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JOHN KAUFFER: McKnight Kauffer's father

John Kauffer

b. 21 October 1854 Evansville, Indiana

d. 17 February 1913 Cincinnati, Ohio

Part One chronicles John Kauffer’s formative rise to fame as a multi-talented musician

One of the main aims of my Blog (started in October 2O21) was to reveal new research into the life and work of McKnight Kauffer. Apart from two lines in Mark Haworth-Booth’s ground-breaking book E. McKnight Kauffer: a designer and his public, and the additional information I revealed in my PhD, virtually nothing has been written about John Kauffer, McKnight Kauffer’s father. This post adds to the new information to be found in my previous posts such as McKnight Kauffer: the early years, Walking to Munich, and Posters Too Good for Films. I will divide the text into 3 separate posts – this first one chronicles John Kauffer’s formative rise to fame as a multi-talented musician. It is the first of more biographical pieces

I will write – his mother's life will be discussed in another post.

This is the result of research carried out over many years, supplemented by more intense work in recent months. The following account is based on a wide research base, including census forms, city directories, and contemporary newspaper reports. It is cross-referenced with Anna Rees’ (McKnight Kauffer’s mother) reminiscences in letters she wrote to him in the 1930s and early 1940s.

John Kauffer: Early Life & Musical Prowess

Edward McKnight Kauffer’s father, John Kauffer, was born in Evansville, Indiana on 21 October 1854. His German parents had immigrated to the US in the 1840s, first living in New Orleans, then moving to Lamasco in the mid nineteenth century, an area of Evansville, Indiana, popular with German immigrants. To make a living his father, also John [Johannn] Kauffer, turned his hand to a number of different businesses, including saloonkeeper, barber, and cigar shop, although his prime occupation was as a music teacher. He must have taught his son music too as John Kauffer Jnr became an accomplished musician at an early age, listed in the 1870 census as a musician in his own right at the age of sixteen. At this time he sometimes played snare drums in the Evansville municipal band known as Warren’s Crescent City Silver Band.

In the latter half of the 19th Century much of Evansville's wealth came via the Ohio river waterfront. Mining and timber contributed to the growing economy of the city. River steamboats, referred to in the US as sidewheelers or sternwheelers, depending where the driving paddle-wheels were situated, were central to this success. Steamboats also offered plentiful work for musicians and entertainers. Beginning with local bands and orchestras, John Kauffer was also employed on the river steamboats, working out of Evansville on the Ohio river.

Evansville steamer - hand-coloured post card,

c.1910 (Indiana Historical Society)

The comings and goings on the Ohio river were recorded in Evansville newspapers. This report, probably the first to mention John Kauffer by name, refers to the 24-year-old leading his own orchestra.

Evansville Courier,

11 May 1879

The Dick Johnson was a steamboat operated by the Evansville and Cannelton Steam Packet Company

He quickly gained a considerable reputation as a professional trap drummer and fiddle player working for, and leading, local orchestras. In December 1884 he was engaged by the Agnes Wallace Villa Combination, a hugely popular touring troupe, when it came to Evansville. En route to Evansville, Agnes Wallace’s show had made appearances in New York City, Buffalo, NY, Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec, gaining admirable newspaper reviews wherever they went. For example: “The Agnes Wallace Villa Combination is one of the best troupes traveling, and wherever they appear are greeted with crowded houses”. Appearing at the Apollo theatre in Evansville Kauffer was employed to lead the orchestra accompanying the acts. The performances proved so popular that they stayed on for an extra week into January 1885. A local newspaper reported that John Kauffer would accompany the troupe as leader of the orchestra when they moved on to their next theatre destination at a theatre in Washington DC.

Agnes Wallace 1868 – aged 17 Calling herself, and the troupe, Agnes Wallace Villa after she married actor Sam Villa

Newspaper of the Agnes Wallace Villa Combination show at the Apollo Theatre, Evansville, January 1885

This appeared to be the pattern of his life, accepting fixed term engagements at music theatres across the states of Indiana, Illinois, and Tennessee, but returning to his home town of Evansville each time.

Evansville Courier August 1886

Apart from his aptitude for playing fiddle, drums, and as orchestra leader, he also entertained audiences on xylophone. One critic wrote that the instrument was a musical curiosity, with a set of wooden bars laid out on straw and “touched by metallic rods held by the performer.”

Evansville Courier, May 1885

Later on in 1885 he received a good mention again in an October issue of the Evansville Courier. His xylophone playing was once again singled out as a highlight of a concert given by Warren’s Band: “The xylophone polka by Mr John Kauffer was immeasurably beautiful.”

His public persona as a popular entertainer was in extreme contrast to that of his private life. As a married man he was unfaithful, having affairs with showgirls and actresses during his theatre engagements. He drank heavily too. Anna wrote “we could have had a happy life together but he loved to drink, coming home at 2.00 am”. The pattern was repeated at many of his theatre engagements, leaving Anna with little or no money. Mildred, his wife previous to meeting Anna, divorced him on the grounds that he “failed to provide a home for her and was an habitual drunkard”. Professionally, however, he survived on his musical prowess and seemingly charismatic personality.


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