Helen Gallie Steele and music in Sedalia

By Rhonda Chalfant Contributing Columnist

April 8, 2014

During the late 19th and early 20th century, social reformers extolled the virtues of music as healthy family entertainment and uplifting community activity. Social historians Robert Bishop and Patricia Coblentz note that “no game or pastime… enjoyed the popularity of the musicale,” whether a small, at-home affair or a larger public entertainment. Music store newspaper advertisements showed families gathered around a piano or parlor organ, happily singing together.

Music schools and individual teachers offered instruction in playing instruments and singing. Public schools included music instruction as part of the curriculum, allowing children who couldn’t afford private lessons to learn the basics of music.

Music was important to Sedalians. The 1901 Sedalia City Directory listed three dealers in musical instruments and sheet music and 19 music teachers. In addition, both the Sedalia Public Schools and the Pettis County Schools boasted well-developed music programs. George R. Smith College offered a full course in music for its African-American students.

At the turn of the 20th century, Sedalia had two brass bands, a ladies musical club and a gentlemen’s chorus. Most churches had choirs and other ensembles that provided music at worship services and frequently performed cantatas and holiday programs.

Although Sedalia’s music dealers, music teachers and music lovers contributed to the popularity of music here, much of Sedalia’s fame as “the musical town of the Midwest” could be attributed to Helen Gallie Steele.

Steele was born in Northfield, Ohio, the daughter of John B. and Julia Gallie. The family moved to Sedalia in the early days of the city; her father was one of Sedalia’s important merchants.

Steele’s “marked musical talent and beautiful contralto voice” were apparent when she was a child. She received music instruction from private teachers in Sedalia, and after graduation from Sedalia High School, attended the College of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio. While there, she won the coveted Springer Gold Medal.

She continued her music education in New York, where she studied voice. She also studied with prestigious teachers at the Tonic-Sol-Fa College in London. She developed what the Sedalia Democrat described as “a remarkably brilliant as well as sympathetic contralto voice, which once heard could never be forgotten.”

After she completed her training, she returned to Sedalia, choosing to devote her talents to improving music instruction in Sedalia. In 1894, she married prominent Sedalia attorney William Dulaney Steele. They had one child, William D. Steele Jr.

Like many ladies of the time, she gave private music lessons. She taught “all the prominent singers of Sedalia (including) many who have gone out in the world and made a name for themselves.”

She was supervisor of music instruction in the Sedalia Public Schools for five years, maintaining high standards of instruction and encouraging the expansion of the music curriculum. She was also active in professional organizations such as the State Music Teachers Association, and served as its president. In this way, she was able to influence music instruction throughout Missouri.

Steele was a remarkable woman whose talent spread far beyond her hometown and state. Next week’s column details more of her accomplishments.