100 years and counting, Topeka Santa Fe Band plays on

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Feb 21, 2024

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4 min.

100 years and counting, Topeka Santa Fe Band plays on

At least weekly if not more, Dave Anderson makes the 130-mile drive from Newton, Kansas, to Topeka, Kansas, and back -- all for the love of music and tradition. As director of the Topeka Santa Fe Band, he’s dedicated to making sure the band plays on, especially because 2024 marks its 100th anniversary. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries – before broad adoption of radio and TV’s advent – industrial bands in America were a thing. Companies, railroads included, sponsored bands, orchestras and choruses to help build camaraderie. A 1929 survey listed 489 industry music groups, more than half of which were bands.

It’s not known exactly how many of these bands were organized by railroads, but Anderson’s research found nearly a dozen across the network of BNSF predecessor Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF or Santa Fe). By the mid-1960s, most had ceased due to lack of interest, and today the only one with BNSF roots that remains is the Topeka band, which continues to rehearse from the BNSF offices there.

Anderson worked for Santa Fe and then BNSF for over 30 years, retiring in 2008 and becoming band director – only its third -- in 2019. He’d started playing trombone with the band in high school, becoming assistant band director in 1974, thanks to his music education degree.

“The band has quite a following and is a big part of my life,” he said. “I really enjoy being part of it, even if I never get to play. I guess you could say the band is my instrument.” 

He attributes the band’s staying power in part to Clarence Whitlow, who organized and directed the band for 64 years and worked for Santa Fe in Topeka. “He instilled dedication,” said Anderson, who credits the man with getting him his first job on the railroad.

Whitlow also enlisted the support of the local railroad management, which over the years would supply uniforms, rehearsal space and travel for when the band played outside of Topeka, for example, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas for special events.

While the band started as a concert band that marched, frequently participating in parades, state fairs, employee picnics and baseball games, today it plays at retirement homes and summer concerts at Topeka’s Gage Park. The repertoire includes traditional band music: standard marches, Broadway show tunes, pop and novelty pieces. At the end of every concert, “Stars & Stripes Forever” is the finale. Over the years hundreds of people have been part of the band – employees, their spouses and children, retirees and now anyone who likes to make music. “Musicians can come and go, and there are countless people that the band has touched,” Anderson said, whose sons also played.

Currently there are about 40 members in the band, and while none are current BNSF employees, there are retirees and spouses of employees. One is Monica Blanton-Birzer, whose husband Marcus Birzer is an electrician for BNSF.

Raised in Kinsley, Kansas, Blanton-Birzer grew up listening to her dad playing piano, and she picked up the French horn in elementary school, then continued playing through college in the orchestra that provided her a scholarship.

Following college as a busy physicians assistant, she went many years without playing until a patient told her about the Topeka Santa Fe Band. “I like to stay busy so being a part of the band is not a hindrance on me at all,” she said. “I actually think it’s one of the cool things I tell my patients about me as a person.”

Today, the band continues to build connections. “Being involved in music and with the band helps me be a more rounded person, has made me a better musician and has resulted in amazing friendships,” Blanton-Birzer said. “The people I’ve met through the band and the camaraderie shared there are so enjoyable.”

For the centennial, one of the concerts will feature several marches, all of which were published in 1924. A special concert is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 24, at White Concert Hall on the campus of Washburn University in Topeka.  Anyone who likes history and plays an instrument is welcome to be in the band – no audition or physical effort required as the band no longer marches.

“It’s a relaxing pastime for us as we like to keep old music alive,” Anderson said. “We’re proud of our railroad heritage and plan to celebrate our 100th year in a special way.”

Learn More!

For more information about the band, visit their Facebook page.

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