we had the chance.

After the war, Ruby returned to Fairport and settled down. I, however, continued my life as a professional musician. I was in several exclusive women’s groups, including the Ladies’ Eleven Piece Jazz Orchestra. I traveled throughout New England, performing at famous, upscale resorts. I remained a performer all of my short life, working throughout the early 1920s, during the advent of Jazz and the start of Prohibition. It was an exciting time in history, especially for women.

Although I had survived the Spanish flu in 1918, I was never quite as healthy again. I became ill in late 1924, and,

Headstone of Deva Ellsworth, Perinton Center Cemetery

Headstone of Deva Ellsworth, Perinton Center Cemetery

after a lingering illness, died in April of 1925, just 8 days shy of my 30th birthday. I am buried in the family plot in Center Cemetery, across the road from where I grew up. In addition to looking eternally over the beautiful land that was our farm, I can often hear the strains of the Martha Brown band students as they rehearse; I just shake my head when they play Sousa! I am so proud that I got to spend my life working at something I loved, and I got to bring joy to so many people with my music. Who could ask for anything more out of life, however short that life might be?

Script by Suzanne Lee

(c) 2015 Vicki Profitt’s Illuminated History

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