Old Gray Mare Band

The "Old Gray Mare Band" was organized on November 24, 1921, in Brownwood, TX, just after World War I, with R. Wright Armstrong serving as the conductor of the band and Rex S. Gaither as the manager of the forty-three member band.  The musical organization was made up of members of the l42nd Infantry, Texas National Guard, and for some time before being called by the name the "Old Gray Mare Band," it was known as the l42nd Infantry Band.  But we are getting ahead of our story here because the band came into being prior to World War I.

France In 1918

The 142nd Infantry Band was organized and sailed for St. Naziare, France, July 18, 1918 and ordered to the Barsur-Aube training area to keep alive that most precious war-time factor - moral.  The band was made up of doughboys from several different states. They played many different marches and tunes to build that moral but soon found that playing the tune "The Old Gray Mare" did the most good .  They played that song often while in France.  Some in France even thought that was their National Anthem.  The band returned to the states on May 30, 1919 and was disbanded.

Now Back to the Brownwood Story

With the reorganization of the Thirty-sixth Division in 1921, Adj. Gen.  Thomas D. Barton imposed on Armstrong, a former company officer, the responsibility of getting a band for the One Hundred Forty-second Infantry.  Armstrong got to recruiting a company of Brownwood business and professional men in just 17 days to accomplish the task.  Many of the band members were students at Daniel Baker College in Brownwood.  And thus was born the 142nd Infantry Band of the Texas National Guard in Brownwood.

Along with the traditions of the old regiment of the One Hundred Forty-second Infantry, which was the most shot up outfit of the division, there was handed down, so to speak, all the traditions of the former music makers and moral uplifters, including the coveted and now almost internationally known nickname, concerning a faithful flea bitten, old gray mare.

At most of their concerts, this reorganized 142nd Infantry Band, the song "The Old Gray Mare" was played.  Thus came its nickname.  The band name was supplied by three Fort Worth newspapermen who used it in their stories because of the trademark song, according to a story on R. Wright Armstrong written in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, April 26, 1959.  Armstrong decided that they needed a cowboy look, an gray mare to walk in front of the band and of course, a pretty lady to ride the mare.  Sara, a mare, was given to the band by A. I. Fabis and went with the band for its five years.  Miss. Ruby Lathem was selected to ride the mare and be the band sponsor.

The band played at several national American Legion conventions, became the official band of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce (and played at five of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce Conventions) and in travels far and wide appeared at the Democratic Convention in Houston in 1928 and Chicago in 1932.  it was the official band of Governor Pat M. Neff and also furnished music at the inauguration of Ma Ferguson, the first woman governor of Texas

Local American Legion Post Played A Part

Closely allied with the activities of the Brownwood Post of the American Legion has been the nationally famous Old Gray Mare Band, directed by Captain R. Wright Armstrong, a member of the American Legion and a former officer. From New Orleans to San Francisco the praises of Brownwood have been sung by this musical organization and almost every time under the auspices and in behalf of the Brownwood Post of the American Legion.

The first time the band became allied with the American Legion was in the Fall of 1922 when it accompanied the Brownwood delegation of war veterans to Waco for the annual meeting of the State American Legion. Its popularity there is shown by the "fact that it was selected unanimously as the official band for the Texas Department and funds were raised in Brownwood and at the Department headquarters that the band might go the  national Legion convention at New Orleans.

The Band became very prominent at New Orleans as the official organization of the Texas delegation, and had no little to do with electing Alvin Owsley of Texas as the national commander, in serenading the headquarters of the different delegations attending the meeting. It is believed that the interest caused by the Band for Col. Owsley the nomination on the first ballot, and it overwhelmingly.

Band in San Angelo 

While not connected with the American Legion, following the New Orleans trip, the organization was selected as the concert band for the Texas Cotton Palace Exposition, the first time in the history of the affair that a Texas organization had held the position. It was this same year that the Band accompanied the. Brownwood delegates to San Angelo in 1923  for the fifth annual convention of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce and aided in Brownwood's winning the 1924 meeting.  It was here that they became the official band of the West Texas Chamber of Commerce.

First Trip to San Francisco

At the State Department convention in Galveston in August, 1923, the band was responsible, it is believed, for the bringing of the convention to Brownwood for the next year. Here too, it was selected to represent Texas at the national convention to be held in San Francisco. To accomplish this a sum of $12,000 had to be raised. A special edition of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, selling ads to that edition, donations, and sums from the Brownwood Post gave the organization the necessary funds and the Old Gray Mare Band started for San Francisco, leaving Brownwood the evening of October 9.  At Fort Worth the Band met National Commander Owsley and state Commander Sherwood, who accompanied the Band on the Texas special train.  Fort Worth civic clubs royally entertained the members of the organization and the Brownwood Legionaries, who were en route to the convention.

The San Francisco  trip is by far the biggest accomplishment ever made by the organization, and can be said to be a personal attainment of Captain Armstrong, organizer and director of the band . En route to California the Band was met and greeted at all the principal stations by Legionnaires. In Los Angeles the mayor and a special squadron of officers met the special train and escorted the organization representing the Brownwood and the Texas American Legion organizations to the Times building, where a radio concert was given. Later in the evening 8,000 visiting citizens were over-joyed when the Band marched into the City Hall and gave a concert.

Ruby Lathem 

For the first time at an American Legion affair, although it had been done at San Angelo and in other places, the Old Gray Mare, the real animal, with Miss Ruby Lathem, the band's sponsor, as its rider, led the Band up one street and down the other, being at its head all of the time. the mare was taken to California in a special car and this attracted wide attention.

Miss. Ruby Lathem was a junior in Daniel Baker College, and out of school hours she was an interior decorator.  Her mother accompanied her on all of the trips.  She became a sponsor because the band asked her to be one.  Ruby Lathem later married and became Ruby Lathem Koontz and was the daughter of the late J.W.. and Alice Son Lathem, who lived and died. in Brownwood. Mrs. Koontz lived. most of her life in Brownwood and lived at 1812 Twelfth Street.

Band Member's Outfit

For this trip, each band member wore a wide sombrero, red silk shirt with a picture of the old gray mare stamped in white on the back, a yellow bandana handkerchief knotted at the throat, corduroy trousers and chaps leather, and high heel patent leather boots.  Brownwood Bulletin job printing department decorated the shirts with the picture of the old gray mare, with the inscription "The Old Gray Mare Band."

A delegation in San Francisco also met the Band upon its arrival. Getting off the train amid the shouts from greeting thousands of Legionaries,  the organization paraded to the Palace Hotel where Commander Owsley had his headquarters. From there a parade was staged to the Herald Hotel where the headquarters of the Band had been established.

Texas was in town! The Brownwood organization, which the Brownwood American Legion had backed and sponsored, was by far the most outstanding feature of the convention. Led by the animal Sara, after which the organization had received its name, which alone gave plenty of atmosphere, fifty accomplished musicians attired in a costume with big hats, yellow handkerchiefs around their necks, a bright red shirt, and cowboy chaps, commanded attention as did no other delegation there.

The organization was the official band of the convention, as the national commander was a Texan. During the evenings different delegations were serenaded, and it was such little features like this that spoke loudly for Texas. Before the convention had closed the Texas delegation was the best known body there and had made a large number of friends.

Departing from San Francisco Friday, October 19, the organization proceeded to Salt Lake City, Utah, where it was greeted on a Sunday by a special service at a church with an organ and choir. At Denver the lieutenant governor, in the absence of the high executive, greeted the Band and turned over to its members the keys of the city. Upon its arrival in Fort Worth a large gathering again greeted the musicians who through their instruments had scattered praises of Texas across the Western States and escorted them to the University Club, where they were entertained.

There is no doubt but that the Texas delegation, which was led everywhere by the Old Gray Mare Band, which was preceded by Miss Lathem astride the gray mare Sara, received a third more publicity than any other delegation there. Two things contributed largely to this. The national commander was from Texas and the attire which the musicians wore, with the Band being led by the mare capped the climax.

The Band was presented a loving cup--a beautiful thing--by the 40 and 8, a. subsidiary organization of the American Legion on the order of the Shrine to Masonry, as the best band in the 40 and 8 parade. It is probable that the Brownwood organization would have gotten a place in the band contest had it not been for California's entree with a symphony orchestra which won first place, second going to Iowa. The Texas organization was mentioned for third place.

While not under the name of the American Legion the band practically won for Col. Alvin Owsley, 'past national commander of the American Legion, the endorsement of the Texas delegation for vice-president of the United States at the State Democratic convention in Waco.    .

Helping the American Legion in every possible manner, and being aided by the American Legion financially when needed, the two have been closely related and each can be said to have played a. prominent part in the success of the other.

Other Conventions

Miss Lathem and Sara.  The Brownwood Post of the American Legion is nationally known because of the interest which it takes in attending American Legion conventions, both State and national, and adding double interest on each occasion by taking with them the nationally famous Old Gray Mare Band.

The first of the State conventions for the Brownwood Post to attend in a body with the Old Gray Mare Band was at Waco in 1922. Accompanied by this accomplished musical organization the Brownwood delegation took the city by storm and immediately upon the arrival the musical organization it was named as the official band of the Texas Department of the American Legion.  Brownwood delegates presented quite a show and started attending the annual convention which has started them attending every other one since that time, which has resulted in nation-wide publicity for Brownwood and the Old Gray Mare Band.

At the Waco meeting delegates to that convention were so impressed that they decided to raise funds at the Department headquarters and send the Old Gray Mare Band to New Orleans for the National Convention. The funds were raised and this famous organization again accompanied the Brownwood delegates to the Crescent City. The Brownwood delegation was one of the most prominent at the New Orleans meeting and the Old Gray Mare Band had no little to do with the electing of Col. Alvin Owsley as the national commander, The Brownwood organization were given the credit for having Col. Owsley elected on the first ballot, and having a Texan hold the position for the first time.

Still ablaze with glory from the New Orleans meeting the Brownwood Post saw in August, 1923, the Old Gray Mare Band, again accompany its delegates to a State convention. This was at Galveston. To say that Brownwood had only delegates there would be putting it in too mild. Brownwood went with the typical West Texas fight and spirit, and with the splendid results accomplished by the Old Gray Mare Band and the Brownwood delegation, not only a wonderful showing was made but the 1924 convention was won by Brownwood.

The next American Legion gathering for the Brownwood Post to represented at was the national convention at San Francisco, when the Old Gray Mare Band was again present, this time being led by an old gray mare ridden by Miss Ruby Lathem of Brownwood, the organization's sponsor. The members of the organization at this meeting were attired in cowboy costume, a contrast to the neatness and cleanliness shown by the other bands. This uniform succeeded in giving Brownwood nearly a third more publicity than any other delegation there, beyond a doubt. Because of the presence with the delegation of the national commander a great lot of publicity was received by the Texas delegation. The Old Gray Mare Bland was the official band of the convention.

Brownwood is making early plans to use what its delegations have learned at two State conventions and two national meetings in entertaining the "buddies" in Brownwood at the annual State Department meeting in the Summer of 1924.

Sara, the "Old Gray Mare"

Sara, the old gray mare Sara, was an old gray mare, age fourteen, with a long head, bushy tail and ribs showing at the time she was selected to lead the band. Although Sara was an old NAG, she lead parade after parade with pretty Ruby Lathem riding and the fifty member band following.  Her bridle was a gift from the Over Hardware Company of Abilene.  The Municipal National Guard Band was made up of local men and students of Brown County and. was as famous in the early 1920s as the moving picture actors of that day. Upon her death, she was buried just a few  yards from the Pecan Bayou in the Fabis pasture, under a large oak tree, with 300 people in attendance.  The mare died at the age of 19, just five years after becoming the star of the band .  She died on December 26, 1925.

The head of the old gray mare was mounted by F. C. Louinsky, a taxidermist, in Comanche,  who prepared the head for P. B. Richey of the Hotel Southern.  It was placed in the lobby for all to see and admire.  She had given birth to a colt the year before, and the colt took her place at the head of the band

Sara was ridden into the convention hall of the state convention of the American Legion at Waco in 1922, Galveston, 1923; Brownwood 1924, and Fort worth, 1925.  She was ridden into the capitol also of California at Sacramento in 1923; Carson City, Nev., 1923; Denver, CO, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1923; Baton Rouge and perhaps one or two other capitols including Austin, TX.  She led the parade in a score or more of big cities and in each of these cities was ridden into the leading hotel, followed by the Old Gray Mare Band.

Sara understood what was going on and the first sound of the trumpet, she was in her place with Ruby Lathem on her back.

One of the most exciting trips for Sara was to the fifth National Convention of the American Legion in San Francisco, California, in October 1923. While en route to the convention, the train stopped in Barstow, California, for breakfast. At the train depot the band gave a mini concert. Thinking something unusual had happened or perhaps Ruby Lathem was going on parade without her, the old gray mare broke her bars and. proceeded to make a hasty retreat from her private drawing room and see what was going on, but she discovered a vine-yard and decided grapes and their leaves would be a delicious breakfast. Some of the members of the band saw Sara contentedly grazing and sounded an SOS signal to get Sara back into her private car before the train left and without too much damage to the vineyard. Fifteen men gently persuaded Sara to return to the train.

May Peterson replaced Miss Lathem when she married and Peterson rode the old gray mare in Austin when Mrs. Miriam Fergerson was inaugurated as governor of Texas.  After Miss Lathem married, and Wright Armstrong moved to Ft. Worth to become General Agent of the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad, and the old gray mare died, that part of the history of the band faded away.  However, the band stayed active up until World War II.  The band went overseas during World War II and was never revived successfully after the war.  The chaps were left in Brownwood and soon disappeared. 

Attempt to Revive the Old Gray Mare Band

During the fall of 1965 an effort was made to rekindle the flame of interest that had sprung up in the Old Gray Mare Band.   Brownwood had changed over the years and the days of the municipal band were gone.  In the 1920's there was very little to do for entertainment.  The band of that era furnished the excitement of the day.  The old members of the band, including Sandy King, D. D. McInroe, Dr. John Snyder and Mrs. Byron Koonty, the former Ruby Lathem, the rider of the old gray mare, all agreed that if the right man were to come along and organize it, the band could be started again.  They felt that another "Wright Armstrong" could make it a success.  However, that was never to happen.  A couple of community bands have been organized in Brownwood as late as the 1990's but none have lasted more than a season or two, with very few members.

What history is left of the band, is now displayed in a special display case in the Brown County Museum Annex.  The display consists of the old drum head, a couple of leather chaps photos, and a couple of scrapbooks and newspaper stories from the early 1920's about the band.  The photos on this page are from that collection.

Information for this story came from Ruby Lathem's Scrapbook and as told by Ruby Lathem Koontz on September 17, 1981.

Return to History Page
Return to Home Page