Thursday, December 11, 2014

Saving the old Opera Houses of the Prairie

Railroad in Waterville, KS
Travel to where Unicorn Road (also known as Highway 9) intersects Highway 77, and what the citizens of Waterville, Kansas have preserved is almost as fantastic as a unicorn trotting down the street.  The 2010 Census counted 680 citizens living in Waterville, yet they have preserved a collection of turn-of-the century buildings that larger cities would envy!
The eastern part of Kansas settled earlier than the central part of the state where Isaac Werner lived.  His sister Ettie and her family, including Isaac's widowed mother, lived in Abilene, Kansas, but Isaac never felt able to make that trip.  Therefore, it is unlikely that he ever traveled as far as Waterville, but I am sure that he would have loved its Opera House.

Plaque at relocated depot
When we visited in 2012 we started at the railroad tracks, pausing to read the plaque describing how the Atchison Pikes Peak Railroad started the line in 1865, which arrived two years later in November of 1867 as the Central Branch of the Union Pacific.  Intended to serve the eastern branch of the Chisholm Trail, the train's purpose ended because of increasing numbers of homesteaders and their barbed wire interfering with cattle drives, as well as the government's quarantine of Texas longhorn cattle that often carried ticks as they were driven north to cattle towns.  Interestingly, after the cattle drives ended, the trains were used to transport turkeys driven to market in Waterville.

The Weaver Hotel

The trains may no longer run, but the impressive Weaver Hotel has been refurbished.  Built in 1905 and originally called the Pride of the Central Line, its history includes not only passengers from the trains registering as guests but also those simply waiting in the front parlor, enjoying a meal in the dining room, or lounging on the hotel porch.  Railroad crews and "drummers" who traveled from town to town selling goods and taking orders were also regular guests.

The Opera House in Waterville, KS

Unlike other prairie towns whose opera houses have not survived, Waterville has saved its opera house.  (See "St. John (KS) Convention Hall & Opera House, 6-26-2014 and Stafford (KS) Opera House, 8-7-2014 in the blog archives.) Built in 1903 at a cost of $8,000, it has been beautifully restored and is used for community and school productions.

The day we visited, a performance was scheduled for the 4th of July weekend, and a small group was rehearsing under the direction of a professional with roots in Waterville.

Interior of the Opera House in Waterville, KS

The discovery of Waterville was a surprise to us, and my husband had parked at the edge of the street while I got out to take photographs.  A citizen riding by on her bicycle stopped to visit, the justifiable pride in her town obvious in her every word.  She told us that the restored Weaver Hotel had been booked full the weekend of class reunions in May, and she informed us of the upcoming performance being produced for the 4th of July in the Opera House.  You may check The Weaver Hotel website for the special events they have planned, like Christmas at the Weaver just held, and reservations can be made online.

The Opera House in Waterville, KS

Also to be seen in Waterville are the 1-room school house from the community of Game Fork which has been restored as a meeting place for Scouting activities, the 1907 Train Depot which houses a museum, the Powell home on Commercial Street, and the 200 block of East Hazelwood Street known as "Bankers' Row."

Early settlers like Isaac Werner brought their desire for culture with them to the prairie, and even in hard times they invested in the future of their communities with the construction of opera houses, where music, lectures, plays, and community social and political gatherings were held.  Times changed, and other forms of entertainment displaced what was once enjoyed.  The opera houses were converted to other uses or were allowed to deteriorate, but Waterville saved this rare example of the striving for culture among the early settlers of the prairie.


The Blog Fodder said...

The whole town sounds like a living museum. I hope it continues to survive and prosper. Funny Waterville never showed up in any Westerns.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Maybe driving turkeys to the rail head wasn't quite so thrilling...turkey boys vs. cowboys?????