SHERIDAN — Bob Boze Bell, editor of True West Magazine, cited the 7th Cavalry Drum & Bugle Corps as one of the major factors influencing his magazine's decision to name Sheridan the No. 1 Western Town in the United States.
On Memorial Day, the 44-member organization performed for the nation as a unit of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.
But in the early 1950s, the organization's future might have been hard to predict.
"Membership was dwindling," according to Pat Hassey, a member and spokesman for the 7th, which is a unit of Sheridan's American Legion.
Once common across nation
Legion drum and bugle corps were common across the United States in the early 1900s. Their origins, according to John Schwartz, quartermaster for Sheridan's 7th, were with veterans of World War I who wanted to maintain ties they had forged with comrades during that conflict.
"The original corps wore World War I uniforms," Schwartz said.
That included members of the original corps formed here in December 1929 as a part of Sheridan's John Donald Garbutt Post No. 7, American Legion. For the next 20 years or so, uniforms worn by members of the corps when they performed were of World War I vintage.
And the Sheridan Legion's corps performed often. With the late T.T. Tynan as its first drum master, the Sheridan organization launched a tradition of performing at rodeos, parades and Western celebrations throughout Wyoming and Montana.
Statewide notice in 1931
According to a history of the organization compiled by Legionnaire Walter Harris in 1973, a 45-minute drill at the state Legion Convention in Cody in 1931 is cited as the first activity that focused statewide attention on the band; then in 1934, the Sheridan corps won its first state championship trophy at the state Legion convention in Casper.
Members of that 1934 unit included Albert Johnstone, George Ostrom, Art Blum, Roy Ramsey, Phil Garbutt, Harold Lewis, H.R. Woolston, Perry Kitchens, Claude Businga and Howard Sharp, who later moved to Florida.
The Sheridan corps had already made its debut at the national convention by then. That happened in 1932, when members traveled to Portland, Ore., to participate in the national Legion convention parade. In 1933, the Sheridan unit attended and performed at the national Legion convention in Chicago.
In 1941, the national conclave was in Milwaukee, and the Sheridan corps again was on hand to perform.
By 1954, though, the corps needed a boost. World War I lay four decades in the past, and it was hard to get and retain members in an organization built around "The Great War."
Members decided to change focus — and found it in the concept of George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry.
Sheridan's American Legion was the seventh post established in the nation, hence the origin of the "No. 7" in its name, Schwartz said.
Added to that was the post's location in Sheridan, in the heart of the territory that saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Indian Wars — less than 100 miles, in fact, from the site of Custer's defeat in June 1876.
An act of Congress was needed for the Legion post to wear the uniform of the 7th Cavalry and to carry Gen. Custer's 7th Cavalry pennant, but with the assistance of Wyoming's congressional delegation, the formal legislation passed in 1954.
With its new name and uniforms, the 7th Cavalry Drum & Bugle Corps made its debut on June 25, 1954, at the 78th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The uniforms, Harris wrote in his 1973 history, were authentic reproductions of those worn by Custer's men, purchased by Sheridan merchants for corps members.
"A great deal of research was done to obtain the correct uniform for the men and for that of the drum major who dresses as Gen. Custer," Harris wrote.
In 1978, the Sheridan corps took first at the drum and bugle competition at the state Legion convention at Rock Springs.
Bill Rathburn was the original Gen. Custer with the unit. Today's Custer is Brian Kitzmann, who has worn the leathers and wielded the sword for the past five years.
The corps continues to participate in 25 to 30 events every year.
Schwartz said the 7th Cavalry corps has had as many as 54 and as few as 38 members in recent years.
Most of the band, including five of the six "Indian maidens" who are part of the unit, made the trip to the nation's capital.
The logistics were something of a challenge, according to Hassey.
"We had to measure each case for each band instrument, then give the square footage and weight (just over 500 pounds) to the airline," he said. "That doesn't include the uniforms and hats."