April 22, - 1858 - Paul Dresser Born
With no formal training in music, Dresser rose to become one of America's greatest and most popular composers in the years before the Twentieth Century. He published over 150 songs, of which twenty-five hit the Billboard Top 25. His most famous and successful song, "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away," became the official State Song of Indiana in 1913.
Paul Dresser (April 22, 1858 (?) – January 30, 1906)
The fourth son and one of the eleven children of Johann Paul and Sarah Mary Schanab Dreiser, Paul was a native of Terre Haute, Indiana. The family moved to Sullivan, Indiana when Dresser was five. A local priest, Father Herman Joseph Alerding, may have taught Paul to play brass musical instruments during this time. He may also have played a role in his father's decision to send Paul to seminary. His father, a devout Catholic, hoped the boy would become a priest and sent him to study at St. Meinrad Seminary near Ferdinand, Indiana. By age sixteen, Paul knew that the priesthood did not lie in his future. He returned to Terre Haute to work odd jobs and during this time took piano lessons, his only formal training in music.
Trouble in Terre Haute
During the years, 1872 through 1876 Paul had several run-ins with the police. He fell in with a bad crowd, spending most of his money on whiskey at local bars. His money exhausted, Paul robbed two saloons of their money. The police caught up with him and sent him to jail. Convicted of robbery, he spent some time in jail for robbery. Disgraced by his behavior, he returned home.
Entertaining and Composing
Retiring from his life of crime, Paul changed his last name from Dreiser to Dresser and obtained gigs as an organist and singer. Through the next years, he improved his music skills and began composing songs. He ended up in Evansville Indiana in 1881 at the Apollo Theatre. His fame began to grow in Evansville. From there he traveled to Chicago and managed to headline his own act. He became involved in vaudeville, still performing mostly in Indiana and Chicago.
Move to the Big Time
By 1888, Dresser moved to New York City in 1888 in the belief that his music would appeal to a national audience. He proved right. During the years of the 1890's Dresser reached the heights of his career. His income is estimated to have exceeded nine million dollars in 2009 currency. By 1900, his songs fell out of style. Never a good businessman, Dresser had squandered his fortune. A generous man, he had given much of it away. By 1906, ill health claimed his life and he died penniless in New York. With no funds to pay his funeral bill, his remains were held until they were moved to Chicago. After his funeral there, he lay in an unmarked grave until the Indiana Society of Chicago installed a boulder from the Wabash River placed on the grave.
Note – there is controversary over Paul Dresser’s birth year. Sources indicate it could be 1857, 1858 or 1859