A discernible chill creeping into the air evokes many different responses. For thousands who have come through Fort Mill’s school music programs over the years, it’s a signal that after months of practice in the blistering sun and countless hours spent traversing parking lots and football fields in pursuit of invisible dots, it’s finally go time. It’s competition season for marching band. Think Texas towns and their Friday night lights. Fort Mill’s equivalent is marching band, and no town in South Carolina does it up any bigger than this one. I got swept up in the phenomenon when my younger son was in high school. When I attended my first October competition and someone asked where we were from, the response I got for answering “Fort Mill” was a little like the hyenas in “The Lion King” when somebody says “Mufasa.” It was kind of an “ooh” followed by some strange half-giggling shudder. I didn’t get it then, but I figured it out quickly.
The legacy of music in Fort Mill goes back to a time before the two high schools were lining their band room walls with trophies. Crowds gathered at the bandstand in Confederate Park in the 1920s to hear the Fort Mill Band that was made up of players of different ages from around the community. Fort Mill High School’s band program began in 1949, but it wasn’t until 1972 that newly-appointed director John DeLoach changed the focus of the program from exhibitions and parades to marching competitions and concert festivals. Only four years later, in 1976, the band brought home its first state championship title. That early success laid the foundation for what has become the most honored program in South Carolina, boasting a record 24 state championships. Explosive growth in town brought the opening of Nation Ford High School in 2007, and within two years of the program’s birth, the band won its first state championship. In only nine years of existence, Nation Ford has garnered five of these top honors and both schools regularly top the standings at regional competitions.
While a friendly rivalry exists between the bands during competition season, Fort Mill High’s director John Pruitt makes a point of telling his students each year that both programs were developed from a single starting point, and that they share in the tradition of excellence. In fact, Nation Ford’s director Martin Dickey was the director at Fort Mill before moving to Nation Ford to start its program.
As a parent, it always made me smile to attend a community performance for either school and see band students from across town there to support each other. This year, both schools will have a shot at bringing home separate state medals as they compete in different divisions. Nation Ford will make a run at the title in the 4A class while Fort Mill takes its shot in 5A. It’s worth noting that the 4A championship trophy has come home to the town of Fort Mill the past four years in a row. Two of those trophies reside at Nation Ford and two at Fort Mill High. That’s an impressive statement, and no matter what the results are when the whirlwind season wraps up just weeks from now, there will be those fans who will always respond to hearing a band has come from the town of Fort Mill a little bit like hearing the king of the jungle has just shown up to the feast. It’s a little cocky maybe, but it’s a reputation of excellence earned by generations of teenagers and their tireless leaders in the dog days of summer and on chilly fall nights. Once again the air in Fort Mill rumbles with the drums of October, and the long and illustrious musical tradition continues its forward march.