Source: NMHS Newsletter, August 1984

The Search for Entertainment in 19th Century North Manchester by Dr. L. Z. Bunker

Social life in pioneer days centered around the home and the church.  People gathered in houses for religious services with welcomed visits of the circuit rider.  An early gathering was the camp meeting where people convened in a wooded tract and listened to sermons and revivalists and had group singing.  The camp meeting was originated in Kentucky as early as 1801 by Barton Stone, a pastor of the Disciples of Christ.  Harter’s Grove which included the area which is now the Warvel Park, was a recreation area in North Manchester since the town began in 1836.  The first church building was said to have been constructed here in 1849 and was a center for many activities.

Family visiting and, as the country filled up, reunions were popular.  Weddings were celebrated with huge dinners, second day “in fair” dinners, and collations for afternoon and evening visitors.  Funerals were one occasion of much eatery and, in some groups, drinking.  Food was brought to the house of the deceased by neighbors and friends.

When the Civil War ended and troops returned in companies or regiments, huge dinners, pitch in, were served in churches.

This was horse country so as early as mid-1840’s, George Thorne had a half mile straight track on the flat by the river near the present College football field.  His mare, Red Maria, was always a winner.  Ministers preached against the betting and drinking that accompanied the races.

By 1871 North Manchester had two railroads.  Soon the American Express Company was shipping in iced oysters, salmon, and also fresh fruit not previously available.  Oyster suppers were very popular.  Sleigh rides and taffy pulls were popular and hay rides and picnics in the summer.  Along with food, the railroads brought theatrical troupes, “tour shows”.  Presenting “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was an annual affair.  Traveling companies put on “Ben Hur”, “Last Days of Pompeii”, “Richelieu” and an extended Shakespearian repertoire.

North Manchester was on a main line into Chicago so sometimes exceptional talent came – Nora Bayes, the star of “Shine on Harvest Moon”, and Fay Templeton among others.  Local people occasionally put on home talent shows, usually black face minstrels.  Hamilton’s Opera House, built in 1876, was the scene of many of these activities.  It was built over a livery stable, heated by stoves and lighted by coal oil lamps.  That it didn’t burn down can be considered a modern miracle.  Many public speakers, politicians, evangelists, magicians, phrenologists and nuts like “The Immortal J.N.” enlivened the local scene.

Traveling circuses, often dog and pony shows, came to town.  Medicine shows first with a minstrel and later with wild west themes, held forth on Henney’s Lot, the vacant block on Main and Elm Street.

The Tri County Fair Association has large grounds here where the Peabody Memorial Home is now located.  From the 1890’s to 1920’s it operated horse barns, a circular track, and grand stand for summer and fair time racing.  Special trains brought visitors to the week-long fall fair, as many as 10,000 in a day, a real crush!  The town was full of visitors, wild west characters, the racing crowd, gypsies, circus lion tamers, acrobats, and freaks.  Everywhere were stands selling “Coney Islands” which were hamburgers, also soft drinks, trashy souvenirs, and “carnival” glass at 10 cents per small piece.

Before the first world war our first movie house was an open air “nickelodeon” on the corner of Main and Market Street, where Dave’s Restaurant is now.  The seats were bleachers.  The show could only begin at dark.  Admission was a dime.  The shows were in black and white with printed subtitles.  A piano was wheeled out every night and Mary Rockwell provided the sound accompaniment.  Favorite films featured an English comedian, John Bunny, and Pearl White starring in a serial, “The Great Train Robbery”.  Later indoor movie houses were the Crystal, Ritz, and Marshall.

For about a decade, 1910-1920 [RESEARCH UPDATE: Summer Chautauquas took place 1913-1930 in North Manchester.], a remarkable institution, the Redpath Chautauqua, spent a summer week here camped out on the Central School ground.  It was billed as strictly high class, educational, family entertainment.  They brought in large bands (Bohumir Kryl’s and Pallario’s), fading opera stars, U.S. Senators, poets, British propaganda speakers, an occasional play such as Booth Tarkington’s “Man from Home”,  “Seven Keys to Bald Pate”, and “Nothing but the Truth”.  Their reputation was once sullied by a rowdy interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” by a traveling company.

“Times change and we change in them”, the Romans said.  Transportation and education produced a more sophisticated citizenry.  The Chautauqua and the fair faded away, along with Hamilton Opera House and the thespians who enchanted its audiences.

By the 1920’s radio, talking and colored movies and later, television, assumed leading roles in entertainment.

NOTE: “The Immortal J.N.” was a crazy fellow of about 50 or 60 years of age who traveled all over the country promising to “reveal the future”, but never showing up for a performance.  He was once an attorney for the railroad and it was said he lost his mind following a lengthy court battle over a difficult railroad case.  He had free passage on any railroad line.