In 1910 a classically trained violinist named Mary Dodge and her husband, Mott, left Portland and moved to the high desert country of Harney County. The Dodges settled in Burns where Mott, a civil engineer, had gotten a job on an irrigation project.
Mary Dodge harbored an intense love of music. A graduate of Boston Normal School, she had taught in Boston and New York before moving West. Once in Burns she was determined to share her passion with the local children, and began giving lessons to anyone who showed an interest.
When the children’s talent emerged she decided to build an orchestra. Within five years, the Sagebrush Symphony was touring the towns of Eastern Oregon gaining the admiration of all who heard their performances.
When an opportunity arose to perform in Portland and Salem in 1916, the community raised $2,000 to send the children and their chaperones on a trip of a lifetime. For most it was their first trip to a big city - and Portland rolled out the red carpet.
During their week-long tour, the children were front-page news. “The journey of the little people is considered one of the finest exhibitions of community spirit ever shown in this state,” wrote an Oregonian reporter.
But World War I disrupted plans for future tours. And in 1918 the Dodges returned to Portland where Mary opened her own violin school and taught music at Irvington Grade School.
The Sagebrush Symphony eventually disbanded, but several of its members followed Mary to Portland to continue their lessons. With so many students, she formed an advanced orchestra that practiced in her attic. But she was determined that the group would become a permanent young people’s symphony.
In late 1923 Mary persuaded a visiting professional conductor from Russia to take the baton and lead the orchestra to the next level of excellence. Mary’s orchestra would become the genesis of the Portland Junior Symphony - now called the Portland Youth Philharmonic - America’s first youth orchestra.
Sagebrush Symphony tells the forgotten story of a woman who changed the musical history of Oregon with archival film, photographs and interviews with people whose lives she touched.
Jacob Avshalomov, Music is where you make it, II: the joyful workings of America’s first youth orchestra, The Portland Youth Philharmonic
Anne Shannon Monroe, Hearth of Happiness
The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra
Pauline DeVin, The Musician, 22:334, May 1917
Oregon Claims a Genius
Robert Scott Cathey, The Tumbleweed, Sept. 1939.
High country at Burns rich source for music
Hilmar Grondahl, The Oregonian, November 4, 1973.
Broadcast Date: July 12, 2011