Chesco company gets first-sousaphone credit

At stake is a claim to the historic origins of the musical instrument that bellows "oompah" at parades and halftime shows, and for the Philadelphia band the Roots.

Who built the first sousaphone, the largest member of the tuba family, named for patriotic-music icon John Philip Sousa?

For decades, the issue has been in dispute, with the choice between a music publisher in Exton, Chester County, and an instrument manufacturer in Elkhart, Ind.

More than a century after the first instrument was crafted, a Harleysville pastor and a Kentucky collector have stepped into the debate, adding a previously unknown piece of information they believe helps to firmly place the sousaphone's 1890s beginnings in Pennsylvania with music publisher J.W. Pepper Co.

"There's no doubt," said Dave Detwiler, a pastor at LCBC BranchCreek church in Harleysville.

Detwiler, a musician who has played the sousaphone since elementary school, located what may be the earliest reference to the instrument in a collection of Pepper instruments and memorabilia amassed by musician Don Johnson of Lebanon, Ky.

Johnson had been keeping the information secret because he plans to write a book.

The Kentucky trumpet player owns an 1895 edition of a Pepper newsletter that refers to the sousaphone three years before the C.G. Conn Co. of Elkhart produced its first version of the instrument, leading squarely back to Pepper and the sousaphone displayed with an engraving of Sousa's face on its bell.

It was the first, Detwiler says.

Detwiler has written an article about his research that is to be published in May in the International Tuba Euphonium Association Journal.

The minister also is scheduled to get a rare opportunity to play that instrument at 3 p.m. Sunday during a performance of the Montgomery County Concert Band. The show will be one of the few times the Pepper sousaphone has been featured in concert since the company recovered the instrument in 1991.

Before then, not only was the Pepper sousaphone's pedigree as "the first" in question, but its whereabouts were a mystery as well.

When the instrument was created in the 1890s, Sousa, a composer and conductor, was probably "the single most famous American entertainer in the English-speaking world," said Patrick R. Warfield, author of Making the March King: John Philip Sousa's Washington Years, 1854-1893.

"The Elvis or Beatles of his day," said Sousa scholar Loras John Schissel, conductor of the Virginia Grand Military Band.

In the 1890s, Sousa, who spent the early part of his career in Philadelphia, envisioned an instrument that would emit a more diffuse sound than the overpowering helicon, another member of the tuba family. He suggested that the bell point up instead of forward, like other tubas.

At the time, Philadelphia businessman James Welsh Pepper operated a music publishing house that also produced musical instruments. In Indiana, businessman Charles Gerard Conn ran an instrument manufacturing firm.

They were competitors who "hated each other," said George Class, J.W. Pepper's commissions coordinator and historian.

Over the years, both companies (Conn is now Conn-Selmer) claimed to be the first to produce the sousaphone.

In his research, Detwiler found a history of the competing claims and checked off information earlier reported by scholars such as Paul E. Bierley, much of which pointed to Pepper.

A 1922 article in the Christian Science Monitor quoted Sousa as saying he had discussed the idea 30 years earlier with Pepper, who "built one and, grateful to me for the suggestion, called it a Sousaphone."

In the summer of 2012, Detwiler discovered another piece of information that he says confirmed earlier indications.

Johnson showed Detwiler an 1895 edition of Pepper's Musical Times and Band Journal that refers to a letter written to Pepper by Herman Conrad, a star of Sousa's tuba section and the first to play the new instrument.

"The Sousaphone has become the talk of the town and gains reputation daily," Conrad wrote. It has become "a great attraction."

Mark Gifford, a marketing category manager for Conn-Selmer, said he agrees that Pepper was first, even though Conn-Selmer still claims the title on its website.

Conn produced the first "commercially viable" model that Sousa went on to use in his bands, Gifford said. The model now used has a bell that faces forward, not up.

The Pepper instrument, perhaps the only one the company ever made, disappeared until 1973, when musician John Bailey spied an old sousaphone hanging from a wire at a Lancaster County flea market.

He bought it for $50 and tucked it away in a basement, where it remained for years until he decided to clean it up. In 1991, Bailey rubbed a cloth on the bell.

"When John Philip Sousa's head popped up and the date 1893, I stopped," Bailey said.

He did a bit of research and then called J.W. Pepper.

"George Class practically crawled through the telephone line," Bailey said.

Pepper arranged to purchase the horn from Bailey, but neither would disclose the price.

Since then, the horn has been refurbished and displayed at the J.W. Pepper Co. headquarters. The firm rarely lends the instrument for presentations and programs.

But now, Class said, the firm wants the instrument "to get played."

Detwiler will do that on Sunday with about 70 other members of the Montgomery County band. Under the direction of leader Chuck Neidhardt, they will perform four Sousa marches.

The horn still sounds pretty good.

"I love it," Detwiler said. "This is one of those bucket-list of things I never thought was on my bucket list."


Local pastor and musician Dave Detwiler plays part of John Philip Sousa's "Washington Post March" on the original sousaphone at