Thursday, June 26, 2014

St. John (KS) Convention Hall & Opera House

Parade around the St. John, Kansas Square
[You can still read last week's blog about the Grand Opening of the Vernon Filley Art Museum in Pratt, KS on Sunday, June 29th from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the end of the current blog.  This week's blog continues the theme of  the tradition of high regard for the arts in this region.]

On November 3, 1888, Isaac B. Werner wrote in his journal:  "I off on horse back for St. John, there by noon as the U. L. [Union Labor] procession was about forming.  I hadn't time to get lunch but went into rink early for a front seat & soon the house filled & Mrs. Lease of Wichita entertaining the respectable audience for 4 hours on the political issues of the day...audience of nearly 1000 persons attending."

Isaac's journal references refer to "the rink" and "the opera house" interchangeably during this period.  Having seen The Opera House in Willa Cather's hometown of Red Cloud, NE which has been beautifully restored by the Cather Foundation, I know that opera houses did not always have sloped, fixed seating.  I assume that the structure to which Isaac referred had a flat, board floor which could hold chairs for performances or be cleared for use as a roller rink, much like the rink in the movie, "Days of Heaven."

The St. John (KS) Convention Hall
 It was in 1906 that a new brick convention hall and opera house was built in St. John.  The post card image at left is from the Yost/Leak Collection, together with the post card image below, and should be so credited.  The building was 50' x 100' and was built on land located on the northeast corner of the square which had been donated by Dr. C. C. Hoaglin.  It featured a drop curtain, an orchestra pit, and numerous dressing rooms, and traveling plays came from Kansas City and Denver to perform!  School activities and graduation exercises were also held in the building.  (The Opera House can be seen in the background of the photograph at the top of this blog.)

Post card of St. John (KS) buildings
The post card at right, also from the Yost/Leak Collection, shows the Convention Hall & Opera House in the upper right corner.  Buildings featured in previous blogs also appear on the post card, and going clockwise around the card are the 5th Avenue Hotel (See "5th Avenue Hotel," 3-14-2013 and "Postscript to 5th Avenue Hotel," 3-20-2013 in the archives), the south side of the square, the "new" water tower, the school, the mill, the 1st Baptist Church, and the courthouse (See "Isaac's Victorian Courthouse, 3-22-2012 in the archives).

The remodeled Convention Hall & Opera House

Less than three decades after it was built, the structure was remodeled to house the city offices, the fire department, and the library in 1934.  Many people felt that a landmark structure had been sacrificed in the process.  The remodeling was well in the past by the time I was a child, and I have very fond memories of the old library housed there.  The stacks were crowded and the floors uneven, and as I recall, the half-round widows were low to the floor, all combining to make that library an unusual space that fueled a child's imagination.

For others, it was the memory of the Convention Hall & Opera House that stirred their imaginations, remembering the festive occasions and glamorous theatrical productions that were once held there.  However, the older rink and opera house Isaac mentions in his journal seems to have faded from all memories today.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Isaac Would Have Been the First One Inside the Door!

Painting on the reverse side of glass
Isaac loved art.  (See "Art in Isaac's Life and Today," 1-22-2014 in the blog archives.)  His estate sale included not only his art books but also many framed engravings, slides of art for this stereoscope, and images of artists from his card albums.  One of his ideas when he was still just a boy was painting a landscape by looking through glass.  In fact, creating art on glass, to be viewed from the unpainted side, was very popular during the Victorian era.  My own family collection includes the beautiful pink roses painted on glass shown in the photograph to the right.  Remember, unlike paintings in which the objects and figures are blocked out and the details are added, painting on glass requires you to paint the details first and then fill in the backgrounds, obscuring the details as you layer the background areas.  That seems very difficult to me!

However, this week's blog is not about art history or antique crafts but rather about making an even richer art history for our region's future.  Mimi Filley wished to honor the memory of her late husband, Dr. Vernon Filley, by gifting art she had collected, together with a generous donation for the building of the Vernon Filley Art Museum which allowed the building to be built free of debt.

Several members of the Board at the Slab Party
Mimi's dream came true because of the generous efforts of many members of the community, several of whom served on the museum board when fulfilling that dream seemed overwhelming (some of those board members having remained on the board long enough to see the dream fulfilled).  Many volunteered along the way, and continue to volunteer their time and effort, in many capacities.  Many others gave generously, their contributions allowing construction extras that would not otherwise have been done, and just as important, funding the services that will be available immediately.  Not every generous donor appears on the Founder's Plaque, but those particular donors and others stepped forward to make sure there were funds to hire staff, equip a state-of-the-art storage facility, landscape beautifully, train docents (whose generous gift of time and study to give tours is essential to the programs for adults and school children), equip and stock a gift shop that will offer original art and books not available in other local stores, commission a bronze made especially for the museum, gift custom gates for the court yard, provide funding to prepare for adult and children's art classes, support training for grant writers, fund an advertising budget to bring visitors to our museum and our town, and provide the support for the operating budget for our start-up year.  The dream is coming true because of countless acts of giving, whether gifts of time, talent, or money, without which Mimi's dream would not have happened.  Each of those gifts, big or small, made a difference.

 Our Co-Directors, Stan Reimer (who has shepherded the dream from the beginning), and Brittany Novotony (who brings her Master's Degree in museum management to the Filley's future success), as well as the members of our current board of directors, have brought their many talents and have donated countless hours in preparation for the exciting day so long awaited (and for the days ahead).

The Grand Opening of the Vernon Filley Art Museum is Sunday, June 29th, 2014, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.   Help us spread the word!  Pratt and the surrounding region have a long history of appreciation for the arts (some of which I have shared in this blog), and now the region has a new member to add to its family of museums, galleries, and other attractions.

Landscaping underway at 421 S. Jackson St., Pratt, KS
 We have some surprises in store for you, and we hope many of you arrive in time to see Mimi Filley take the scissors in her hands for the ribbon cutting.  The Directors, Board Members, and Docents will be present to answer your questions and make your first visit to your museum more enjoyable and informed.    

The Grand Opening is free to the public, and we hope everyone will come to learn more about all of the activities the Filley has planned for members.  Membership forms and people to help will be at the Opening to answer your questions about the various membership levels and the benefits they offer.

I just know that Isaac would have been the first one through the doors when the ribbon was cut at the Grand Opening at 2 p.m. on June 29th, to take advantage of the membership benefits of joining an art museum with both a permanent collection and rotating visiting exhibitions constantly bringing new art to his area!  Isaac did not live to experience that opportunity, but you can!  Come celebrate the opening of the new museum at 421 South Jackson Street, Pratt, KS, one block west of Main Street between 4th and 5th Streets!!   

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Learning Early

Whatever the cost of our libraries the price is cheap compared to an ignorant nation.  Walter Cronkite

Jody Suiter introduces Lyn Fenwick as the day's speaker.
Everyone watches for the next pop-up illustration!
The flyleaf of Isaac's journal included a notation, "Vol. 5th."  At that time, Isaac was in his mid-20s, apparently having already filled four earlier journals!  His twin brother also kept a journal, now in a library in Reading, PA.  According to school records, Isaac and his brother were both attending school at the age of seventeen, longer than many students of that era.  Apparently Isaac's parents taught their children a love for learning, a quest for reading, and a habit of regular journaling.  (See "Advice from Henry Ward Beecher," 12/7/2012.)  

The training to learn these things is best taught early, and Isaac's old community is fortunate to have excellent small-town libraries. (See "April Delight," 4/30/2014 about the Kinsley Library.)  St. John has a wonderful library located next to the school so that it can be utilized by the students.  Several old photographs appearing in previous blogs were found there.  (See "Music on the Prairie," 1/24/2013 and "Women on the Prairie," 2/2/2013.)

I am particularly impressed by the Macksville City Library and its librarian, Jody Suiter.  It was Jody who contacted me to do a program about "The Wizard of Oz."  (See "Isaac and the Wizard of Oz," 12/15/2011.)  That program, initiated by Jody, was held in the library of the Macksville Grade School, with several grades attending a series of programs planned for the different grade levels throughout the afternoon.
Sharing Robert Sabuda's art.

The Summer Reading Program for Macksville kids is amazing for such a small town.  I was pleased when Jody asked me to do a presentation about engineered books.

Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.

Sometimes a little help is really appreciated.
I began with a fairly simple engineered book from the 1950s, "Santa Claus in Toyland," and followed with another Christmas book by Tasha Tudor.  I told the children about the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature in Abilene, TX and shared  "Knick-Knack Paddywhack!" by Paul Zelinsky, whom we met at the NCCIL.
This young artist needs no help.

When I shared the beautiful pop-up book illustrated by Kees Moerbeek, an artist from the Netherlands, depicting the classic "Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees," I told them about checking out this original story by Johnny Gruelle from the old St. John Library over the fire station, a magical place in my memory from my pre-school visits many years ago.  I followed that with a recently published pop-up book of the classic by Antoine De Saint-Exupery's, "The Little Prince."

A special card for Dad!
I had asked the children if they could ever imagine a trip to the dentist as being a wonderful memory to one famous artist of children's pop-up books.  I explained that it was in a dentist office where Robert Sabuda saw his first engineered book, and I told them to remember to listen for his name.

Young artists pose with their cards.
When it was finally time to enjoy the Sabuda books, several hands shot up to show that they remembered his name.  I began with "Fairies and Magical Creatures." Next I turned every page and read aloud Maurice Sendak's "Mommy?" engineered by Sabuda's partner Matthew Reinhart, and they loved all the ghoulish creatures!  Many of the children remembered Sabuda's "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" from seeing it when we did the Oz programs at the school, followed by Sabuda's "Peter Pan."  I saved Sabuda's "Alice in Wonderland" for last, finishing with the dramatic scene of Alice throwing all of the playing cards into the air.

The children help each other make their cards.
When my part of the program ended, Jody had a special project for the children, inspired by ideas from  Using the ideas for creating pop-ups that she found there, she provided the materials for the children to make pop-up Father's Day cards, or cards for anyone they wanted to surprise with a hand-crafted card.

Mrs. Loomis helps with a pop-up card.
All of the photographs on this blog were taken in the Macksville City Library on a rainy day where a group of eager children learned about the magic of engineered books and created their own special pop-up cards.  Walter Cronkite and Isaac Werner would have smiled at the enthusiasm of these children as they selected the books they wanted to take home to read!  It certainly looked as if they were well on their way to a lifetime love of reading!!

To see more photographs and read more about the Summer Reading Program you may visit  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Not Everyone Goes to the Lake

VFW Honor Guard enters Macksville Cemetery

Many Americans look forward to the 3-day weekend at the end of May as a time to celebrate the beginning of summer, but the historic roots of the holiday are quite different.  Ancient customs of honoring soldiers and decorating their graves exist in many cultures.  "Jubilee Day" was held on Monday, May 16, 1783, in Connecticut to commerate the end of fighting in the American Revolution.  After the Civil War, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries in 1865 for the War dead, and specific observations in both the South and the North occurred during the years after the Civil War, observing the custom of cleaning and decorating cemeteries.  This custom became known as "Decoration Day," but by the 1880s the name had gradually begun to change to "Memorial Day."  Many communities, like my own childhood hometown, continued the use of the original term.  (See Memorial Day at Farmington Cemetery, 5-10-2012 and Guest Post by Misty Beck, 5/24/2012 in blog archives.)

Jubilee Celebration in St. John, KS Park

Because many communities observed some sort of ceremony or tradition, the origin of the first Decoration Day is uncertain.  However, a ceremony organized by teachers, missionaries, and Black residents of Charleston, SC, for the purpose of cleaning up and landscaping the burial field there in 1865 is often identified as the 1st Decoration Day.

Food is an important part of the Jubilee Celebration.

It was not until after W.W. II in 1967 that the name was official changed to "Memorial Day."  Ironically, it was one year later, on June 28, 1968, that Congress moved Memorial Day from the traditional May 30th to the last Monday in May, creating a 3-day weekend, a change that many see as diminishing the observance of the original purpose for the day.  Many Americans now take advantage of the 3-day weekend as an opportunity to travel to a holiday destination like the beach, a lake, or a mountain cabin, overlooking the significance of observing Memorial Day.

The  dusty/muddy town square of Isaac's time is now a park.

At the time Congress created the 3-day weekend, several states declined to adopt the changed date for Memorial Day, continuing to observe it on May 30th, but gradually all fifty states complied.  Seeing the shift away from Memorial Day observances, Senator Daniel Inouye, a W. W. II veteran, initiated an effort to return to the traditional observance, an effort he continued until his death in 2012, but the recreational holiday seems firmly established for too many people for the return to a day of remembrance and honoring those who gave their lives for their country to return as the universal practice.

Jubilee Celebration 2014

The traditional observations are not entirely forgotten, however.  Many cemeteries in the region where Isaac Werner claimed his homestead continue to conduct Memorial ceremonies, such as the ceremony performed by the local VFW in Macksville pictured in this blog illustrates.  One member of the honor guard is a 90-year-old W.W. II veteran, and the veteran who recites the traditional memorial pledge is 93.  The trumpeter who plays "taps" for the ceremony is a 2014 high school graduate and young children continue to offer poppies to those who enter the cemetery gates.

The fountain is popular with young & old.

Several communities continue patriotic parades and celebrations in the city parks, including the Jubilee Celebration in the St. John Park near the Stafford County Courthouse, the same county seat that Isaac Werner visited more than a century ago.

Many parade participants displayed flags.

Isaac's regard for Union veterans was complicated.  His hometown in Pennsylvania provided soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War, but there was also a strong contingency of Southern sympathizers and draft dodgers in his community.  (See How Far is Gettysburg, 5/24/2012 in the blog archives.)  Because Union veterans tended to remain loyal to Lincoln's Republican Party, in opposition to the People's Party that Isaac supported, he resented their political alliance and called them "moss-back Republicans."  However, Union veterans were also among his best friends, whom he respected.  Isaac never mentioned the observance of Memorial Day in his journal, but the old traditions continue to be observed in his community to this day.  (See  St. John Park, 6/20/2013, in the blog archives for the story and images of the old St. John town square and the creation of the park.)