Noted musician and bandmaster John F. Lenger was born in 1849 in Bohemia. He attended a government school and music conservatory in Prague until he was fourteen, when he enlisted as a musician in the Austrian army. In 1869 he came to the United States, living in Baltimore and Chicago before settling in Yankton, South Dakota. In Yankton, he formed the Yankton City Band, the first of many municipal bands he organized during his long life.
In 1879 Lenger and his wife moved to the newly established town of Niobrara, about thirty-five miles west of Yankton. Lenger soon established himself as a music teacher and bandmaster there and in 1882 organized the Niobrara Helicon Band, comprised of forty members.
This group was recognized as the Nebraska state band in 1883. He also organized a number of bands in eastern Nebraska and southern South Dakota towns, including Lynch, Verdel, Winnetoon, Orchard, Page, Royal, and Foster in Nebraska and Gregory in South Dakota.
However, his most famous band, organized in 1884, was the Santee Sioux Band on the nearby Niobrara Reservation. This all-Indian brass band demonstrated the musical ability of the Santee and presented them in a favorable light to their white neighbors. In those days, Native Americans didn’t gain respect by sharing their own cultures, but by demonstrating their ability to master the dominant culture. Showing their ability to do so was a way to begin to erode prejudice.
The band, led by Lenger, appeared at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha in 1898. Perhaps the greatest occasion for Lenger and the band was a special command performance for President Benjamin Harrison.
In the later years of his life Lenger lived in Gregory, South Dakota, and then in Nampa, Idaho, where he directed the municipal band. He died in 1941.
Photo: John F. Lenger in the costume he wore while leading his Santee Sioux Band in Niobrara, Nebraska, 1884. NSHS RG2411-3193