William Taylor, First Fiddler of Minnesota
By John Heine
Who led a band in the Minnesota Territory known as “the favorite of the dancing public”? A Saint Paul resident, barber, and Black man by the name of William Taylor.
A fiddler and a barber? Of course!
Barbering was a trade well-suited to a moonlighting musician. The trade was generally open to free Black men, North and South, and was more sparing of a musician’s hands than many other manual occupations. A barbershop also afforded ready connections for business arrangements: the Minnesota Pioneer newspaper related in 1852 that Taylor’s shop and those of other Black barbers were “favorite places of resort for many bachelor Whites who meet there, as on a social exchange,” listening to music and planning entertainments.
Taylor played music for hundreds of dances from 1849 until his death in 1862. His “violin was always in demand at the balls and parties of the city.” His presence in Minnesota was first noted in the reminiscences of Rebecca Cathcart at “a grand dance” in the country celebrating Christmas in 1849, where the musicians were barbers from Saint Paul, led “by a fine-looking man named Taylor [who] had a voice a brigadier general might envy.”
The dance parties enlivened by Taylor’s band include such events as a “select cotillon party,” a military dress ball, a widow’s benefit, and moonlight dances on the river. When the printers of Saint Paul celebrated Benjamin Franklin’s birthday with a banquet in January of 1854, “Taylor’s band discoursed sweet music, while the knives and forks kept time to the enlivening strains.”
In 1861, Governor Alexander Ramsey hosted a banquet for the state’s legislators, described by his young daughter, Marion, as a “motley group” who indulged at the bar and a banquet table groaning under “chicken and lobster salad, scalloped oysters, beaten bisquits, and smoked buffalo tongue.” But what most impressed Marion was the dancing in the parlor, when “Bill Taylor, the fashionable colored barber, played the violin in the small orchestra, at the same time calling out the figures.”
The 1850 census lists William Taylor as Kentuckyborn, twenty-nine, a barber, and the owner of real property valued at $900. His wife, Adeline, was twenty-seven and a native of Washington, D.C. The census identifies them as “Mulatto.” They came to Minnesota from Galena, Illinois, where they had married.
Taylor advertised his first “shaving saloon” by promising to serve “citizens and strangers” with “luxury, style and elegance.” In 1852, the Minnesota Pioneer newspaper took note of “Bill” and his fellow barbers as “a worthy and industrious class of persons . . . [who] well deserve to have their merits recorded in the chronicle of Minnesota.”
What was not reported at the time was that Taylor and his companions were “industrious” in other ways. In an interview published in 1895, Taylor’s nephew, Joseph Farr, identified his uncle as a principal agent for the Underground Railway on the upper Mississippi River. He used his role as a barber and his shop as a “cover” to help spirit fugitive slaves to freedom.
The Taylors eventually made their home on Fifth Street, between Wabasha and Cedar Avenues, the present-day site of the Ecolab building. An 1857 photograph shows the two-story wood-framed house, with an outbuilding, clotheslines, and a wooden fence. The household held various boarders, black and white, including several barbers who were also musicians. His last barbershop was nearby, on the northeast corner of Third Street (now Kellogg Avenue) and St. Peter Avenue, the present-day site of City Hall.
This Ta-coumba Aiken-led artwork project was created communally at the June 27, 2018, Saint Paul Almanac Alumni Bash at Summit Brewery.