Saturday, March 19, 2016

CFD - Charles “Shang” Wheeler, A Different Kind of Champion
by Matt Alling
CT Pro Percussion
203-228-0488 - Phone

What would you say if I told you that the man who played this drum won so many championships that he stopped competing? Okay, the truth is, the championships in question had nothing to do with the drums but it makes for a great story which we’ll get to in a minute. The drum in the picture is one of three drums on display at the Company of Fifers and Drummers Museum that was used by The Cupheag/Stratford Pioneers fife and drum corps in Stratford CT, from 1938 to 1946.

The drum itself has no maker's label inside and has a mahogany shell that is 32"x 12" with a single-ply mahogany shell. The calfskin heads read "Cupheag Pioneers, Stratford CT," and one head is painted with an Indian wearing a head dress. There is no visible artist signature. There is a single point-of-carry eyebolt on one side of the drum and rope hooks that are screwed into the rims. The heads on the drum have recently been repaired to prevent further splitting and to preserve the artwork on the head.

This drum was played by Charles “Shang” Wheeler and, if you are like me, you have no idea who he is, or at least I didn’t until I started to research the drum and the drum corps. After a bit of research I learned that “Shang”, who was born in 1872 and died in 1949, wore a lot of hats in his lifetime, including prize fighter, accomplished artist, political cartoonist, CT state senator, Native American rights activist and, as a hobbyist was a wood carver. As a wood carver, Shang carved duck decoys and birds and it is my understanding that he carved at least one of every bird on the Eastern seaboard, from Maine to the Florida Keys. He never took money for his carvings, liked to give them away as gifts and is revered in many circles as the greatest decoy carver to date. It is not hard to believe this, knowing that he also used to enter decoy carving competitions and won so many times that he stopped competing and started to only display his carvings in exhibition at competitions.  In recent years, some of Shang’s decoys have sold at auction for over $100,000.00. 

“Shang” played with the Cupheag Pioneers which, according to the Stratford Historical Society, was formed by members of the now defunct Cupheag Social club. There is also a bass drum in the museum that is painted with the words Stratford Pioneers, which are believed to  be the same corps because they were both active from 1938 – 1946 in Stratford Connecticut. It is my theory is that the drum head on the Cupheag drum was painted by Shang, this is supported by several sketches and political cartoons done by Shang that depict Native American Indians, for which he was a big rights advocate for. Additionally, although there is less evidence to support this at this time, I believe that it is possible that Shang had a hand in making both bass drums. Both drums are of very similar construction, have no maker’s labels and have very good construction but also have a distinct homemade quality to them as well. It is not uncommon for fife and drum corps to have made their own drums and with Shang’s ability as a wood worker and artist; it seems entirely plausible that he was involved in making the drums.
Recently, as you can see in the final picture, there have been repairs done to the heads to help preserve them for future generations to enjoy.

For more information on this drum and the rest of the collection, please visit The Company of fifers and Drummers museum in Ivoryton Connecticut. Also, watch for the new Company of Fifers and Drummers museum website which will be going live very soon.
If you would like more information on Shang Wheeler, contact or visit the Stratford Historical Society in Stratford Connecticut. 
Note – Pictures 3 and 5 are taken from the book, "Shang. A Biography of Charles E. Wheeler," Merkt, Dixon MacD., published by Amwell Press for the National Sporting Fraternity Limited, 1984.

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