By Stephen T. Jackson
Madison County Historian
---- — With the discovery of natural gas in the late 1800s came a period of previously unimaginable prosperity that ushered in an era of cultural awakening unlike anything our citizens had ever witnessed before.
It was the era of the opera houses in Madison County, and it represents a period when our predecessors experienced entertainment on a whole new level far beyond anything they had previously experienced.
Before it ended, five Madison County communities would give rise to some of the most elaborate architectural structures of their day. Not only were they pleasing aesthetically, they were also quite functional.
By definition, an opera house is a theater building used for opera performances that consists of a stage, an orchestra pit, audience seating, and backstage facilities for costumes and set building. While some venues were constructed specifically for operas, other opera houses were part of larger performing arts centers. The latter part of that definition adequately describes Madison County's experience.
But why did only five towns build these popular cultural centers, and not all the towns within our borders? The answer can be explained in one word: Railroads.
Four major railr routes passed through Madison County. The Michigan Division of the Big Four made regular stops in Anderson and Alexandria; the Lake Erie and Western in Alexandria and Elwood; the Pennsylvania in Anderson, Frankton and Elwood, and the Big Four in Pendleton and Anderson.
Those five towns built opera houses to attract the traveling shows that utilized the railroads to crisscross the United States performing wherever and whenever there was a suitable venue.
Seating capacity was a major consideration simply because more attendance meant more revenue. Madison County had a variety of capacities which reflects a direct correlation with the size of the production that performed. We will begin with the smallest.
The beginning and ending of the opera house era in Pendleton is difficult to determine. The building that once served as the opera house survives today and is at 117 N. Pendleton Ave. The building is rectangular-shaped and originally measured roughly 25 feet in width and 100 feet in length. Today, it is the same width, but much longer. It retains little if any original components.
The original building can be found on a Sanborn - Perris Co. map dated October 1892. (Note: The Sanborn Maps, as they came to be called, were created to assist insurance agencies in assessing the fire risk of properties.) On the map the two-story wooden building is identified as a Repository, meaning it was being used for storage. Its address was 216 Tariff.
The property was owned by Dr. Ossian H. Cook, a Pendleton physician. He had acquired it sometime in the early to mid 1890s. At some point between 1895 and 1899, Dr. Ossian Cook sold the property to his older brother, Dr. John W. Cook, also a Pendleton physician.
An 1898 Sanborn map shows the same building identified as an opera house. The opera house portion was located on the first floor and was entered by a door centered on the east end facing the street. A notation on the map states the first floor contained a stage and scenery.
At the west end of the building was a single-story wooden addition which first appears on the 1898 map. It was approximately 25 feet square. It can be assumed it was added to store costumes, scenery, props, and to house dressing areas. Given this assumption, the stage would then naturally be located at the west end of the main building next to the addition thus providing easy access back and forth between the stage and the dressing/storage area.
A hall encompassed the second floor of the building. The hall was reached by an outside stairway located on the building's north side. Its use was not specified.
Cook's Opera House
By 1898, the street numbering system in Pendleton was undergoing a change. The former 216 Tariff address for the opera house was being converted to 18 N. Pendleton Ave.
Pendleton's population in 1898 was 2,300 people.
A 1900 street directory shows both brothers practiced medicine three doors north of the opera house at 26 N. Pendleton Avenue. Dr. Ossian Cook made the office his home while his brother John and wife, Sarah, lived next door at 30 N. Pendleton Ave.
The next Sanborn map available is dated 1908. The opera house designation is gone and the space is marked Wholesale Candy. A 1914 map indicates the building was vacant.
Thus it is difficult to determine exactly when the opera house was in use. A photograph dated ca. 1900 shows workman laying rails for the interurban that went thorough Pendleton. In the background on the side of the building can clearly be seen "Cook's Opera House" suggesting ownership by one or both brothers.
The Pendleton Gazette newspaper during the years 1900 and 1901, makes mention of a wide variety of events taking place at the opera house. These include receptions, speeches, band concerts, performances by local players, minstrel shows, an oyster supper, commencement exercises for the Fall Creek Township schools, a hypnotist, and the various traveling theater companies.
The only mention of the building's capacity was found in an article in the Nov. 2, 1900 issue of the Pendleton Gazette wherein it stated that Col. Durbin of Anderson addressed an audience of 400 at the opera house. The article went on to say the house was crowded and several hundred were unable to gain admittance to the hall. Winfield Durbin was campaigning for the office of governor of Indiana which he won.
A notice in the Pendleton Gazette for Friday, Feb. 2, 1900 may explain why Cook's Opera House apparently did not last long. It reads: "Peck's Bad Boy, as given at the opera house Wednesday evening, was a fine show, and the house should have been crowded. Worse shows are often seen at Indianapolis. Why do not Pendleton people patronize more liberally the high class shows which come here? If they did, the Band could insure them the worth of their money every time, but as it is, it is a hard matter to induce the best companies to stop here."
The next stop on our opera house tour will feature the Frankton and Alexandria opera houses and will appear in this column on Oct. 6.
For more information visit the Madison County History Center, 15 West 11th St., Anderson, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, 9-4. Phone 683-0052.