SALEM — The city of Salem is known for many things, from the witch trials and maritime trade to its current status as a tourist destination.
But in a couple of weeks, about 400 people will gather to celebrate a lesser-known aspect of the city's history, as a hotbed of drum and bugle corps.
On Saturday, May 18, former members and friends will gather at the Vittori Rocci Post in Beverly to pay tribute to Salem's former drum corps organizations and mark the 40th anniversary of the national championship won by one of them, the all-girls Arbella.
According to organizers, Salem had eight drum and bugle corps over a stretch of about 50 years from 1930 to 1980, perhaps as many as any city in the United States.
"All I can say is that my formative years would not have been the same without drum corps," said Susan LeFrancois Puleo, a former Salem Arbella member who now lives in Florida and plans to come up for the event. "It's going to be emotional."
Drum corps was not an exclusively Salem phenomenon, of course. Hank O'Donnell, a former state representative and school superintendent in Salem who was involved in drum corps for many years, said it was popular in many communities on the North Shore and in eastern Massachusetts, in large part due to its ties to the Catholic church.
Many Catholic parishes sponsored drum corps to provide an activity for students in their schools, he said. Veterans who returned home from World War II were drawn to the discipline and military music of drum and bugle corps and often became instructors.
"The '50s, '60s and '70s were the golden years for drum corps on the North Shore and in eastern Massachusetts," O'Donnell said. "Salem had its heyday from 1939 to about the early '60s, then it kind of fell off. Then the girls' drum corps Arbella came along and won a national championship in 1979, 40 years after the VFW Post corps won the 1939 national championship."
Marching in a drum corps was a huge commitment in time and effort. The groups practiced almost daily during the summer, then went on a month-long "tour" to places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Montreal for competitions. The Arbellas won their national championship in Alabama.
"We slept on gym floors and buses and showered in YMCAs," Puleo said. "It wasn't easy, but it was fun."
Lauren Poussard said she joined the Arbellas in 1980, the year after they won the national championship. At the time, drum corps was behind only Little League and Scouts in terms of popular activities for kids, she said.
"It was low-cost activity for kids to get involved with and keep them busy," she said. "They would represent their city in parades and competitions. Every town had their star corps. We would come back from competitions and, if we won, we'd do an impromptu concert on Riley Plaza."
Participating in drum corps forged lasting friendships, said O'Donnell, who will be the guest speaker at the event.
"One of the things I'm going to mention is, the kids you were with in that drum corps life were probably in your wedding party, the godparents when your child was born, and the first ones through the funeral home door when your parents or spouse died," he said.
"There's nothing like a drum corps," Poussard added. "It's all brass, it's very loud. There's a lot of pageantry. You have to do it right, and when you get it right there's no better feeling. The friendships last a lifetime."
The May 18 event is more than a reunion. Alumni have formed "tribute corps" and have been practicing in order to perform for their peers. Puleo, the Florida resident, has been practicing with former Arbella members by Skype.
"My poor husband," she said.
This year's event will be the second of its kind on the North Shore. Last year more than 400 people showed up at an event in honor of former Beverly drum corps.
"Everybody enjoys this concept," Poussard said. "It's bringing back the music of an era, of a city."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or email@example.com.