Iowa Playwright had South Dakota Building Named After Him

                You ever seen a building that’s been named after someone? Of course you have. We all have.

                It could be a business building, or an old house, or even a laundromat. There are all kinds of buildings across the United States that have been named after someone. I don’t know about you, but the first question that I usually ask myself is, “Who the hell was that?” But that’s not really what we want to know, is it?

                No, what we want to know is – why? Why is this building named after someone? And even more importantly than that, what did they do to make someone pick their name to slap on a bronze plaque on the side of a brand-new building?

                Let’s look at one and see if we can’t figure it out.

Rural Playwright

                Warren M. Lee was born just north of Corning, Iowa, at a place called Mt. Etna. It was 1908, and the century was young. Warren was a medium built, dark-haired young man who wore glasses. He attended Corning High School, where he was generally well-liked. While Warren did very well academically, he always had a keen interest in one area more than any other – the dramatic arts.

                Lee loved everything about the theatre. He loved acting, true, but he had a greater love for writing. Luckily for him, there were other young people in the Corning area who also loved the theatre. They bonded together over their common interests, and formed the Greenlee Players, a playacting group that that wrote their own original plays and then acted them out on various stages throughout the region, including the Corning Opera House.

                Warren’s plays had a lot of thought put into them. They were skillfully written and entertaining to his audiences on many different levels. The third play that he wrote for the Corning stage, “Wife-Husband,” was very well received. It showcased his potential, and seemed that great promise could come from this young Iowa man.  

College Days

                After being involved so much with the fine arts through his high school years, Warren decided to dedicate his life to them and enrolled in classes at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. Eventually, he earned his bachelors, masters, and doctorate in fine arts there. Throughout that time, Warren continued to write plays and act. Warren was even a part of a dramatic group that broadcasted twice a week on WSUI Radio, a public broadcasting station based in Iowa City.

                After his graduation, he moved to Minneapolis, where he took a job at the University of Minnesota. After a few years, it was time for him to move on. Warren had two choices at that time – either take a job in Topeka, Kansas, or move to South Dakota and work at the University of South Dakota. After some deliberation, he chose the latter.

                In 1938, he settled down to a comfortable life in Vermillion, South Dakota, the home of the University of South Dakota. Warren did well in his job, and was successfully teaching the subject that he had always been most passionate about.

                But over the next few years, an idea began to take root in Warren’s mind.

The Black Hills Playhouse

                South Dakota was a very rural place, just as much or more than where he had grown up in southwest Iowa. Warren understood the value of entertainment to someone living in the country. He also understood that weather conditions and bad roads could prevent rural folk from travelling too far away from the farm.

                What he proposed was a rural playhouse that could service the needs of people who lived in the country. This would also give theatrical students and professional actors a place to both work and hone their craft. Warren’s theatre would provide an outlet for top notch entertainment, not cut-rate garbage. He wanted to give rural South Dakota a slice of the best.

                In 1946, Warren founded the Black Hills Playhouse, a theatre company consisting of several college students. He took his family, along with some fellow actors and several stage pieces to a place near Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. They moved into some abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps buildings and began to host their plays there. Although they have had their struggles along the way, the Black Hills Playhouse is still entertaining the public today.

Black Hills Playhouse

The Center for Fine Arts

                Warren continued to write his own plays and teach at the University of South Dakota. He devoted his life to academia and the fine arts. In 1951, his lifelong efforts were rewarded and Warren became the Dean of Fine Arts at the university. He held the position until 1968, around seventeen years.  When the university built their new fine arts building, they named it after him to honor all his accomplishments in the field.

                Warren died in 1978, and a memorial service was held in his memory in Theatre 1 of the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts. The center is still a hub of education and entertainment on the campus of the university today.

               So, if you’re ever on the campus of the University of South Dakota, and you happen to drive past the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine Arts, you don’t have to wonder who that is anymore. You’ll already know that it was named after an Iowan with a passion for the theatre.

               Maybe you don’t have to do something great and lasting like Warren M. Lee to get your name on a building. I highly doubt that’s what he was looking to do when he was writing plays in Corning. Maybe you just have to follow your dreams, work hard, and seize opportunity as it presents itself.

Sources:

Black Hills Playhouse founder dies.” Argus-Leader, 10/15/1978

Adams County Free Press, 12/7/1933

Greenlee Players present Lee’s “Wife-Husband.” Adams County Free Press, 8/15/1929

Adams County Free Press, 6/18/1931

Black Hills Playhouse Celebrates 70th Anniversary.” http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

http://www.blackhillsplayhouse.com

 

Fiddlers, Dancers, and…Boxers?: The End of an Era in Corning, Iowa

The audience was in a great mood. They had just heard some fantastic music, and were ready for more. The management did not disappoint. Billy McKee came out from behind the curtain, his instrument in his hands. Billy played the bones, an instrument that went back into the mists of ancient history.

Originally thought to have been rib bones pried from an animal carcass after it had been consumed at meal time, the bones were held in pairs in either hand and then clicked together as a percussion instrument. Later, flat sticks made from various types of materials could be used in place of actual rib bones.

Billy McKee was the self-professed “Champion Bone Rattler of the Universe.” He had come to play his music, and that’s exactly what he was going to do. He started off slowly at first, keeping his routine basic. But, as he went along he began to warm up, and his notes and percussion rhythms became increasingly complex.

The audience loved his music, and gave him calls of encouragement and whoops of joy. After a while, Billy, growing hot with his exertions, took off his coat, readjusted the sticks between his fingers, and decided to really cut loose. He played with abandon, faster and more complex than he had so far. By the time he was done, the audience was satisfied that he was the best bone rattler they had ever heard, if not the entire universe.

The Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest

It was 1915, and Billy was one of the feature acts in the First Annual Fiddlers’ Contest at the Corning Opera House. Along with him were the Orioles, a boy’s singing quartet, and two little girls who sang duets. And, of course, the fiddlers.

Fiddling contests dated back to the 1700’s and were carried over from the eastern regions of the United States. It was commonplace for rural folk to have instruments at home, and they would frequently gather together to play their own varieties of music. There were common songs that everyone knew, but sometimes the groups of musicians would simply play together, improvising their way into brand new tunes.

fiddler

   Some folk music, such as bluegrass, had its roots in this rural practice. Out of all the instruments they played, the fiddle, as the violin was more commonly known in those circles, was perhaps the most popular.

Inevitably, players would want to find out who was better. They formed contests, inviting the best fiddlers in their region to play against one another and determine who was the best.

These contests were extremely popular, and were capable of drawing large crowds. Fiddling wasn’t like the music played in orchestras and music halls in the larger cities. It was the music of the people, common songs and rhythms that told their story and conveyed their feelings, hopes and dreams. A person didn’t have to dress up, or pretend to be better than someone else. They didn’t even need shoes. All a person had to do was to come, enjoy the show, and have the best time that they possibly could.

Fiddlers, Dancers, and…Boxing?

The fiddling contests that would become so popular in Corning were almost like the variety acts and vaudeville shows that had rolled through the region when the building had first opened.

The fiddlers themselves were the stars of the show, and the biggest draw. There would usually be around ten of them, give or take. The fiddlers would take the stage and play their best tune for a panel of judges, and, at some point during the evening, play a second song for the entertainment of the crowd.

Oftentimes, the prizes for winning weren’t really anything special, and certainly not enough for any of them to buy a house or retire. But, for them, it was the sheer pride of being a champion, for being the very best in the region, that they really strove for.

Players came from all over, from Creston to Nodaway. One fiddler named Ramsey came from Villisca. He was blind, but could still play the fiddle behind his back. Another man was eighty-six and was affectionately called “Grandpa Dewees.” It was said that before his first contest at the Corning Opera House, he had never been inside such a building before.

The acting manager of the Opera House was a man named C. Peregrine. For several years, he provided accompaniment to the players on the house piano. The announcer introducing each fiddler would often put in witty remarks, adding to the overall mirth of the show.

In addition to the fiddlers, there were several other musical acts. At the first Fiddler’s Contest, there was a quartet of boys, called the Orioles, who sang harmony for the crowd. There was also a duo of young girls who sang, as well. Both groups were extremely popular, and the crowd continuously asked them for encores.

Dancers were also popular entertainment. Buck and Wing Dancing, a precursor to modern tap dancing, had its roots in African-American musical traditions. As often happened, the dance steps and motions crossed racial and social boundaries and became part of the makeup of American dance.

Another kind of dance that was performed at these contests was clogging. Originating in the Appalachian Mountain range, Clogging was another form of traditional folk dancing. Many cultures had contributed to its movements and styles until it became a distinctive form all its own.

clogging

   In 1920, another kind of entertainment was added – boxing. A boxing ring was erected just in front of the stage on the auditorium floor. The audience could either crowd around the sides of the ring, or they could go into the horseshoe-shaped balcony and watch it from above. Boxing had been popular amongst all classes of Americans for decades, and a good boxing match was just as much fun for the audiences at the opera house as any of the musical talent.

Moving Picture Shows

Peregrine also ran the nearby Lyric Theatre, which later became the American Theatre. This venue showcased a brand-new form of entertainment that was sweeping the nation at the time – movies. They had only been around a short while, but were rapidly gaining a foothold on the American psyche.

Almost every fiddlers contest in Corning opened with a series of short movies. They were always comedies, and helped to set the mood for the evening. Some of the silent film era’s greatest comedians were played at the Corning Opera House on those nights, including the Keystone Cops, Charlie Chaplain, and Fatty Arbuckle.

Moving pictures provided the highest quality entertainers at a reasonable cost. Normally, a person would have to travel to a large urban area to see that level of performer, but the movies brought them right into the backyard of rural America. For a nickel or a dime, someone could see the very best performers of the age without ever going any further than the next town.

Movies also bought exotic locales and the wonders of the big city with them. People who had never travelled outside the boundaries of their county could now take a trip into Corning and see the wonders of Europe, or the splendors of Africa.

The motion picture was changing the world.

End of an Era

The old travelling shows and vaudeville acts couldn’t compete. The movies could undercut their costs while providing audiences with higher quality entertainment. Rural roads were being paved and were drastically improved, allowing those individuals who wanted to attend a live show to travel further distances. No longer did small-town America have to meekly accept what was handed to them. They had the freedom to travel, and the freedom to choose.

Slowly, opera houses all over the country began to close, no longer able to make ends meet. Some were converted to other purposes, while others were torn down to make way for bigger and better city improvements. Perhaps the saddest ones were those that were abandoned and left to rot, a decaying shadow of their former prominence and glory.

In Corning, the opera house slowly faded away. The American Theatre showed the latest and greatest movies coming out of Hollywood, and the fiddlers’ contests moved to the county fairs.

In 1933, Frederick Charles Reese, the driving force behind the construction of the Corning Opera House, died. He was in his seventies by then, and had some minor heart troubles. While overseeing some furnace work in the basement of the opera house, Reese suffered a major heart attack and died.

A short time later, his widow sold the building to the Adams County Free Press, which had rented space on the first floor of the building since 1922. A year later, in 1934, the last known stage production was held there. Eventually, the old auditorium with its’ grand stage fell silent and unused except for storage.

But, unlike so many opera houses, Corning’s Opera House would rise again.

In 2000, a group of people undertook efforts to restore the grand old structure. With plenty of drive and determination (not to mention a little grant money here and there), they were able to bring the Corning Opera House back to life.

In 2012, one hundred and ten years after the original grand opening, a second grand opening was held for the newly refurbished and restored opera house. After all that time, they were open for business once again, welcoming all who came.

Sources:

Adams County Free Press, 1915 – 1936

Glenn, George D. and Poole, Richard L. “The Opera Houses of Iowa.” Iowa State University Press; Ames, 1993.

David Holt Interview. ”Percy Danforth – Bones.”

Baker, Bruce E. “Buck Dancing.” www.ncpedia.org, 2006

History of Fiddling in America.” www.fiddlecontest.org

Northern California Cloggers Association

 

 

 

Frederick Reese: Making Sure the Masses are Entertained at the Corning Opera House

Work on the farm was hard. Fred woke early every morning to tend to the livestock. Then breakfast, then back out to tend to the crops. He sowed in the spring and harvested in the fall, with each having their own special work and needs to meet. In addition to all that, there was house and outbuilding maintenance and taking care of farm equipment.

Farming was very hard work.

It was also rewarding. Fred went out every day and battled against the elements, taking his own two hands and building something out of nothing. There was something to be said for that.

But, there was one factor that always nagged at Fred, along with many other farmers – entertainment. While it was true that you were always around nature and got to enjoy it first hand, and the hogs and cows had amusing little quirks, it didn’t always satisfy. And it was always a good practice to read every night from the Good Book with the wife and children, but sometimes it would have been nice just to not think so deeply.

No doubt Fred would occasionally think back to those ten years he spent on his own farm near Corning, Iowa, as well as his youth on his parents farm elsewhere in Adams County. He would remember those days he spent in the field, longing for entertainment – the kind that you couldn’t get at home.

Now that he was running the Corning Opera House, he could make sure that others received the wholesome entertainment that he had wanted for all those years.

Civilization Comes to the Frontier

Reese had pushed to build the opera house the previous year, in 1902. In the first week that it had been open, it had done very well. However, on the night of the grand opening, not many had come out to see the show. But that didn’t matter. There were many more nights of entertainment to come.

While entertainment was important, the real driving force behind most opera houses in Iowa was that they represented the wealth and prosperity of a town. Many people, even at the turn of the 20th Century, still thought of small towns in rural Iowa as little more than frontier towns, with the barest essentials of life. An individual there had what was needed to survive, but none of the perks of a Des Moines or Cedar Rapids.

But, if a town had the money to build an opera house and rotate shows and acts through it, then they were a lot closer to being like the big cities. A town could get in travelling acts from New York, and bring all the nuance of the civilized East into your area via the extensive railroad system crisscrossing the nation. In other words, if your town had an opera house, then your town had class.

With the opera house built, Fred Reese had helped to bring civilization and prestige to his beloved Adams County home. But now he needed some prime entertainment value.

Entertaining the Masses

In the early 1900’s entertainment at an opera house always involved a live act. Motion pictures were in their infancy, and no one really had any idea of what they would one day become.

Live entertainment came in a variety of forms, and Reese, as manager of the opera house, brought them all.

Perhaps the most common and popular form of entertainment then was the Vaudeville variety act. These shows consisted of several small acts in one show, each one designed to provide the audience with maximum entertainment value. There was singing, dancing, and animal acts. Comic skits featured heavily in many vaudeville shows, often satirizing everyday life. Stage magicians and ventriloquists could also be part of the act. Vaudeville was affordable entertainment that had a broad appeal, no matter where the act would travel.

crosbybennyburns

Acting troupes were also common. Some, like the Morey Stock Company, put on a variety of plays over a given stretch of time. On one night, you might have a comedy, while the next you might have a drama. The Morey Stock Company was the very first opening act in Corning, but they would come by and play the venue again over the following years.

Other troupes would headline just one or two more well-known actors in a single play to attract an audience. People would come and see the big name, and the entire troupe would benefit. They would come into a given town, and then be gone on the railroad the next day. William Owen, who was the star of the play performed at the opera house’s grand opening, was one such act.

220px-John_Drew_as_Petruchio

But the Corning Opera House wasn’t just a place to come and see a good show. The auditorium and stage was designed to hold over seven-hundred people. Because of this, there were several groups around town that would host their event there.

Local churches would sponsor lectures about different subjects from ministers there. Travelling lecturers would also frequently stop in and give talks. Sometimes it was a convention consisting of several days of speakers, or, more frequently, a single lecturer.

On Decoration Day, the precursor to the modern Memorial Day, local veteran’s groups would hold festivities there in honor of their fellow soldiers. The Corning High School would hold contests there, as well as their annual commencement.

A Variety Act of It’s Own

The opera house was a truly eclectic institution. More than simply providing a venue for entertainment, the Corning Opera House gave old friends a chance to socialize. It gave a venue for local groups to assemble in honor of accomplishing something important in their lives, or the sacrifice that others had made for their state and country. The opera house wore many hats, and it wore them well.

Behind it all was the guiding hand of Frederick Charles Reese, primary shareholder and manager. He booked the acts and brokered the deals. He was the brains of the Corning Opera House, providing guidance, while the travelling acts and the very people of Corning itself were the heart and soul that breathed life into it.

But while all the social service and entertainment acts that travelled through provided many good things for the spirit of the region, they weren’t making anyone wealthy. The opera house had bills to pay, and it would take a little something else to help make ends meet.

Be sure to stop in soon and read how in the next installment of this blog.

Sources:

Glenn, George D. and Poole, Richard L. “The Opera Houses of Iowa.” Ames; Iowa State University Press,           1993

Schwieder, Dorothy. “Iowa: The Middle Land.” Ames; Iowa State University Press, 1996.

The Enduring Vision.” Lexington, D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.

Adams County Free Press 1902 – 1915

http://www.corningoperahouse.com

 

 

 

Bringing the Image of Culture to the Iowa Frontier – Frederick Reese and The Corning Opera House

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.

Prestige

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.

Opening Night

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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.”

IMG_9162

                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.

Sources:

http://www.corningoperahouse.com

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.” http://www.dmcityview.com

Iowa Pathways – “Opera Houses” http://www.site.iptv.org/iowapathways

Iowa Pathways – “Early Performing Arts History.” http://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

 

 

 

 

 

Z.T. Widener: The Story of a Man Whose Mark Still Remains on Corning, Iowa

                The building stands on Davis Avenue in Corning, directly across from a park. On a street that is full of character, this multistory brick structure sets itself apart. Its exterior is covered in metal and stone ornamentation, and the name “Z.T. Widener” is etched into the building along the top.

                Today, many who drive by the building don’t realize that they are looking at the footprint of a great success story.

The Man Comes Around

                In about 1880, Zachary Taylor Widener walked into the small town of Corning, Iowa, for the first time. Originally born in Indiana, he had earned a high school education and made his way gradually west. He first came to Illinois, where he began working in the mercantile business, and he took that experience with him when he came to southwestern Iowa.

                Within a short time of his arrival, he had re-entered the mercantile trade, opening a store in partnership with a man named Chapman. Eventually, Widener was able to muster enough funds to buy out his partner and take sole control of the business.  

                Once he was on his own, Widener made the decision to specialize in dry goods.

Essentials

                 In the early 1880’s, each farm was almost its own individual financial enterprise. They were largely self-sufficient, producing their own food, clothes, and other goods, in addition to producing livestock and raising crops for trade or sale.

                But in spite of this self-sufficiency, a farmer still couldn’t’ make everything themselves. They needed farm equipment, such as wagons and plows. They also needed various basic and specialized tools, rope, lumber, and sometimes seed.  Sewing and cooking equipment, as well as cloth for making clothing, were also essential needs.

                While these were all basic needs in many homes of the late 1800’s, this was especially true on a farm. A trip to town wasn’t a simple walk down the street, but rather a planned endeavor that could take hours in travel time. So, when the family would pack up the wagon and head into town, they would almost always pay a visit to the general store.

                Country or general stores began showing up in the rural American landscape as soon as pioneers began to populate the frontier. They were far from civilization, and did not have access to thriving craftsman and marketplaces to buy goods from. So, some enterprising individuals would build a general store in centralized settlements within a given region and stock it with a variety of basic staples that families would need.

                The need of the would-be pioneer or farmer had not changed by the time Z.T. Widener opened his dry goods store in Corning. Adams County was a very rural area, full of folk that needed those kinds of things on their farms. And so, when families needed something, they came to Widener’s dry goods store.

                Widener was successful. He supplied what people needed, and they came to him to get it. Being in one of the largest towns in the county, Widener received many farm families to his store. But, he also did a lot of business with the in-town folks, as well. His business grew, and he continued to refine it.

Building the Brand

                Somewhere along the way, he decided to put more emphasis upon clothing and fabrics. He sold underwear for men and women, including corsets. Widener stocked his store with a good variety of shoes. He sold dresses for women and work clothes for men. To guard against the cold Iowa winters, a family could buy blankets, hats, and gloves at the store.

                While all of this helped him to succeed, one of the most important things that Widener did was advertise.

                Widener regularly ran ads in the Adams County Union, a newspaper that was circulated all around the county. People who read the paper could see his large, eye catching ads that spoke of the wonderful deals and goods that could be had at his store in Corning. The ads in the paper gave him a big voice, and he wasn’t afraid to proclaim to the world that his store was the best place to buy your clothes.

                His strategy worked, and soon he was well on his way to greater heights of success.

Rebuilding

                In 1896, tragedy struck. Like many other businesses along the west side of Davis Avenue, Widener’s mercantile was severely damaged by the Great Corning Fire of 1896. All of his hard work and all the time he had spent building up his business had been delivered a knockout blow within the span of a few hours on a chill October morning.

                But Widener was made of sterner stuff. He wasn’t about to quit.

                A week after the fire, Widener ran what he advertised as a “Fire and Water” Sale. Many of the items that he carried had been scorched, soaked, or damaged in some other way. But, people still needed these items. And, like people in the modern world, there are individuals that are always on the lookout for a great deal.

                He also ran an enormous ad for his normal stock on the front page of the Adams County Union. Taking up almost a full third of the page, his advertisement was almost like a call to the people of the county that he was still there – ready, willing, and able to take care of their needs and wants in spite of his losses.

                By 1897, Widener had built a brand new brick building directly in the heart of Davis Avenue. It had large glass display windows on the ground floor, allowing those who passed by his store to see his great selection of goods.

IMG_9103 (2)

                The interior of the store was far from the stereotypical general store, with its dark interior and space crammed with merchandise. Widener’s main floor was spacious, and featured a wide variety of shoes, hats, and fabrics. Varieties of carpets and water-resistance oil cloths were on the second floor. The entire building was bright and well-lit, illuminated by electric lighting. Upwards of five clerks tended to customers during business hours.

                W.T. Widener’s had been reborn, better than ever before.

Westward Bound

                In 1902, wanderlust was tugging at the merchant’s feet and heartstrings. He longed to be free once more, to turn his hand at something new, and see something different. Widener saw opportunity in the west, and longed to go there.

                He sold his store to a man named T.N. Conner, a businessman from Keokuk, Iowa. Stock was taken, debts called in, and bags packed. After nearly two decades in southwest Iowa, Zachary Taylor Widener was moving west once again.

Montana

                Widener and his family moved to Montana. He was successful there, as he had been in Corning. One of the most prominent businessmen in that part of Iowa was gone.

                Although the business is gone now, the building remains. It’s still in the heart of Davis Avenue, bearing the name of the man who had it built. It stands in mute testament to one man’s entrepreneurial spirit, and his unwillingness to fold in the face of adversity.

Sources:

Adams County Free Press, 10/22/1896

Adams County Free Press, 10/22/1896

Adams County Free Press, 3/11/1897

Adams County Free Press, 10/14/1897

Adams County Free Press, 12/30/1897

Adams County Free Press, 9/17/1902

Adams County Free Press, 10/22/1902

Adams County Free Press, 11/16/1904

Adams County Free Press, 12/22/1902

Biographical History of Montgomery and Adams County, Iowa. Chicago. The Lewis Publishing Company, 1892.

 

 

 

 

 

                               

 

Corning, Iowa’s Main Street: Consumed by Fire, Rises Again

The day probably started out normally for most of the people in Corning. Nestled into the rolling hills of Adams County in southwest Iowa, they went about their lives as they normally would on that early October day in 1896. In addition to their everyday chores and tasks, many would have probably already been working toward preparing for the upcoming winter months in the chill Autumn air.

Most everything they needed in the way of shopping could be found right along what is now Corning’s Davis Avenue, their main street that sloped gradually northward toward the Adams County Courthouse at the crest of the hill. Toward the base were the Reynold’s grain elevators and the railroad line that passed through town.

Corning_main_1913

                In the late 1800’s, farm families in Iowa didn’t leave the farm very often, perhaps going to town once a week or better. Largely self-sustaining, they didn’t require a lot of outside services. However, when they did go, it was usually a real treat for them. More likely than not, there were probably a few farm families stepping into Corning that day, as well.

Some folks went into the National Bank of Corning, depositing or transferring funds. Others might have stopped into the S.G. Johnson and J.B. Wilson implement dealers, looking to purchase new farm equipment. There were some who no doubt dropped into McKinley’s Barber Shop, looking to get a haircut.

Along one side was the Park Hotel, where railroad men and other travelers could bed down for a night or two while passing through Corning. The local newspaper, the Adams County Union, held its offices along the main street, as well.

And of course, there was a hardware store, a grocer, city hall, and the library. This was the main street, the very heart of the town. After business was over later that evening, the various shops and businesses had taken care of their closing tasks, locked the doors, and went home for the night.

The Beginning

While most everyone was asleep in their beds around Corning, a tiny tendril of smoke must have started in or around the Reynold’s grain elevator. Small at first, the smoke began to grow thicker and darker as the fire producing it grew, probably aided in part by a strong wind from the south.

At about 2:30 am, someone noticed. An alarm was immediately given – a call for the brave fireman of Corning to set out and do their work. Along with them, several regular citizens went down to fight the fire, as well.

When they arrived, the fire was already on the verge of spreading out of control. The elevator itself was completely engulfed in flames, and three railroad cars had caught fire already. While they were unlikely to save the already burning structures, the citizens could try and stop the fire from spreading.

Unfortunately for them, the boiler, an integral part of the town waterworks, was broken. It was in the process of being repaired, but they weren’t expecting the repairman to arrive until the following Thursday. As a result, there was absolutely no water from the town tank to fight the fire with.

                  Regardless, the citizens and the fireman did the best they could with what they had. They had an old fire engine they used, the kind that required a man to pump the tank by hand to pressurize it and send water out the hose nozzle. With this and by any other means they had, they successfully stopped the roaring flames from spreading any further.

Burned Beyond Recognition

As the flames died down to embers, someone noticed something. Somewhere, amongst the burned-out wreckage of the elevator and railroad cars, there looked like – maybe – it was! In amongst the ruins were the remains of a man! What had happened? All the citizens that had come to fight the fire were okay, if not a little wearier from being deprived of sleep and the physical labor of fighting the fire. So, if it wasn’t one of them, then who was it?

The remains were charred, leaving no clue as to whom it might have been. What the people present there concluded was that the man, whoever he had been, had sought shelter against coming darkness and dropping temperatures, fallen asleep, and then succumbed to the copious amounts of smoke and gases coming from the fire.

By 4 a.m., the fire was in hand. The danger had passed, and everything was safe again. No doubt exhausted by that point, many of those who had helped fight the fire went home to find their beds.

Inferno

As they walked home, some of them passed near the hardware store. To their dismay, they realized that the building was on fire! The strong wind must have blown some embers from the grain elevator north into the main street somewhere! Quick as they could, they ran and sounded a second alarm.

This time, almost the entire town of Corning responded to the fire call. They ran quickly to the main street where Heymer Hardware was located, but it was already too late. The fire was an inferno that consumed everything that it could. It was almost a force of nature, beautiful and powerful in its fury and intensity.

Fighting the blaze was going to be near impossible, and the town knew it. It spread so fast and was so intense that, even if their boiler had been working, it would have probably been a lost cause. So, the citizens did what they could, which was mostly run and salvage whatever they could find. At Johnston’s implement dealer, several pieces of equipment, as well as carriages and horse buggies were removed as they saw the fire advancing rapidly northward, and so were saved.

Hardware stores, meat markets, harness shops, barber shops, and jewelry stores were all consumed by the fire. In close to just two hours, the fire had spread and consumed buildings the length of the entire business district of the main street.

By this time, fire departments in neighboring towns had been alerted to what was happening in Corning. Villisca, Clarinda, and Creston sent their respective fire departments over to fight the blaze. The railroad, also wanting to do their part, generously transported the men along their rail lines to the burning town, as train travel was by the far the quickest way to travel at that time.

This fire, however, would not be daunted. It would consume its fill before it was done, leaving Davis Avenue little more than a shell of its former glory.

When dawn broke, it was on a town laid low. The skies that early Saturday morning were gray and dismal. The incredible heat had shattered windows and buckled walls. The streets were covered in debris, ash, and broken glass. Across it all, an uncaring rain fell on the smoking remains.

Wooden frame buildings had been almost completely consumed, leaving nothing behind but smoke and ashes. The Park Hotel, which had stood proud and strong just the day before, was gone, only the smoking basement walls remaining. Other buildings had only a few walls left standing, the rest blackened and broken.

At the bank, people gathered what bank books and ledgers they could find that hadn’t been consumed in the fire and carried them away in whatever containers they had. Another group of men worked at forcing their way into the bank vault to check on the contents, while several people eagerly looked on.

The worst of the rubble was blocked off and watched over by local guardsmen. Unless you had business in the ruins, you weren’t allowed in. While the fire had consumed much, there was still some things that were worth taking.

Unknown Causes

What exactly caused the fire was never satisfactorily discovered. It could have been all manner of things, but, when people don’t know what happened, there is always someone among them who chose to make up an answer.

The guardsman had chased away a few railroad tramps that had been loitering around town after the fire. One theory was that one of these men, or someone like them, had set the fire to conceal the identity of the man they had found at the grain elevator after murdering him. But, the car in which he had been found was the last thing to catch fire. A hole in the corpse’s side, thought by some to be the wound that killed him, turned out to have been made by the hook the fireman had used to pull the body out of the rubble.

There were other rumors, but they amounted to nothing. The official cause was unknown, and the identity of the burned corpse was never found.

Reborn

Corning had worked hard to build their first main street, and they would work even harder to rebuild it. A year later, it had been completely redone, barring a few exceptions, such as the Park Hotel. Almost all traces of the fire had disappeared, and the main street was stronger than ever.

modern corning

                Corning continued to weather many storms and obstacles, but they always invested in their main street. Their diligence was rewarded in 1998, when they were awarded that year’s Great American Main Street Award. Today, over a hundred and twenty years later, the main street in Corning is still alive and thriving, a true testament to the tenacity and spirit of the citizens who have built and maintained it.

 

Sources:

Risen From the Ashes.” Adams County Free Press. October 14, 1897

Schweider, Dorothy. “Iowa: The Middle Land.” Iowa State University Press. Ames. 1996.

http://www.mainstreet.org