Our tour of the Lexington necropolis this week points out local entertainers who attained fame. W H Bishop, born in the east in 1835, developed a talent for playing the cornet into a career, long before he came to Illinois about 1875. He was the famous minstrel “Harry Robinson,” owner of his own show called “The Man with the Silver Horns.”
Marriage to local girl, Ella Kerr Denison in 1876, turned Lexington into his “hometown” for the rest of his life. Harry performed worldwide, coming back to Lexington between tours to the Kerr Hotel where Ella’s mother, Mrs. Frary, was the proprietor. Celebrity status immediately elevated Harry into the best social circles with many mentions of his activities in local newspapers. Sadly, his former life was revealed when Ella discovered two other wives, some children, and no divorces in his past. Ella secured a divorce and two weeks later Harry ended his life in 1889 at a hotel in Bloomington. Ella kindly buried him at Lexington in SECTION 1 LOT 118 and got him a marker engraved with a cornet in the design. Sadly, without care, today one can barely see the outline of the musical instrument, to know that here lies a famed musician.
During Harry Robinson’s years in Lexington, he sometimes joined locals in the Lexington Cornet Band, originally formed to accompany Lexington Civil War units. Through the years the band was described as “first class in every respect” and “one of the most enviable aspects of the city of Lexington.” A long-time performer turned “leader of the band” in 1884, was Charles Wesley Shade. He came to Lexington as a boy and his mother married Lexington blacksmith Malcom Magill. Charles eventually followed his stepfather into the blacksmith trade, while studying to enhance his musical talent. Later he was a C&A RR baggage expressman for a few years, then hired on for the orchestra and band of the Haverly’s Minstrel tour of 1880. Charles did not renew his contract after a year, as touring life was not for him. He married, had a family, and devoted his life to promoting Lexington, musical activities, serving as mayor, postmaster, and owner of the Lexington Nickledome Theater for the first movie experiences in town. At one time he also ran to be a state representative. Music was a constant in his life until, in 1923, he joined the others of the necropolis on SECTION 3 LOT 116.
Another of the “boys in the band” was Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Flesher born in Lexington in 1869 with musical talent he developed into writer, musician, and showman. Beginning in the Lexington Cornet Band he joined Sharpley’s Lyceum Theater as leader of the band in Canton, Mo. in 1896. Later he joined the Si Plunkard Company for a time, and eventually became owner and manager of his own Morey Stock Company described as “one of the finest companies that traveled in the southwest.” Frank’s exciting career lasted many years and then in 1931 his home became SECTION 3 LOT 175.
About 1890 the 3 sons of Lexington farmer James Kennedy turned some of their daily chores into an exhibition by staging a race between a tamed steer and a horse. Eventually they produced the elaborate Kennedy Bros Circus and Vaudeville Show that headlined in Bloomington in 1900 and was the featured attraction for Lexington’s 4th of July in 1901. C.L. and James Victor Kennedy later became business partners of their brother Col. William H. Kennedy’s Wild West Show which first took Oklahoma Indians to the eastern states for shows and gave Will Rogers his first big job. Other cowboy showmen they started were Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, and Buck Jones who traveled with the 10 different shows in the Kennedy Company. In later years portions of the show even appeared in movies…and it all started with a tamed Lexington jersey steer and three farm boys who sought the spotlight! Look for Kennedy markers in SECTION 6 LOT 216.
Check SECTION 7 LOT 239 for Llora Withers Biggs aka “Laura Hoffman” in the heyday of Vaudeville. The U of I student from Lexington accepted an offer to study in Paris with a renowned voice teacher who catapulted her to the stages of Europe, London, and to tours across the entire USA, singing classical style music to the crowds at popular Vaudeville theater shows. She married Charles Ervin Biggs in 1914, also a Lexington native, her business manager during her long career, who now shares the plot in Lexington Cemetery. The spotlights may be out for these local celebrities, but let’s not allow them to be forgotten!
Choice of graphics:
Ad of Kennedy Bros Circus in 1900
Ad of “Harry Robinson” from 1875
Photo of Lexington Cornet Band 1891 with names (Chas Shade and Frank Flesher pictured)
Here are the names from the Cornet Band of 1891 (ID from back of picture)
1. C. R. Flesher - Tuba
2. N. F. Waybright - First Alto
3. L.M. Magill - First Tenor
4. A. M. Flesher - Solo Alto
5. G. L. Sanders - Small Drum
6. S. L. Smith - Second B Flat Cornet
7. G. A. Armstrong - "Base" Drum
8. C. G. Huering - E Flat Cornet
9. J. E. Kent - Cymbals
10. N. E. Franklin - First B flat Cornet
11. C. W. Shade - Baritone – LEADER in story
12. B. F. Flesher - Solo B flat Cornet in story
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