Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Theater for Wamego

The Government Building at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition
In earlier blogs I have shared the importance of theaters and opera houses to the early settlers.  (See "Saving the Old Opera Houses of the Plains," 12-11-2014; "Stafford (KS) Opera House," 8-7-2014; "St. John (KS) Convention Hall & Opera House," 6-26-2014 in the Blog archives.)  Many towns on the prairie, imagining continued growth as well as filling the early settlers' longing for the culture of cities they had left behind to homestead, built theaters larger and more grand than might have been expected of communities where surrounding farmers were still living in dugouts and soddys.  The desire for education for their children and culture for their communities was strong.

West: Agriculture, South: Agriculture, North: The Shipping Trade
The Panic of 1893 crushed the dreams of many Kansas homesteaders, as well as many wealthy men in the nation's Eastern cities.  But it did not crush the dreams of Wamego banker, J.C. Rogers!  (See last week's blog, "A Visit to the 1893 World's Fair Inspires a Theater," at 2-18-2016 in the archives.)  Among the treasures he bought at The Columbian Exposition and World's Fair in Chicago were objects to be used in building a theater in his hometown that would rival the theaters and opera houses of the great cities.

Steel & Industrial Arts
Construction began on The Columbian Theatre in March of 1892, even before he had traveled to the Chicago World's Fair, so he must have kept his eyes open at the fair for objects he could use in the spectacular theater he had begun.  Imagine his excitement when he entered the rotunda of The Government Building and saw eight massive paintings measuring 11 feet by 16 feet on display.  The paintings had been commissioned by the U.S. Treasury specifically for the fair, and when the fair closed, J.C. Rogers had bought six of them to bring home to Wamego.

Architecture & Building Trades
Whether he preferred to display them within a square frame to appear more like traditional art or whether the space he was working with seemed to require the alteration of the original shape, for about a century the art took an altered shape.  In addition, one of the pieces had a hole cut through it for a stove pipe!

In February of 1993, one hundred years after the Chicago World's Fair for which the paintings were created, the paintings were taken down from the walls of Mr. Roger's theater to begin the painstaking process of restoration.  Only then did the generation of Wamego citizens supporting the restoration discover that about a foot on each side of the canvas paintings had been folded under to create the shape and size Rogers had wanted!  At least the paintings had not been cut, but the folding exacerbated the fragile process of restoration.  The cost of saving the six paintings was $155,000 and necessitated cutting an enlargement in the height of a door to bring the restored paintings, now mounted for preservation, back into the second floor of the theater.

World's Fair Souvenirs 
While the paintings may be the primary showpieces of the Wamego Columbian Theater, they are not the only reason to visit this wonderful historic building!  There are many other interesting objects on display, including the original silent film projector used when the theater opened in 1896, an antique ticket window, documents from the early years, and more.  The theater isn't just a beautiful restoration of Kansas history.
World's Fair souviners

Rather it remains a vital part of the Northeast Kansas community, in use for live performances, a Summer Theatre Academy for kids, and rentals for wedding receptions and other events.  One specific group makes special use of the main floor gallery.  More about the Columbian Artist Group, and other interesting sites in Wamego next week!

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Visit to the 1893 World's Fair inspires a Theater

Thomas Moran, Brooklyn Museum Collection
The city of Wamego, Kansas was founded in 1866, but a visit to the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago inspired what may be the most incredible addition to this city.  Wamego banker, J.C. Rogers joined other citizens from that area to travel by train to Chicago to see what the newspapers were describing as a magical place.

The Fair was advertised in Isaac B. Werner's home town newspapers too, and how much he must have wanted to attend.  However, by 1893 his health had continued to decline and such a long trip may have been impossible for him by then.  He had lived frugally, and he was beginning to pay off his debts, so the expense of the trip may also have kept him from going.  Like the people in Wamego, Isaac must have been thrilled reading about the wonders of the fair, like the amazing invention of the Ferris wheel  (See "If Isaac Could Only Imagine," in the blog archives at 7-11-2013).  

Advertising postcard for the Agricultural Building
The scope of the fair was amazing, with over 600 acres and a large lagoon and waterways intended to symbolize the journey of Columbus.  Offically called "The Columbian Exposition and World's Fair," it was and is generally known as the Chicago World's Fair of 1893.  It was an opportunity for Chicago to showcase both itself and the achievements of our young nation. 

Most of the public buildings were only intended to be temporary.  They were constructed of a mixture of plaster, cement, and jute, but when painted white they were dazzling in both sunlight and under electrical lights beneath the dark sky.  The use of electricity at the World's Fair was such a new invention that fair goers were amazed.

Not all of the buildings were of a temporary nature.  Many were intended to be sold after the fair to buyers who would dismantled them to be shipped to new locations and rebuilt.  Buildings represented each state, 4 U.S. territories, and 46 countries.   The picture at left offers some idea of the dense collection of structures on the 600 acres of the fair grounds.

Among the purchasers of more permanent structures was Wamego's own J.C. Rogers! He bought the Wisconsin House and The Building of Great Britain--Victoria House. 

Wisconsin House
Wisconsin House was built of brown stone, brick, and hardwood, all from the state of Wisconsin.  A striking stained glass window for the house was presented by the city of West Superior.  Although what Mr. Rogers paid for the house is unknown, fair records report that its original construction costs were $30,000, a remarkable sum in 1893 when the nation was in a depression.  

Yet pictures of other state houses show impressive structures as well.  Despite the economic condition at that time, states obviously wanted to put forward their best impressions.

The Victorian House was built in the traditional English half timber style.  The interior was beautifully furnished, and it was used during the fair primarily by English officials and their guests.

After the fair ended J. C. Rogers returned to purchase not only these two buildings but also decorative parts and artifacts from other buildings.  Rogers was a banker, and considering that the depression that followed the Panic of 1893 ruined many successful men, his buying spree at the close of the fair is rather remarkable.  He loaded a boxcar to bring his acquisitions back to Wamego. The two buildings were reassembled elsewhere and sold, but for his own town he had quite a surprise!  Next week's blog will share what else J.C. Rogers bought at the fair and brought back to Wamego!!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Yellow Brick Road in Kansas

Oz Museum in Wamego, Kansas
Isaac B. Werner may have died before L. Frank Baum began publishing his Oz books, but both men were impacted by the Progressive Movement, and certainly Kansas is an important part of both men's stories.  (See "Isaac and the Wizard of Oz," in the blog archives at 12-15-2011.)

Our interest in all things Ozian motivated us to stop in Wamego to see the Oz Museum located there.  It was a great decision.


We were greeted warmly and encouraged to take photographs as we toured the museum.  While we may be kids at heart, I can only imagine how excited children must be to see the full-sized main characters in dioramas.  

We learned that most of the objects in the museum were accumulated by a collector who now lives in New York City.  He collected for many years and has acquired enough objects that the collections on display can be changed regularly.  Visitors are encouraged to return so they can see the new items.

Oz monkey from the movie
Since I am a stickler for accuracy according to the book, rather than the movie, I immediately mentioned Dorothy's "silver" slippers vs. the ruby slippers used in the movie.  Of course I like the alliterative sound of silver slippers, although I understand that the ruby slippers were more beautiful in the technicolor movie.  We were told that the collector acquired Baum's books and advertising materials and other objects that incorporate the silver slippers, but he also collected movie-related objects with the ruby slippers.

One of my favorite objects was this small flying monkey from the movie.  Many monkeys were created and used in the film for the flying monkeys scenes.  Most disappeared after the filming, so this surviving model is fairly rare.

One of many display cases
Of course, the Baum books and the movie have generated many objects--puzzles, figures, sheet music, games to name a few.  There are many cases in the museum filled with interesting objects.

Letter written by Margaret Hamilton
Another object that I enjoyed was a hand-written letter from Margaret Hamilton, the actress that played the wicked witch.  The type-written transcription is displayed in the foreground, but the hand-written letter is also displayed behind it.  I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the actress to reply by hand with such a long letter to a fan.

Contract signed by Baum

My husband spotted a 3-page typed contract signed by H. Frank Baum.  Dating from the era of hand-typed documents, before copy machines and computers, the contract with its less than even margin, visible correction, and signatures that appear to have been written with each signers' own fountain pen is quite a historic document.

Oz Quilt
Another unique object was the quilt designed by a lady in Kansas City and given to the museum.  

Tin Man

When we lived in different regions of the country and people we met learned that we were raised in Kansas, they nearly always mentioned The Wizard of Oz.  While more people have seen the movie rather than having read the books, everyone seems to know about Oz.  Dorothy may be our best ambassador for the state of Kansas.  

I can't imagine anyone who would not enjoy going out of their way to stop in Wamego for a stroll through the land of Oz at the museum!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

First Capital of Kansas?

Most people know that Topeka is the state capitol of Kansas.  (See "A Kansas Treasure," 10-15-2015 in the blog archives.)  However, they may not know that other places made their own claims to that title.  The first territorial capitol was designated in 1855 by  Governor Andrew Reeder, who selected a site away from the pro-slavery influence of Missouri.  The legislature, having been elected with the help of Missourians who crossed the border to vote, expelled the antislavery members and passed their own bill to move the government to Shawnee Mission,  near the Missouri border.  The maneuvering between the anti-slavery governor and the pro-slavery legislators resulted in a confusing history, but the site near Fort Riley military reservation that was selected by the Governor is now regarded as the First Territorial Capitol Historic Site. 

Lecompton Constitution Hall
Also in 1857, a free-state constitution was drafted, but it was never given serious consideration by Congress.  Next came a second constitution written at Lecompton, which sought admission of Kansas as a slave state with Lecompton as the capitol.  Free-state legislators refused to vote on that constitution, which was followed by a second election in which pro-slavery legislators refused to participate.  While that confusion was being considered, a third constitution was drafted in Leavenworth in 1858, which also failed to get congressional approval.  By 1859 the free-state faction was in control, and they drafted a document that barred slavery and fixed the present boundaries of the state.

Lecompton Jail
This fourth constitution ultimately was accepted, but not without difficulty.  The House of Representatives voted to admit Kansas as a state, but pro-slavery power in the Senate caused refusal of the constitution that had been sent by the people of Kansas to Congress.  The Republican platform of 1860, under which Lincoln was elected, had a plank for immediate statehood for Kansas.  The secession of Southern states from congress removed the opposition to admission of Kansas as a free state, and Kansas became the 34th state admitted to the union on January 29, 1861.

For a brief time, during all of that turmoil, the town of Lecompton claimed the title of the Kansas Territorial Capitol.  Their moment in history is evidenced by Constitution Hall and the Territorial Capital Museum in Lecompton. The history of this period is contained in the Territorial Museum known as Lane University & Territorial Capital Museum, dedicated to Kansas history before the Civil War.

Lane University & Territorial Capital Museum
The University was founded in 1865 by Rev. Solomon Weaver and named after U.S. Senator James H. Lane, a free-state leader.  Having been first located in the former Rowena Hotel, the university was given 13 acres that included the foundation of what was initially intended to be the Territorial Capital building when the pro-slavery faction had controlled Lecompton.  The university built on the south half of that foundation in 1882 after the property was donated to them by the state.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower's parents met at Lane University when they were both students there.  The university merged with Campbell College in 1902.