John Philip Sousa was no stranger to the Mohawk Valley. His band performed at the old Amsterdam Opera House on Main Street and at the old Sacandaga Park in the Adirondacks.
In 1926, Sousa’s band played at Smalley’s Theater in Fort Plain. A longtime friend, Jessie Zoller, took Sousa to lunch at a restaurant in St. Johnsville.
Sousa was born in Washington DC in 1854. His father was Portuguese and Spanish and his mother Bavarian.
Jessie Zoller was born in 1856 in the hamlet of Hallsville in the town of Minden. She was the daughter of egg farmer Abram Zoller and his wife Alma. The Zollers were prosperous. After the Civil War, the family moved to Washington where Abram Zoller held a high position in the US Treasury.
Jessie was gifted in art and music. She met Sousa when they were both students at a music and art conservatory in Washington.
The late St. Johnsville historian Anita Smith said Jessie’s father didn’t encourage the budding romance by calling Sousa “a young upstart musician who would never amount to much.”
Jessie graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, then enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany. Smith said Jessie was sent to Europe by her father to get her away from Sousa.
Jessie and her mother spent 14 years in Europe. She is presented to the Emperor of Germany. His father has joined them for the past four years abroad. Jessie is fluent in German, Italian and French. She trained as an opera singer.
When the Zollers returned to America, they went to Chicago where Jessie continued her education. In Chicago, she saw Sousa again.
Sousa married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis in 1879. Bellis was a singer from Philadelphia. Jane and Sousa met while he was playing the violin at a theater where she was performing. They had three children.
In 1880, Sousa was appointed head of the U.S. Marine Band at the White House, and his reputation skyrocketed. He formed his own brass band in 1892. He composed many marches.
A letter from Sousa to Jessie in 1899 read, “Whenever I can be of use to you, please order me.”
Jessie’s mother died in 1902. Jessie and her father moved back to the Mohawk Valley, settling on Kingsbury Avenue in St. Johnsville and later living on Ann Street.
Abram Zoller died in 1906. His obituary noted that Jessie “watched with devoted care” her father’s “declining years”.
When Sousa rode through St. Johnsville by train, he sometimes visited Jessie, once getting the train to make an unscheduled stop. Village residents said the ‘walking king’ looked dapper in his medal-filled dress clothes and white gloves.
Cultured and talented, Jessie had become St. Johnsville’s foremost authority on language, music and art. Jessie was a teacher until 1928, then lived a more reclusive life. She never married
Sousa and her family spent her final years in Sands Point, Long Island. He continued to tour with his marching band.
He died in 1932 at the age of 77 in a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania, after conducting a band rehearsal the night before. He was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.
A member of the Christian Science Church, Jessie, 82, died in 1938 at the home of her cousin, Irving Devendorf, and was buried in Fort Plain Cemetery. Jessie’s obituary listed her as one of Sousa’s closest friends.
Jessie’s version of a detail from a painting by Raphael, titled “The Two Cherubim,” was displayed at the St. Johnsville Community House. Local lore has it that Jessie said the two cherubs represented her and Sousa.
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