The train began to slow as it approached the station. The whistle blew, and the wheels stopped. Train travel was the fastest way to get around the country, carrying freight and livestock. Entire towns grew up around railroads, and they were vital to their economy.
Other trains carried passengers. Train travel allowed people to move across the vast breadth of the United States in a matter of days instead of weeks, offering relative ease and safety from New York City all the way to the western frontier. When a passenger train pulled into the station, like it had today, it was always interesting to see what it would bring.
Slowly, the passengers began to depart. Some were businessman, on their way back home from other parts of Iowa. There were a few ladies who had visited some relatives back in Oskaloosa. And then they came. Of all different shapes and sizes, there was something different about them. Not that they necessarily seemed bad or dishonest, but that they weren’t like most folks coming on and off the train.
They quickly unloaded their trunks. They gathered around each other, talking something over. Coming to an agreement, they gathered all their luggage, and started up Davis Avenue, the main street of Corning, Iowa.
As they went, they began to talk loudly, taking turns. An older man in the front began to recite lines of poetry, clearly and eloquently, projecting his voice out as loud as he could over the everyday hustle and bustle of the busy street.
After he was done, a younger man began singing in a deep baritone about mourning his lost love back home in Ireland.
All over the street, people stopped what they were doing for a moment and looked at the motley crew making their way toward the crest of the hill. Some started to smile. There was going to be a show in town tonight.
The crew continued performing, taking turns, drawing attention, all the way to the Corning Opera House.
Student, Teacher, Farmer
Constructed in 1902, the opera house had been the idea of Frederick Charles Reese. Reese had been born in nearby Prescott, Iowa in 1863. He was educated in local schools, and later attended business college. After Reese finished there, he became a school teacher.
When he was about twenty-five, he married Lois Collman, another life-long Adams County resident. They bought a farm near her parents, and lived there until about 1899. About that time, they decided to give up country life for the time being and move to Corning.
They built a grand house on the south side of town, and Reese began to invest in real estate. He bought the lot at the corner of 8th Street and Davis Avenue. Before the fire of 1896, the Corning National Bank had stood there, but it was lost to the flames.
Reese had planned to build a two-story brick building, with the ground level used for different businesses and the upper floors for office space. As time passed, the idea occurred to Reese that an opera house could be built there instead.
In the early 20th century, opera houses were a sign of prestige and culture for a town or city. When visitors came to a given town, they would see their opera house and know that they were in a civilized, cultured place.
Opera houses, despite the name, were not used solely for operas. Rather, they were a general entertainment venue, hosting such events as guest speakers on a given topic, acting troupes, or vaudeville shows.
In the days before television and even radio, this kind of entertainment was an important outlet. The monotony of urban and farm life always welcomed entertainments of any kind as a way to break the normal drudgery of the day. Just as today, entertainments at the opera house allowed people to escape from their own lives for a few hours and be somewhere else.
Building the Opera House
Reese originally proposed a plan for the opera house that would cost around $19,000. This was unacceptable to the financiers, so he went back, revised his plans, and next proposed a $15,000 plan for building the opera house. This second plan was much more welcome. Reese’s plans were approved and the process moved forward once again.
To help with the building cost, Reese approached the people of Corning. He told them that if they could fund up to $6000 in stock, then he would pay for the remaining $9000 himself. In return, he would build “…the best opera house of any town in Iowa the size of Corning.” The $6000 portion of the stock was split into $50 shares. It sold rapidly and they soon had more than enough to build the opera house. With the funds procured, the construction of the opera house was approved.
H.H. Richards, architect from Chicago, Illinois, was called in to design the building. His plan allowed a seating capacity of 781 people. For this purpose, they obtained nearly three-hundred opera chairs, upholstered and in good condition, from a church in nearby Creston, Iowa.
The stage and audience space of the opera house would be contained on the second and third floors of the building, with extra space allowed for offices. The first floor would be set aside for storage and a full basement installed beneath the building.
In February 1902, an Opera House Committee was formed to oversee the construction and operation of the building. A board of directors was created to head the organization, with Fred Reese as the president. His brother and business partner, L.C. Reese, was vice president. In addition to other notables, the opera house’s neighbor from across Davis Avenue, Z.T. Widener, was installed as the first secretary.
By August, the opera house was very quickly nearing completion. Now the committee needed a group to provide Corning with the entertainment and culture that they had literally bought into. They decided to book the Morey Stock Company for their opening act. This group put on singing and dancing numbers in various plays, bringing with them their own scenery and providing their own special electrical effects.
On September 1, 1902, the Corning Opera House threw open its doors and welcomed the public for the first time. While there were certain parts of the building still under construction, the main auditorium, balcony, and stage were complete and ready to host the act. During their week there, hundreds turned out to see the group.
A few weeks later, on September 26, the Corning Opera House was officially dedicated. An actor named William Owen was booked for the occasion. A local judge gave a small speech in honor of the event, after which things moved directly into the evening’s entertainment, a play called “The School for Scandal.”
Unfortunately, the vast crowds of people that had filled the opera house a few weeks prior did not show up. The turn-out was very low, with less than half of the available seating occupied. But these few who did show up loved the play, and gave it high marks.
While the opera house was off to a shaky start, with audiences first filing the auditorium and then leaving it nearly empty a few weeks later, the venue was strong enough to weather these setbacks. It was a strong venue in a strong town. Like the main street on which it sat, the opera house was a survivor. It would rally back and keep pushing forward, as we will see in the next installment of this blog.
“The Opera House.” Adams County Union Republican, January 1, 1902
Adams County Free Press, February 1, 1902
“It Will Be Built.” Adams County Free Press, February 5, 1902
Adams County Free Press, August 20, 1902
Adams County Free Press, August 30, 1902
Adams County Free Press, September 3, 1902
Adams County Free Press, September 10, 1902
“Opening New Opera House.” Adams County Free Press, September 20, 1902
“A Splendid Show.” Adams County Free Press, October 1, 1902.
Karlson, Kent. “Iowa Opera Houses: The Next Stage.” www.dmcityview.com
Iowa Pathways – “Opera Houses” www.site.iptv.org/iowapathways
Iowa Pathways – “Early Performing Arts History.” www.site.iptv.org/iowapathways
Hunter, Mark. “Opera House Road Show: Local Musicians Evoke the Glory Days of Iowa’s Opera Houses.” www.iowasource.com
“F.C. Reese Dropped Dead While at Work Here.” Adams County Free Press, September 7, 1933