News From Terre Haute, Indiana


November 2, 2013

GENEALOGY: Paul Jr. was the eldest of the Dreiser children

TERRE HAUTE — The story of Paul Dresser and Theodore Dreiser continues this week.

Paul Jr. was the eldest of the Dreiser children. Although born in Terre Haute in 1858, he spent much of his childhood in Sullivan. The family moved there in 1863 and lived there until 1871.

As a child, Paul was interested in music, carnivals, fairs and the circus. Around 1870, his father sent him to the St. Meinrad Benedictine Seminary in Spencer County to study for the priesthood. This life did not set well with Paul, and he left a year or so later, running off with a group of traveling minstrels who were passing through. He returned to Sullivan, but did not live with his family. He worked on a farm until about 1872, when he did go back to his parents. (He was 14 years old at this time.) He continued to work a number of odd jobs and attended the St. Bonaventure Lyceum Academy in Terre Haute for a year, studying music.

His relationship with his strictly religious father had deteriorated since leaving the seminary and continued to do so. He got into trouble with the police and was sent, first, back to Sullivan to work on a farm and then to Brazil to teach music in a Catholic academy there. This was 1875. Less than a year later, he got into conflict with the priest and left.

He joined a traveling minstrel show for a while, lost all of his money, was jailed, made his way to Indianapolis, took a job teaching at a Catholic school there for a year, and then returned to Terre Haute where he frequented saloons on a regular basis and robbed two of them as his money ran low. He was arrested and served several weeks in jail. His father was embarrassed by him. This was the early life of Paul Dresser.

His musical career began for certain in 1876-77, at age 18, when he was employed as a performer by a series of traveling minstrel and medicine shows, one operating out of Chicago. It was during this time that he wrote his first songs, changed his last name from Dreiser to Dresser and marketed his music under “Paul Dresser Songster.”

The 1880 census enumerates Paul in his family’s household in Terre Haute and Sullivan (they lived both places in 1880 and got enumerated twice). His occupation is a “lightening rod agent” and an “agent of medicine.” It is doubtful that he was actually living in the household, however, because he was touring with the medicine shows.

In 1881, he moved to Evansville and began working for the Apollo Theater there. He performed out of Chicago and New York during this time, also going on tour with several plays, and returning to Evansville in between. He was involved for many years with Annie Brace, the madam of a well-known brothel in Evansville. (Her professional name was Sallie Walker). They never married and eventually parted ways because of Dresser’s relationships with other women and prostitutes.

From 1884-86, Paul Dresser withdrew to the southern U.S. due to a mysterious illness. His career was on hold until he returned. In 1888, he moved to New York City working on Tin Pan Alley. He performed in, and wrote songs for, several acts, his performances gaining national acclaim and star quality. In 1893, he stopped performing (he weighed over 300 pounds by that time), and from then on focused solely on his song writing.

In 1894, he became a partner in a music publishing firm. He wrote “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away” in 1897. This hit made him one of the most famous composers in the U.S. (second only to Stephen Foster). The song was the second best-selling hit of the 19th century (second only to Foster’s “Swanee River”). “… Banks of the Wabash …” alone netted Dresser $100,000 in income. With the sales of his other songs, he had become a wealthy man. This would change with the turn of the 20th century.

Continued next week.

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