Piping PressOldest Pipe Band in the US Celebrates 100 Years and Remembers Historic Meeting with Willie Ross and John D Burgess

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By Pipe Major Matt McKee, Chicago Stock Yard Kilty Band

This year the Chicago Stock Yard Kilty Band is celebrating its 100th anniversary. We have operated continuously since being founded in 1921 by WW1 veterans Robert and Jim Sim after they emigrated from Aberdeen to Chicago after the war.

Our band is arguably the oldest continuously operating pipe band in the United States. We have a unique and interesting history with the many events we’ve taken part in over the years. The make-up of the band is very family centric. We are pictured above on parade in 2016.

Bob, who had served as a piper with the 4th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, is said to have been offered the position of King’s Piper before he emigrated. Jim, his younger brother, also served in the Gordon Highlanders, but as a 15 year old drummer.

Once in Chicago, they scouted for a local pipe band to join, but eventually decided to round up some British Army veterans to form a new band.  First it was called the British Legion Band. A year later, the name changed to the Chicago Highlanders.

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In 1926, after practicing in warehouses and baggage rooms, they were offered a home at the Chicago Stockyards and Union Company’s  Stock Yard Inn, which had a huge practice and club room. In return, the only obligations the band had to make were to place a logo on the bass drum and to give a commitment to play six-nights during the city’s annual International Livestock Exposition at the International Amphitheatre. The SYKB remained at the Stock Yard Inn until the stockyards and hotel were torn down in the mid-1970s. 

Stepping off on Decoration Day of 1922, the SYKB marched down Michigan Avenue with four pipers, two side drums and a bass. It was their first engagement. There have been a thousand performances since. The SYKB has played for presidents, kings, queens, princes, mayors and every ilk of Chicago politicians.

They have  played at second-floor apartment parties, political rallies, dignitary dinners, wakes and weddings. Since the 1970s the band has also competed all over the Midwest of the United States, as well as in Canada and Scotland.

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I don’t have an exact date, but this picture is from late 50s or 1960. Bob Sim, the band’s founder and P/M at the time, is in the front row, far left position. My dad, Dave McKee (P/M from 1975-2005), is front row, 4th from left

But how has the band survived 100 years while so many come and go? I am the current pipe major and third longest tenured behind my father Dave McKee Sr. and Bob Sim. My dad used to say that Bob Sim told him that ‘without sociability, you won’t have a band’.  

That sociability and friendship has seen the band persist through good times and bad. There were splits in the 70s and 80s that jeopardised our existence, but it was the friendship, family, and pride in the band that carried it through. When I was young and learning, I remember after a split in the early 80s, that my dad outfitted my brothers and me, as well as other students, in uniforms and corked up pipes to fill the ranks.

Family connections have been key to the band’s longevity. Three generations of Sims and McKees have played in it. No fewer than 10 family groups are currently included in the membership: husbands, wives, parents, children, brothers, sisters, and cousins.

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This picture of John Burgess (r) with Bob Sim and Willie Ross(l) was taken during their 1952 tour of Canada and the United States. The SYKB hosted them in Chicago. John put on a recital at the Stock Yard Inn
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The band presenting a framed copy of the picture to John at Dunvegan Castle on Skye in 1996. We were touring and competing at the Worlds to celebrate our 75th anniversary. My dad, Dave McKee, who was P/M at the time, is presenting the picture to Mr. Burgess. On John’s left is Rich Sims, great nephew of founder Bob Sim. I’m the head over John’s left shoulder, between Rich and John

Members have spanned generations. Pipe Major Dave McKee Sr. learned his music from Bob Sim when the band was celebrating its 30th anniversary; Dave’s last performance with the band was at the 90th Anniversary Band Dance. Most of the band at the time were pipers he had taught. 

Although founded by two Scots brothers, the band has evolved now to being American in every way. My father always said: ‘You don’t have to be Scottish to play the pipes or drums in a pipe band. We’ve had Polish and Irish and Germans and Dutch and Swedes. One of best pipers in the Stock Yard Kilty Band in the mid century was Jean Romalewski but we called her Jean McGregor.’

‘It’s also important we stay relevant. We’re proud that our competition performances have stepped back up in the last couple years.’ said piper Tracy Cavanaugh. In the season prior to the pandemic shutdown, the SYKB won Midwest Pipe Band Association’s Champion Supreme for Grade 4. Over the last five years, we have won the award twice and tied a third time, losing on a tie-breaker.

With 28 pipers and 18 drummers, we are the progenitor of other Chicago pipe bands, many of which have roots in the SYKB, as well as several others that have come and gone over time. The band taught prospective members out of my parents’ house for over 45 years.

The band hopes to hold its 100th consecutive Band Dance, in November. We have some great historical and century celebration updates on our website (www.sykb.com).

The SYKB has travelled to Scotland about every five years since the 75th anniversary in 1996. The pandemic postponed plans until the summer of 2022.

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