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Sousa and St. Johnsville
Published on: 2014-10-18
John Philip Sousa and his St. Johnsville friend
By Bob Cudmore, Focus on History, Daily Gazette, 10-18-14

John Philip Sousa, “The March King” who composed “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, unsuccessfully courted a woman from the Mohawk Valley and remained a close friend of hers through the years.

Jessie Zoller was born in 1856 in the hamlet of Hallsville in the town of Minden. Historian Christine Oarr Eggleston said Jesse was the daughter of egg farmer Abram Zoller and his wife Alma Tuttle Zoller. After the Civil War, Abram Zoller held a high post in the U.S. Treasury and his wife and daughter were living with him in Washington.

Jessie met Sousa when they both were students at a music and art conservatory in Washington. Sousa was born in Washington in 1854. His father was Portuguese and Spanish and his mother was Bavarian.

St. Johnsville historian Anita Smith said Jessie’s father did not encourage Sousa, “The story is told that Mr. Zoller called John a young upstart musician who would never amount to much and certainly wasn’t good enough for his Jessie.”

Jessie earned a degree at Vassar College and enrolled in the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. She and her mother spent 14 years in Europe. The father joined them for the last four years. Jessie became fluent in four languages: German, Italian, French and English.

Smith wrote, “When Jessie returned to America she had 14 trunks filled with beautiful clothing, jewels, opera costumes, laces and many other lovely items.”

Jessie and her parents went to Omaha and then Chicago where she continued her studies. In Chicago she saw Sousa once again.

Sousa had married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis in 1879. Bellis was a singer from Philadelphia, and Sousa met her when he was playing violin in a theater where she performed. They had three children.

In 1880 Sousa was named to head the Marine Band at the White House. He formed his own band in 1892. The New York Times wrote, “The wide travels of the band throughout the United States… have contributed toward the furtherance of musical education in the nation.”

A letter from Sousa to Jessie in 1899 said he was still interested in her, “It has been 12 years since I saw you last, but it seems like a thousand years to me.” He adds that he “must see her again.”

Jessie’s mother died in 1902. Jessie and her father moved back in the Mohawk Valley and lived on Kingsbury Avenue in St. Johnsville. Her father died in 1906. Their home was torn down and the Reaney Library was built on the site in 1909. Later Jessie lived on Ann Street.

Jessie became well known for teaching music and art. Whenever he was nearby, Sousa visited her, sometimes getting the railroad to make an unscheduled stop in St. Johnsville. Smith wrote, “John would take Jessie to Graham Harvey’s Restaurant for lunch. This always caused a lot of excitement along Main Street.”

Sousa lived his later years in Sands Point on Long Island. He died in 1932 at age 77 in a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania after conducting a band rehearsal the previous day.

Newspaper accounts of Jessie Zoller’s death in 1938 reported she was active as a teacher until 1928, and then lived a more solitary life. She never married and died at the home of her cousin, I.S. Devendorf. Her obituary referred to her friendship with Sousa and stated she was “the village’s foremost authority on music, language and art.”

Smith said a few people in St. Johnsville have paintings and pieces of china that Jessie created. Industrialist Joseph Reaney bought the largest collection of her paintings and they are displayed at the St. Johnsville Community House.

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