CFD - Charles “Shang”
Wheeler, A Different Kind of
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.