Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
This week, I’d like to call attention to the Pioneer drum and bugle corps of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This corps made their entire existence out of their Irish identity, so today is the perfect day to celebrate their history.
Pioneer was formed in 1973 after the merger of two drum corps, the Thunderbolts and, appropriately enough, the St. Patrick’s Imperials. While they were referred to as “The Thing” in ’73 since they couldn’t figure out a name for themselves, the Pioneer Container Corporation sponsored the corps starting in 1974, leading to the name of the corps from that point on.
We start our look back at Pioneer with their 1994 program, Voices of the Isle. The corps, still competing in Division II at this time, won the Division II championships while nearly making Division 1 Semifinals, placing 18th (Top 17 advanced to Semis at the time):
Pioneer repeated their Division I success in 1995, again placing 18th with Shades of the Emerald, while also taking the Division II crown for the second straight season:
While Pioneer was a stronger (and larger) corps in 1996, the corps dropped in placement in both Division 1 (20th) and Division II (2nd) with Celtic Twilight:
1997 saw the Riverdance craze sweep the world, including Pioneer, who based their entire show around it. Moving up to Division I full time, the corps also moved up a spot to 19th:
In 1998, Pioneer came out of the gate with authority with “Irish In Your Face”, featuring a new slick look and a powerful sound reminiscent of the 27th Lancers. It didn’t hurt that Danny Boy (OK, Irish Tune from County Derry) was part of the show, as well. The corps returned to 18th place, once again on the outside of Semifinals looking in:
1999. Semifinals. FINALLY. Pioneer moved up to 17th place and their first Friday appearance during DCI Week with “Greensleeves”, propelled by a drum line which just one tenth short of placing in the top 12 in their caption. The horn line dropped in size significantly, though they still put out a powerful sound:
Once every 100 years, a drum corps does a show about Brigadoon. OK, it’s a lot more often than that, but Pioneer did Dances Of Brigadoon in 2000, which, while Scottish and not Irish, was very crowd pleasing and led to their best placement ever, 16th.
Unfortunately, 2000 was a high water mark for Pioneer. Returning to 18th in 2001, the corps would never place in the Top 17 again and would never return to Semifinals, even after the Friday event was expanded to 25 corps. The corps was removed from DCI after the 2018 season after Tricia Nadolny of the Philadelphia Inquirer published an expose reporting significant member abuse occurring under Roman Blenski’s leadership at Pioneer. While the organization still exists and performs in parades, especially during this time of year, they have not competed or toured since the 2018 season.