August Drexler was born near Halle, Germany around 1821. His parents and family are mostly unknown as he immigrated alone to Canada sometime before 1855. He was living in the Village of Preston and working as a musician. August became well-known throughout the Waterloo Region for his musical expertise and his wandering ways. He would travel by foot from town to town to play music and stay at friend’s houses. For an in-depth look at August’s life in Waterloo County, please visit his page on Waterloo Generations. Below is the article written by W.H. Schmalz in the Waterloo Historical Society Annual Volume 37.
In the middle seventies a German approaching middle age came to Waterloo County and made his home among kindly disposed farmers, mostly in the neighborhood of Petersburg, St. Agatha and Wellesley. The man was August Drechsler. He proved to be a cultured man with exceptional gifts in music. He was a performer on the piano, organ and stringed instruments. The older he grew the more eccentric became his habits. He had few belongings outside of his violin, and he carried all with him wherever he went. He would make his home wherever he could, and in return for his keep he gave the children music lessons. He had a reticent and very sensitive nature, and never related how he came to settle in a foreign land It was rumored about, however, that Drechsler came from Leipzig, where he was an orchestral performer at the Royal Opera House. It was also whispered that he had a love affair and preferred to “forget” by emigrating to America. Here he hardly ever attempted any work outside of playing his beloved violin or viola (Braatsche, as he called the instrument) for the amusement of others, giving instructions, or occasionally playing for dances.
Drechsler conceived the idea that by owning a string bass he would find more opportunity to broaden his art and widen the demand for his playing, as at that time the double bass was a rather rare instrument here. One fine day he took up his violin and bundle and walked to Hamilton to arrange for the purchase of such a mammoth fiddle. Arriving there, he called on the Grossman music firm and soon became the proud possessor of the coveted instrument. The load was too great for him to carry all together, so he trotted off with the bass on his back, meanwhile leaving his other belongings at Grossman’s for safe keeping. Past Dundas, along the stone road, he carried his load and left it at a farmer’s home where he felt it would be quite safe. Back. he went for his other possessions, the violin and bundle. These he carried on a good distance further, repeating the performance and relaying his trips until he reached home with violin, bundle and contra bass safely placed in his lodging house and feeling quite happy and satisfied. It was not related how long this trip took Drechsler, but it was no doubt a wearisome three days’ toil.
Age seemed to show in the appearance of this veteran, although almost to the last his step was firm, and he was never known to suffer from any illness. His hair and beard were white, the locks falling on his shoulders while his full beard was always his shoulders unkempt. Drechsler will no doubt be remembered by some of the older citizens as lie looked walking along the country roads, wearing in summer a long linen duster, large straw hat, and either barefooted or having under his feet a sort of sandal. A “dickie” served the purpose of a shirt, and he was truly an interesting figure.
In 1886, when a Grand Saengerfest was to be held in Berlin Drechsler came to town and interviewed Prof. Theo. Zoellner requesting, if possible, to be allowed to play in the large orchestra. He was told that he could not be tolerated in his rags (Lumpen), and that before he could be accepted he would have to allow his friends to transform him. He consented. The first operation was a bath ; then the barber trimmed his hair and beard and his musical friends undertook to furnish him with shoes, socks, shirt, a suit of clothes, and a nifty black hat, all donated by various acquaintances. In the evening before the first rehearsal, a fine and distinguished looking old gentleman, wearing a Prince Albert coat, was seen on the street looking up in the direction of Concordia Hall, where the orchestra met for practice. It was none other than August Drechsler. The transformation was complete, but he felt rather uncomfortable. A member of the orchestra, who has this story to relate, took him in hand, piloted Drechsler to the hall, and there assigned him a seat among the first violins. The rehearsal was successful, and our old friend felt happy to be among a lot of musicians playing a part for which he had so often longed. He remained with the orchestra for some years, although not always a regular attendant. On one occasion he had not been at any of the rehearsals for several weeks, and when Professor Zoellner asked the reason for his absence, Drechsler coolly remarked that some friend had given him a lot of apple butter (Latwerg) and he wished first to dispose of it meaning that he was busy eating Latwerg morning, noon and night!
His power of endurance was wonderful. The writer, who was always pleased to have a little private chat with Drechsler, often exchanged ideas on music with the old man, who was a profound admirer of stringed instruments. He did not like the blatant brass as produced by players in this country. It was too rough and harsh, and only in Germany could one acquire the correct technique with these instruments. One evening, coming from the practice hall, which was the old Gaukel Street rink, at eleven o’clock Drechsler and I parted on King Street. He turned westward and I asked him:” Wo gehen Sie hin ?” “Ei nach Welleslei,” was the laconic reply. Imagine, if you can, an old man sitting down and playing for three straight hours, and then a midnight march of seventeen miles! On another occasion, when Drechsler accompanied the Zoellner orchestra to keep an he was missed on the return trip after engagement at Port Elgin, the train had left Walkerton. Two days later he turned up and stated he had found the railway coach too stuffy and at Walkerton decided to walk the rest of the distance. Such were the whims and caprices of our old musician friend.
During the winter of the early nineties Drechsler spent most of his time in. Berlin and was at that time very much interested in writing, when not playing his violin. He needed a convenient space where he could spread his manuscripts before him and, above all, a warm room. The writer’s old office afforded just such a place, as there was more than enough room at the public counter and it was here that Drechsler was permitted to do his work. Just what the work consisted of was never learned, but he was weeks at it and became quite familiar with his new surroundings. He wrote in hieroglyphics all his own and used black and red ink-the red, no doubt, to emphasize certain expressions or quotations. On being asked what language it was, Drechsler replied that it was his own language but that it read English. He guarded his manuscripts very carefully, and whatever was done with his voluminous writings, or to what use they were put, is not known.
Our old friend spoke German to those who could speak the language well, as he preferred his mother tongue, but when it came to the writing of letters he used the English language, and from the two following specimens will be seen how accurate he was at all times in expressing himself. The letters show his extreme eccentricity, his love for music, and hint at his Saxon dialect, which was always very pronounced in conversing with him in German. He makes an explanation at the end of one of the letters as to the meaning of certain words which he calls “grapical (graphical) innovations.”
Sir : My state of health has now begun to be so precarious dat I feel myself obliged to make to you de proposal dat I play on 1st of July only for de ball and not for de concert, in order to be dat night quite healty, wakeful, mindful & vigorous and so to be able & reliable to play my viola part or parts quite orderly, correctly & vigorously and after dat to be able to march several miles out of town in order to sleep in a real bed dere and remain dereby healty.
Please write your answer and send it to St. Agatha as soon as convenient, because it would be a very wrong tought about me, dat I would go on dat day to Berlin unemployed & unengaged, be it for pleasure’s or for curiosity’s sake, for I hate even to walk along in a trong of merry, frivolous, idle males & females, who seek merely to enjoy pleasures, excitements, frivolities, etc.
Notwithstanding if I would not propose not to play in dis concert if I were dere de only one good & reliable viola player but I hear & I know dat very many excellent players & real musicians who reside out of de country, are appointed to work for de concert, and dat to dese gentlemen also belongs an excellent viola (& violin) player who is appointed to play de viola in it. So and dere fore I concluded or conjectured or presumed that it may amount to only little or very little difference if I be absent or if I be present and (what is to be added) if I play quite well wid him (in de orchester). So you cannot be reasonably angry by my proposal.
b-t ; d-th softly pronounced.
Sir : When I asked you how much I would get for de concert, you answered me : two or tree dollars. Now to get no more dan two dollars for it I found far too little for my many rehearsals whereto I came often from afar & wherefrom I went sometimes far away. Indeed several days later you have told me dat for de times of employment I am lodged in a hotel like any oder foreigner. But I have considered : Whatfore shall I live at so dear expense of de committee (& in consequence dereof get so little cash money in de pocket) ? where I can take my meals by self-pay far cheaper outside of Berlin (but not far from it) in de house of a befriended farmer, and especially whatfore shall be paid for me 25 cents for a bed one night now dat it is high summer and derefore dat certainly now I can sleep comfortably enough in a barren dere supossing dat he may get unexpectedly to dat time well befriended, related or honoured visitors. After having experienced for your sake, for de saturday rehearsals sake very uncomfortable nights I will now positively not at all dat any quarter dollar be paid for a bed for me, for I can at least now sleep far cheaper. Derefore in myself paying de boarding I charge you four & a half dollars for playing in concert & tree dollars for playing to de ball, but as to de orchestral street parade I wish dat I be dispensed of participation of it for bodily quality’s sake. Besides I have to say dat I go to de celebration not in de least degree for enjoying pleasure, but only for needing & gaining money and dat I would be far more pleased, if I were ordered now by a farmer to pick up potatoe bogs day by day dan to play & to sweat & to spoil de eyes by artificial light in a crowded hall wid closed doors & windows & dereby to risk to become very sick after dat.
After being in the orchestra some years he relapsed into his old mode of life. His hair grew longer and whiter, his beard more straggly, and his general appearance and habits were such that he was no longer welcomed by his former musical associates. The writer does not know much about the close of this old gentleman’s career. Suffice it to say that he died in the Old People’s Home and his remains found repose in the burial ground of that institution.
As the article stated, August entered the Poorhouse on January 18, 1897 at the age of 76. Subsequently, August used the Poorhouse much as he used hotels and friends houses around the county, as a stop-in hostel. In the remarks on the registry, it is recorded that he “returned May 17th & away at diff. times”, suggesting that he would come and go as he pleased, perhaps to visit friends or play music. He died at the House on March 17, 1900 of “old age”.
The above images are photos that are said to be August Drexler, courtesy of Darryl Bonk of Waterloo Generations.