Wayne County Biographies

Part of the Indiana Biographies Project

Professor B. B. Custer

Few men have a wider acquaintanceship and few have provided more happy hours to their fellow men than has Professor Custer, now a resident of Centerville, Indiana. His almost innumerable friends and pupils, now living in every state in the union and in distant lands, remember him most kindly, and will trace his life history with deep interest.

John T. Custer, the father of this worthy gentleman, was a cousin of the renowned General Custer, whose intrepid daring and impetuosity of action led to his untimely and greatly lamented death at the hands of the Indians in the west many years ago. The present spelling of the family name has been in use only since 1821, at which time it was changed from its original form of Kooster by a Kentucky relative of our subject. As the name implies, the Custers are of German extraction, though they have been established in this country for a long period. John T. Custer was born in Paris, Kentucky, and his wife, whose maiden name was Eliza A. Berry, was a native of Connersville, Indiana. The father, who was a tailor by trade, died in 1873, when in his seventy-fourth year, and the mother departed this life in 1856, at the age of forty-three years. Of their ten children but three are now living—our subject, Elizabeth Ann. wife of John McKendall, and Mahala Ann, wife of John W. Bell.

The birth of Professor Custer took place in Connersville, May 7, 1825, and thus he may justly lay claim to the distinction of being one of the oldest, if not the oldest, surviving member of his especial profession in the country. From his boyhood he was noted for his ambition to rise above his humble station, and for the talents which he displayed at an early age. He was passionately fond of music, and frequently was found, a rapt and enthusiastic listener, outside some building in which musical entertainments were being given. At one time, when thus occupied, J. C. Moon, a teacher of music, noticing the lad, asked him why he remained outside, and upon being informed of the fact that the limited means of the child alone prevented him from having instructions in his favorite art, the elder made arrangements to give him lessons, in return for the building of fires and other small duties. The natural timidity of the boy, however, hindered him at that period from obtaining much benefit. By sawing wood, and in various ways, he earned money at odd times, when not needed by his father, and having purchased a banjo, he learned to play it by ear so well that he thereafter was in great demand at social gatherings and entertainments. Finding the need of systematic knowledge of music, the youth took a few lessons of Professor Jerry Gill, of Eaton, Ohio, and continued to devote the greater share of his time to the mastery of the violin and other stringed instruments. The justly celebrated violin which has been in his possession for many years fell into his hands in a peculiar manner. When he had acquired proficiency on the banjo, as stated above, he determined to learn to play the violin, and one day, seeing such an instrument in a pawn-shop, he rested not until he was the proud owner of it. The fifteen dollars necessary to procure it were earned by the sawing of wood, and it was no small sum to the ambitious boy whose surprise and delight may be imagined when he found that he had won a treasure indeed. This rare old violin, which came from the hand of a master in the craft, is two hundred and thirty-five years old and cost the original owner six hundred dollars. Even more sweet and pure in tone than when first made, it bears the inscription "A Cremone Dominique. Didelot." The Professor and his treasured violin have furnished music for many notable gatherings, among others, at a club reception giving at Bloomington, Illinois, in 1859, to Abraham Lincoln. From 1865 to 1875 he was engaged in giving dancing and violin lessons at Cambridge City, Anderson and Muncie, Indiana, and from the year last mentioned until 1898 he was similarly occupied at Richmond, this state. He has instructed sixty-five thousand, four hundred and forty-three pupils in Indiana alone, and has won renown as a composer of music besides. In 1889 he compiled what is entitled "Fifty Years in the Ball-room,"—a large selection of his own dance music, as taught and used by him with the more than seventy-five thousand pupils he has instructed in the past. Genial and cheerful in manner and disposition, he has always been a general favorite, and wherever he has gone care and trouble have been dissipated. For almost half a century he has been a member of the Masonic order, as he joined the Cambridge City Lodge, No. 5, F. & A. M., in 1859.

The first marriage of the Professor was celebrated in 1851, his bride being Miss Sallie Sampson, a daughter of Joseph Sampson, of Cincinnati. Five children were born to this estimable couple, namely: Emma, who is deceased; Clara, wife of F. C. Baker, of California; Dora, wife of John St. Clair, of Portland, Oregon; Frank, who died February 7, 1899, in St. Louis, Missouri; and Flenner, of Chicago. The wife and mother departed this life in 1868, and in 1874 Mr. Custer married Mary, daughter of Lucius Tuttle, of Centerville.

Biographical and Genealogical History of Wayne, Fayette, Union and Franklin Counties, Indiana, Volume 1, The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, 1899