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Orchestra filled entertainment needs on both land and water

Polk Burk’s Capital orchestra was scheduled to play in Quincy on April 20, 1924. From Quincy they were scheduled to go to northern Illinois, Indiana and return to St. Louis, where they will rest for two weeks, prior to the opening of their summer’s stand on the excursion Boat, St. Paul. The Burk orchestra first gained prominence on this section of the river when they played on the steamboat, Capitol.

Members of the orchestra are the following, Polk Burk, drummer, manager; Max Walkowitz, violin, saxophone; Cliff Jones, banjo; Harold Setterburg, piano; Bud Walker, cornet; Raymond Thurston, trombone; John Young, saxophone, clarinet, oboe and bass clarinet. Quincy Daily Herald, Thursday, April 17, 1924.


Ninety-one years ago this month, Hannibal’s riverfront was filled with excitement. The steamer Capitol was docked on Hannibal’s shoreline, preparing to embark upon an excursion sponsored by the Masonic Club of Hannibal. The pilot planned to cruise the river while a full orchestra played music for the enjoyment of the many passengers who were expecting an evening of dancing.

The excursion was scheduled to depart at 8 p.m., then the pilot planned to return to the shoreline to pick up passengers associated with graduation ceremonies from Hannibal’s high school.

Instead, dark clouds began to cover the early evening sky, and the boat’s captain noted a drop in the barometer, indicating threatening winds.

So the boat, under the captain’s ordered, remained docked throughout the evening.

Even though a refund was offered to those aboard the steamboat, there were few takers. Those wanting to dance joined the fun on the boat’s second deck, and danced the night away.

The Quincy Daily Herald, describing the cruise that didn’t cruise in its May 28, 1926 edition, noted: “As most of the crowd went on to the boat to dance it made but little difference to them whether the boat remained at dock or proceeded on its trip. Consequently most of the excursionists remained on the boat until a late hour, and but few of those leaving asked for the return of their money.”

About 10 p.m. on the same evening, the packet steamer Alabama arrived on Hannibal’s shoreline.

“For a time one might have thought the old time river days had returned. Hundreds of autos were parked along the levee until a late hour and a great crowd of pedestrians thronged the river front.”

The orchestra

While the newspaper article did not mention what orchestra was entertaining guests that Wednesday evening in 1926, an orchestra that gained fame while associated with this steamer was known in 1924 as Polk Burk’s Capitol Orchestra. Burk’s orchestra first gained recognition in 1922 when it was the featured orchestra on the Capitol. In 1924, Polk Burk’s orchestra continued to provide music sought after by dancers on its cruises along the nation’s waterways. In April 1924, orchestra members were: Polk Burk, drummer, manager; Max Walkowitz, violin, saxophone; Cliff Jones, banjo; Harold Setterburg, piano; Bud Walker, cornet; Raymond Thurston, trombone; and John Young, saxophone, clarinet, oboe and bass clarinet.

It is believed that Polk Burk was one in the same person as John Frederick Burke, born in Kentucky on March 17, 1892. At the age of 30, when he was living in Davenport, Iowa, he was married to Hilda Speth, and they had one daughter, Betty Jane Burke, born about 1926. Both of Burke’s parents were bore in Ireland. He served in the military during World War I.

Orchestras managed by Burke under other names included the Burk-Leins Novelty Orchestra, which played on steamboats during the late 1920s; the Burk-Leins Orchestra of New Orleans, which performed for the Kiwanis Club at the Jefferson Hotel in Macon, Mo., in March 1923; and the Gold Coast Entertainers, which performed in Quincy, Ill., during November 1924.

By 1940, Burke and his family had moved to Los Angeles, Calif., where Hilda managed a hair salon, and Burke worked as a school custodian. John F. (Polk) Burke died Jan. 9, 1960, in Los Angeles.

Orchestra member

Bud Walker, who played the cornet and trumpet for Burke’s orchestra, was born on Valentine’s Day, 1901, one of nine children born to James Oliver and Lennie Hutchings Walker at Lathrop, Clinton County, Mo.

Bud Walker’s father was a life-long farmer in Clinton County, from the time of his birth in 1874 until his death in 1948.

It is not clear where Bud Walker obtained his music training. He first attended college at Missouri Wesleyan College at Cameron, Mo., beginning in the second semester of the 1921-22 school year. The next year he was described a member of the Adelphian Literary Society, and had the following quote beside his yearbook photo: “His head is a skylight wherever he goes.”

The following year he transferred to Culver-Stockton College at Canton, Mo., where he studied both education and religion.

In 1923, he was a member of the school’s Gospel Team, and traveled to Emerson, Mo., with Rev. Ingold to conduct Sunday services.

After performing with Polk Burk’s orchestra during the summer of 1924, Walker went back to Culver-Stockton College and completed his degree work. In July 2, 1925, he was hired to direct physical education for the Hannibal schools. The Quincy Daily Herald reported: “Walker has had much experience in the direction of athletics and has taken special work in various colleges that qualifies him to hold the position here. He will also take part in the High School athletics.”

The following January, Walker coached the Black and Red basketball team.

“Friday morning Coach Bud Walker and his Hannibal Pirates leave on a two day basket ball trip that takes them across the country into the neighboring state of Iowa to battle two of the strangest teams that go to make up the Mississippi Valley conference, Keokuk and Ft. Madison. Walker and his Pirates are in high spirits over their double victory last week with the Palmyra High and the Quincy Blue Devils and are engaging in a strenuous week in preparation for the foreign invasion on Friday. Both Keokuk and Ft. Madison boast strong aggregations and the Pirates anticipate a harder week than they had last week.”

Walker continued teaching for a few years, and then switched careers, selling life insurance. By 1946 he was back at his chosen career, and his wife, Margaret, was also a teacher. For most of their married life, they lived at 2800 McKinley. They were active members of First Christian Church in Hannibal, where Mrs. Walker was both a pianist and organist. They had two children, James T. Walker, born around1929, and Dorothy J. Walker, born around 1932.

Note: Both colleges that Bud Walker attended are affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, the religion of his parents back in Lathrop, and the religion he and his wife followed during their years of residency in Hannibal, Mo.


Missouri Wesleyan College was a college in Cameron, Missouri from 1883 until 1930. The school merged with Baker University in 1926 and closed in 1930.

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