Looking back, a little school blossoms into a grand opera

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Lee Epps

Fifth part of a series

Internationally acclaimed stage actress Ethel Barrymore appeared in a play at the Spring Grove Opera House in 1918. A small town could attract touring performances if there was a suitable venue for the performance. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, entrepreneurs in southeastern Minnesota invested in a combination of traveling theater companies, silent films, roller skating, and dancing. In the early 1870s there was Nelson’s Opera House in Rushford. In 1887 Union Hall was built in Caledonia. In 1893, Ristey’s New Hall held a Thanksgiving dance in Spring Grove where the newspaper promised, “Good music will be provided and a great time guaranteed.” Dinner at the New Hotel.

Ristey’s Hall was clearly over when only four years later the newspaper professed the “immediate” need for a venue for “public gatherings”. This condition was resolved two years later with the construction in 1899 of a new brick school. But Grovers would not be waltzing in the new school but rather in two of the old school buildings. The two-story 1872 schoolhouse and a pair of newer single-story additions have all been moved to make way for the large brick replacement.

One of the smaller buildings was moved by Sven Ellestad to become Woodman Hall where the Modern Woodmen of America held public dances and later to another downtown location until 1920. The newspaper advised in 1906 , “A dandy moment is guaranteed at the Hard Time Dances at Woodman Hall.

Chairs lined the wall during dances at the Spring Grove Opera House (1899-1948), but chairs filled the floor during plays and movies. The stage was used for the cinema screen, artists or dance groups.
Photo submitted

The school’s other annex, purchased by Andrew O. Roppe, moved downtown to become the Roppe Opera House. It extended its length and capacity to 300 seats. It would host public dances, movies, medicine shows, Chautauqua programs, and traveling shows and was available for civic organization benefits and private wedding dances. It flourished for almost 49 years until the last dance in 1948. It was located on the northeast corner of Maple Street and East Grove Street before the street names were changed to South Division and 1st Street SE , where the post office is now located.

Probably, the first dance took place on May 25, 1899 (music by the Folstad Brothers) a week before the first play, presented by the JH Oakes Musical Comedy Company. Roppe’s opera house was expanded again in 1903, doubling in size at a cost of $1,400. The building would change hands several times, later known as Ristey’s Opera House. Martin Ellingson bought the Opera House in 1920 for $5,500 (which had buying power as $80,000 in 2022.)

Seen from the rear, the Spring Grove Opera House (1899-1948) was used for training local firefighters. The entertainment center was located where the post office is in 2022.
Photo courtesy of the Houston County Historical Society.

In 1927, the Opera House announced an Old Time Fiddlers music and dance competition with cash prizes of $50. “A background photo will be shown before the competition. Doors open 7:30 am, children 20 cents, adults 40 cents. The dancing starts at 9 p.m.

Later that summer there was a Thursday performance of the Cotton Blossom Singers of Pineywood, Mississippi, a Friday night dance followed by Saturday and Sunday showings of the hugely popular silent film, It, starring Clara Bow (the ” It’ Girl).

Talkies (talkies) arrived in 1930. An October 1937 newspaper ad touted an “Old Time Dance” at the Opera on Fridays and continued to advertise an Anne Southern film on Saturdays and Sundays, followed by a different film on Wednesday and Thursday. then another Friday night dance.

Unfortunately for the performing arts, the Opera was sold and turned into a manufacturing facility. Al Norman and his orchestra performed for what was billed as “Spring Grove’s Last and Greatest Dance” on Friday, February 13, 1948.

There would be no large-scale replacement. Private dances moved to two upstairs dance floors – at the Masonic Lodge and also at Pine Crest, the latter located on the second floor of the building still behind the post office. The weekend dance was available at Elmer’s, a supper club a few miles east. In 1966, a youth center, the Que Club, sponsored dances for teenagers.

After the opera closed, advertisements appeared in the Spring Grove newspaper for public dances in Caledonia and Canton, the Niagara Ballroom in Harmony and the new Decorah American Legion Club as well as the larger and the largest in the region – Avalon Ballroom in La Crosse. and Matter’s in rural Decorah.

Sources: Thom Carlson, Georgia Rosendahl, and Don Ellestad, Spring Grove historians, and Houston County Historical Society microfilm journals

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