Navigation Menu+

Charles Trousdale

Early De Smet drayman and grocer who – with his four sons – established the Trousdale Theatrical Troupes.

C.W. Trousdale and the boys are here this week. It seems like old times to have them with us again. They are giving their entertainments again this year and they have one of the pleasantest and most enjoyable programs for an evening’s entertainment that we know of. – Kingsbury County Independent, 1897

October 17 is Mulligan Day, the day of the year this entry was posted. Friendly golfers everywhere are celebrating the (non-legal) option to “do over” a lousy shot. What people really should be doing today is donning their (non-PC) raggedy-taggedy uniforms, telling jokes, and cutting shines, just like Charles Ingalls and four other men did at a Friday Night Literary in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie:

Then up the center aisle came marching five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms. White circles were around their eyes and their mouths were wide and red. Up onto the platform they marched, then facing forward in a row suddenly they all advanced, singing “Oh talk about your Mulligan Guards!” -Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 21, “The Madcap Days”

Just who were those other four men? Laura identified Pa as the man who played the bones, and she suspected the clog-dancer was Gerald Fuller because she had once seen him dance a jig. The manuscript for Little Town on the Prairie tells us less about the literary, not more, although it does expand the lyrics to include the line with the song title – “The Skidmore Guard.” Readers are left knowing only the names of two additional men who were not performers, Mr. Bradley and Mr. Barnes, because they kept the aisle clear.

Was Mr. Boast one of the performers, with his tenor singing voice and infectious laugh? Surely Laura could have picked him out, and she would have told us. Maybe one of the men was Willard Seelye, an early teacher in De Smet, and an excellent singer who was known to have sung at town literaries. Perhaps one man was one of the “regular” performers at literaries as mentioned by Laura in her handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript: Charles Trousdale. And perhaps Charles Ingalls wasn’t even part of the troupe. Pa isn’t mentioned as one of the black-faced men in any version of Pioneer Girl, and the number of performers is always given as four except in the published book. Or perhaps what Wilder was referencing was the performance of “The Skidmore Guard” by Edward Couse, Dan Loftus, Billy Broadbent, and Ven Owen at a G.A.R. Campfire entertainment at Couse Opera House in 1887.

Mr. Trousdale was also De Smet’s drayman, or hauler of heavy freight for hire. The December 22, 1892 Kingsbury County Independent contained the following: C.W. TROUSDALE. The drayman, has the only dray line in the city. He has been established nine years and is fully up to the requirements of his business. We believe that no town is better served in this line than is De Smet.

Anyone who has researched in De Smet can’t help but stop and think hard about Charles Trousdale. Not only was he a seasoned performer, singer, and dancer even before settling in De Smet, he was the father and manager of the four performing Trousdale Brothers, advertised a few years later as the “Big All White Minstrels.” Coming to De Smet from Wisconsin after the Hard Winter and leaving Dakota for Iowa in the 1890s, the Trousdales were still performing at the time Wilder was working on Little Town on the Prairie. Classmates of Laura’s and too young to be headliners themselves, perhaps the Trousdale boys sat and watched their father perform, and were as thrilled with the musicals and other literaries as were the Ingalls girls?

At the time of the De Smet literary Laura describes, Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart’s “The Skidmore Guard” had been popular for years, being a farce that appealed to the melting-pot society in New York during the 1870s. The “Mulligan” series dealt with the trials and tribulations of Dan Mulligan and his social-climbing wife, Cordelia, and the struggle between the Irish Mulligan Guards and their rivals, the Skidmore Cadets. Dan Mulligan was a hard-drinking, hard-fighting character, and the public followed his tale the same way we keep up with a favorite television series today. For five years following the opening of “The Mulligan Guard,” Harrigan and Hart were the toast of the town, and the catchy tunes and skits of the Mulligan Guard’s Surprise, Ball, Picnic, Christmas, and Wedding (and others) were passed from person to person just as quickly as the sheet music could be printed.

The four Trousdale brothers – Merle, Earle, Winn, and Boyd – were first trained by their father as bell ringers, and they began touring when Boyd was only about ten years old. They advertised themselves as the “Trousdale Family Concert Company and Swiss Bell Ringers.” They played for circuses and medicine shows and vaudeville acts and dramatic companies. Later, each brother was in charge of a company of eight, touring a circuit of ten towns with their minstrel shows, skits, songs and plays. They played to packed houses in 25 states and Canada. They even played near Mansfield, Missouri. While in De Smet, Merle was a classmate of Carrie Ingalls, and Charles W. Trousdale was played the bass drum in the De Smet orchestra and sang in the Congregational church choir. After he sold his draying business to Sam and Clarence Dwight (Laura’s student in the Wilkin School; she called him Georgie Dwight in Pioneer Girl), he opened a grocery store in Charleton Fuller’s former grocery store building and a barber shop in the basement of the First National Bank building. He returned to the drawing business after moving to Estherville, Iowa in 1894. The Trousdales missed De Smet, however, and moved back in 1896, helping run the Commercial Hotel when not on the road with their traveling acts. After a few years they moved to Iowa again, touring the country with their plays and acts from the home base.

The Trousdales were frequent visitors to De Smet after moving away. In 1920, after reading about Old Settler’s Day in the De Smet News, Charles Trousdale wrote: “I sure was pleased to receive the copy of the De Smet News that you sent me, with the write-up of the 10th day of June, way back in 1890. We all read every word of it and enjoyed it so much. I could pick out myself and Merle, Earle, and Winn in the band, and the street looks so familiar. It brought back some fond memories to us and at the same time some sad thoughts to think of our friends and neighbors who have scattered to the four corners of the earth. I remember how proud Charleton Fuller and George Masters were at the head of the militia company and how proudly the boys all marched in those days, and not to stop and think how many have passed away. I thought of you all on June 10th and wondered if you still celebrated the event, and I am pleased to know that you do. The old timers must be getting few in number, tho. I think now of a few of the old ones, like Charles Tinkham, Charley Dawley, Dell Wilmarth, Al Waters, Ignatius Miller, Frank Schaub, and Dan Loftus that are still doing business at the old stand.”

Charles Trousdale died in 1930.


Mr. Trousdale (PG), see also “The Skidmore Guard”