An agreement was made and entered into the 9th day of March, 1871, by and between David Stone, Darius Wilcox, Robert Miller, James Doremus, J.Ray, N.H. Thorpe, S.P. Lewis, all of Lucas County, Iowa, for the purpose of securing a title to Section 4, Township 10, Range 6, west. The parties agreed to form themselves together and organize a company for the purpose of laying out and organizing and locating a county seat, town or village in the county of Hamilton, State of Nebraska, upon the following express conditions:
It is agreed that David Stone be selected as a suitable person to visit Hamilton County, Nebraska, for the purpose of securing land for the location of the said county seat, town or village. Said Stone hereby agrees to homestead in the name of the eight individual members of the company if title can be secured in that manner; if not, locate in the name of each individual member of this company. It is further agreed that after said Stone secures the land described, being Section four; township ten; range six; west, in Hamilton County, Nebraska each of the above members, is to execute to each other, a bond for a deed for the individual conveyance of the undivided eighth part of the entire section, or for the conveyance of the lots to each other in any manner they may select to divide the same as soon as title for same can be obtained; that the entire section shall be owned in common by all the parties named to this contract, eight in number, and each shall share and share alike in all the profits and losses, and each be entitled to the one-eighth part in virtue of the section. It is agreed and understood by all the parties that individuals shall be and reside upon said land, by the first day of June 1871, in person or agent, to assist in building up said town; a failure to comply with this stipulation shall work as a forfeiture of all his rights under this contract
Previous to the executing of the above contract, S.P. Lewis, one of the party, had visited Hamilton County and reported favorably on it. Mr. Lewis arrived at the S.W. Spafford place on Lincoln Creek, and after an examination of the county, returned to Iowa. Disunion, however, arose in the group, and the plans of the town company came to naught. Not daunted by disunion, Robert Miller and Nathanial Thorpe headed west to found a town. As they traveled they saw ahead two stately cottonwood trees, towering like sentinels on the banks of Lincoln Creek, otherwise there was nothing but vast prairie, with smaller trees and bushes following along the creek bank. This was to be the landmark for many years and it was at this location these Iowans were determined to establish their new town.
For Many years the twin cottonwoods of historic fame stood in all their splendor until the ravages of age and disease gradually claimed them. However they were preserved in a beautiful oil painting produced by Aurora's own artist, the late Edwin Tuepker. This handsome painting now hangs in the Plainsman Museum. These trees were located in the present Streeter Park. Firewood was mighty scarce through these early years and while many other trees and shrubs of lesser note were chopped for firewood, the twin cottonwoods, held all in awe by their majesty, and their lives were preserved.
Miller and Thorpe were followed on June 10, by David Stone, Darius Wilcox, and S.P. Lewis. The party camped on Lincoln Creek in the vicinity of the cottonwoods. Shortly after Mr. Stone platted a town site on the northeast quarter of section 4, town 10, range 6, and on the night of June 19, 1871, the new town was named Aurora. (The town was named as a compliment to David Stone's wife who was a native of Aurora, Illinois.) After the collapse of the town company, Mr. Wilcox pre-empted the southwest quarter of section4; D. Stone homesteaded eighty acres on the west half of section 34, town 11, range 6; E.D. Preston took a "claim" on the southeast quarter of section 4 and Robert Miller made claim on the northwest quarter.
The original town site was surveyed and platted by Darius Wilcox and Mary A. Stone, and entered of record December 20, 1872. In June, 1871, the town company erected the first house upon section 4, a "dug-out". In August of the same year, David Stone erected the first frame building in town, a store and residence, in which he opened the first stock of general merchandise brought to the new place. This was the old frame building occupied as a livery stable on the southeast corner of block 11. It was torn down in 1890, to make room for a more pretentious structure. In 1872, a schoolhouse was built, later used as a Catholic church.
The removal of the county seat to Aurora in 1876, gave the town quite an impetus which was much exceeded by that given it by the advent of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad in 1879. The first court house stood on the present site of the Messiah Lutheran Church. It was incorporated as a village on July 3, 1877, John Helms, D. Bates, W.H. Streeter, John Raben and harry W. Kempter being appointed as trustees. The first meeting of the board was held July 5, 1977. John Helms was elected president and W. L. Whittemore was appointed clerk. For two years more the town struggled along, enduring the lack of railroad and telegraph communications until the fall of 1879, when it had attained a population of scarcely 400. For four years after Aurora became the county seat, there were problems with the lack of transportation facilities other than those of the stage coach, the pony express and freight wagon. Central City, York, Sutton, and Grand Island all had a railroad. The pioneers were bold and brave men who did not give up hope. Town population was increasing steadily, practically the entire town of Orville had succumbed and moved in with Aurora. In the early years when small business could prosper, Aurora had a cigar factory, a broom factory, the Aurora washing machine company and an artificial stone factory.
Between 1875, and 1879, there was constant rumor of railroads to come, and it developed that the executives had been keeping a watchful eye on Aurora's progress and stability. History records a mass meeting May 17, 1879, in the newly built courthouse when A.E. Touzalin, Superintendent of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad discussed a railroad west from York, provided Hamilton county issue and give to the railroad company $72,000 in bounds -- $48,000 to be delivered when the railroad was completed to Aurora and the remainder when the track had been laid to the west line of the county. The vote for was almost unanimous, and later a committee was able to get the company to reduce the bonds to $50,000, instead of $72,000. On June 24, the special election was held with 1194 votes cast; 956 favored the bond issue and 238 opposed. A great wave of enthusiasm swept the county.
Telegraphic service was established in Aurora on October 26, 1879. Regular train service went into effect November 3, 1879. The one train left Aurora at 4:45 a.m. and returned at 8:20 p.m. First delivery of mail by train was December 1, 1879. Branch from Aurora to Grand Island completed in 1884, and to Central City in 1886. The year 1879, had been a great one! Probably one of the most progressive in the history of Aurora, for it was now in its way. From this time on, the growth of the city was steady and continuous, reaching a surprising population of 1,175 in 1885. The city was laid out with handsome wide streets, with excellent grading and miles of good sidewalks. The court house square which occupies a central location is planted with beautiful trees. A handsome bandstand is located on the east side of the square.
There was industry even in the early days and one of these was the Aurora Roller Mill, built in 1884, by Curry & Glover. It was equipped with first-class modern machinery for the production of flour. The Aurora Machine Shop of H.T. Jensen was also established in 1884. Not only did Mr. Jensen repair a great deal of machinery but he had a patent and manufactured "patent feed steamers". There was an Aurora Foundry owned by F.,W. Wilson, and established in 1886, and there were three extensive brickyards doing a good business. The Aurora Brickyard was started in 1904, and was managed by Adolph Blunk, who built it into a prosperous business in the five years he was here. The first brick building erected was the Hamilton County Bank Bulding in 1879, followed in 1881, by A.G. Peterson's Building and that of the First National Bank The brick jail was built in 1888, at a cost of our $7,000. An excellent water system was put in by the town. A fire department was organized the same year, and Aurora became a city of the Second Class in 1886. The Post Office was moved from Spafford's Grove in 1872 and David Stone became postmaster.
In those years the city was well supplied with rail facilities, four branches converging at this point; the main line east and west extended from Nebraska City to Newcastle, Wyoming, a distance of 574 miles. The Central City branch afforded direct communication with the North Platte country, and the Hastings branch with the Republican Valley and the West. During 1889, there were shipped from this point, 451 cars of corn, flax 125 cars, oats 175 cars, cattle 123 cars, hogs 177 cars, butter 15 cars, eggs one, brick 15 cars, for a total of 1087 cars.
by Bertha G. Bremer
The center of the entertainment world in early Aurora was the Opera House Block, which was built in 1890-91, and was sited on the corner diagonally across the street intersection northwest from the courthouse square. This structure, with the opera house on the upper level, was built to accommodate a bank on the corner with surrounding retail commercial space which fronted on both streets. This mixed-use type of commercial building is one which appears in towns all across Nebraska, and is typically sited at a prominent corner location.
In the Opera House Block, the entrances to the commercial spaces and the floors of these stores were built at street level, but the bank floor and entrance were raised approximately four feet above the street level, allowing light to enter through sidewalk-level windows into a partially subgrade level below the banking floor. This lower level space thus became habitable and marketable for office or commercial purposes. What appeared from the exterior to be two upper floors, because of the double row of windows on both street sides of the building above the street level, actually was a two-story-high interior space for the Opera House. On the south end of the building, however, a third floor, horseshoe-plan, balcony level was built over the second story Opera House lobby and cloak rooms. The north end of the building accomodated the stage. The opera House was entered on the southwest corner of the building through a separate exterior entrance and stair built into the volume of the building and visually marked as a framed, pedimented opening. The building was mostly brick construction, with rough cut stone foundations, first level window lintels, upper window lintels, and band course. The structure was topped with a cornice, probably of pressed metal, and a brick parapet. This building has been drastically modified by removal of the upper-level Opera House and elimination of the variation in floor elevations at the street level.
Six years ago, Aurora began a Community Theatre program, allowing its citizens to see dramatic productions in its own city. That concept of available drama was not new to Aurora. As early as 1890, some citizens were raising money to build two large public meeting places in the city, one to be called Union Hall and the other Aurora Opera House. These two halls would be used for local productions and speakers, as well as touring shows. Both of these public auditoriums were on the upper floors of downtown buildings, but these floors have been removed from both of the still existing business places.
While the Aurora Opera House was located over a bank on the northwest corner of the square, above what is now the Coast to Coast store, Union Hall, on the north side of the square, was above what is currently the Jack and Jill Store. The Aurora Opera House above the old Aurora State Bank was removed about 1940, and the second floor making up Union Hall was removed in 1942.
Not only did both places of entertainment disappear about the same time, they were also erected at the same time. By June of 1890, The Sun noted that "the twin opera houses are beginning to materialize. Both foundations are well nigh completed." The reason for their sudden appearance stemmed from a long-felt community need. This need was even expressed in the local press: "The city should not pass the coming winter without an amusement place. A temporary building could be erected that would pay the investors well." The records are not clear if such a bulding was built. The Sun does mention that the J.H. Hallady & Co. Minstrel Show appeard at a "Music Hall" in February of 1890. In the fall of that year, the two opera houses were " slowly taking shape. Union Hall is looming up in grand style and is nearly ready for the roof." The Knights of Phthias Band was to open Union Hall with a masquerade ball by the middle of November, 1890, but the building was not completed until the first of December.
The Aurora Opera House took a full year to construct, from May 1, 1890 to May 1, 1891, and cost $40,000. The brick work on the opera house began in August and was nearly completed by the winter. Evidently delays of some kind arose as the contractors were under bonds to have the building completed by January 1, 1890. The building's progress was a constant source of comment in the city's newspapers. "The Aurora Opera House is nearly enclosed. The elevations are complete and our people look upon the structure with pride. It is the finest building in the city -- the only three-story structure -- and will make an amusement place second to none in the western part of the state."
Union Hall occupied only the second floor of its building and was not nearly as grandiose in style as the Aurora Opera House, but it only cost half as much -- $20,000. Not too much is known about its early interior. A report at the time of its completion mentioned that it had "a fine audience room" and a large stage. The versatility of the place can be seen in the reference that "it can be used for all sorts of entertainments, including dances, having some 40 by 40 feet of flooring from which the seats can be removed." Generally, the entertainment presented was a product of Victorian romanticism tending to interest itself in the exotic, the picturesque, the sentimental comic, and the melodramatic. One of the first entertainments at the new hall was an opera by the M'Millan Opera Company. Presented on Christmas eve, the comic opera "The Doctor of Alcantara" proved popular with the citizenry.
The performance was very creditable, and drew from the audience frequent and warm expressions of appreciations. Indeed if there were any surprises and disappointments they were of the agreeable kind, that arises when an entertainment proves better than was expected.
The opera was followed by a "spectacular drama" in February called "Little's World" in six acts and ten tableaux. Little's company, with J.Z. Little starring, presented several impressive scenes. "The raft scene was beautiful and pathetic, so artistically arranged as to be everything but reality; the sinking of the ship was also a splendid piece of stage mechanism."
Another traveling group appeared in the spring, Rena Marsells Theatre Company, which performed for a week at Union Hall, doing such old favorites as "East Lynne," "Ten Nights in a Bar Room," and "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The local newspaper editor noted that "the star is rather weak, and the support weaker, yet at the prices charged, one could not complain too much. The only merit due them is the fact that they did the best they could." In contrast to imported talent, the "musical extravaganza" entitled "The Maid and Game Pie," given by home talent, proved much more popular. "The cast contained the names of Aurora's stars before the footlights, and none of them lost popularity by their performance on this occasion." Other home talent was a part of the Aurora Musical Association, which gave a grand concert at Union Hall consisting of choruses, solos, duets, male quartettes, and instrumental music, assisted by the mandolin club. The concert closed with a "laughable farce" called "The Sham Doctors."
In May 1891, local musicians gave the cantata of Queen Esther at Union Hall, with a chorus that was "the finest ever gotten together in Aurora.... No pains will be spared by Musical Director, Merrill, or the parties of the cast, to make every detail as perfect as possible."
Scenery in the 1890s consisted of different views painted on canvas curtains called drops, that could be rolled down, and flats or side pieces. These flats filled in the edge of the stage and masked the stage sides. The flats were held upright by ceiling grooves, and since the flats were nothing more than large wooden frames with a piece of painted canvas attached to the front of them, they could be easily slid into place. The Aurora Opera House had four sets of grooves, allowing for four flats to be in place at once on each side, thus giving a certain depth to the stage. The drops would be lowered to fill in the space across the back of the stage. Since it was twelve feet eleven inches from the floor to the grooves, the flats had to be thirteen feet tall to fit into the groove, and the drop would have to have enough canvas to reach the floor.
At the new Aurora Opera House, the stage managers provided a variety of these painted scenes on flats and drops, so that regardles (almost) of the type of drama that the traveling company brought into town, they could represent the scene on stage with different acts rrequiring different scenes. Aurora had all the stock of those frequently needed pieces. Among its scenes were a palace, a plain and fancy chamber, a home-like kitchen, a green and flowery landscape, a gloomy prison, and a set cottage -- besides a number of wings and borders to match. Thus, with six interiors and three exteriors, most plays of the time could be adequately depicted.
The wings and borders mentioned are the front masking pieces, called the wings, and the borders were very short curtains hung across the top of the stage to mask the tops of the flats. If the stage was set for a forest scene, these borders would be painted with many leaves, to suggest the tops of trees, or painted rather plain to match the colors of the interior scene.
Some of the physical details of the interior of the Aurora Opera House were given in the newspaper coverage of the opening night, May 28, 1891. The entranceway on the south had double doors one flight up and a second set another flight up on the third floor leading into the opera house itself, with a ticket office fronting a large hall. Off this hall were stairs leading to the gallery and doors leading to the parquette or dress circle, which had three hundred easy patent chairs situated on a graduated or inclined floor. The gallery also had three hundred easy chairs, with another two hundred extra for use in case of an emergency.
Besides the modern luxury of steam heat, the building was lighted by gas fixtures throughout. All the lights were on individual switches so the intensity could be "controlled at will.... In an instant the house could be darkened as dark as night and next instant be made as light as day." The ventilation was described as perfect with the stale air escaping through a large cylinder apperture in the ceiling over the large chandelier.
The dimensions of the stage show that it was about the average size compared to other opera houses in Nebraska cities with populations near that of Aurora, about 2,500. The proscenium, or stage opening, which frequently looked like a large gold picture frame, was 21 feet wide and 16 feet high. A narrow three-foot stage apron extended beyond the curtain to the footlights. A trap door was in the center of the stage, and the depth under the stage was six and a half feet.
The opening night at the Aurora Opera House was May 25, 1891, and drew ladies and gentlemen in evening dress to see a play starring John Dillon, who was described as one of the best comedians in the United States. The evening began at 8:45 with an overture by the Aurora Mandolin Club, but ushers were kept busy seating late comers until 9 o'clock.
The audience had been admiring the drop curtain with its street scenes in Venice, where boats are used as street vehicles, but suddenly the lights flashed out in their full splendor, the great curtain was rolled up, the foot-lights threw a flood of light across the stage, and the border and fly gallery lights shown upon one of the finest stage settings ever beheld in this city, and the great play by John Dillon, "Wanted, the Earth," was begun, which drew forth a general expression of admiration from the vast audience.
"Wanted, the Earth" was writen especially for Dillon by Gus Heege, "an originator of striking ideas, and an ardent and diligent student of human nature." The comedy was said to be an "admirable, orignal and extremely humorous satire on the fashionable fad element of our modern society."
On Tuesday evening, Dillon appeared in Scott Marble's comedy, "State's Attorney.": Other events at the opera house that season included an address by L.A. Sherman, professor of English literature at the University of Nebraska, speaking to the graduating class; an opera, "Faust," starring Abbie Carrington in her "ideal conception and rendition of the sublime character of Margherita"; and a comedy called "A Turkish Bath," which was said to perhaps "cause the looker on to laugh or the modest to blush."
Not all the offerings were excellent, such as Hewett's Musetts, a group that only had four in the company and who were described as "mediocre in stage acting.... The monotony was relieved by occasional fine instrumental music on the cornet and violin."
It can be said that the early days of Aurora were alive with entertainment, some quite excellent and much of it very average. But people enjoyed themselves because evenings at the theatre were occasions for vicarious laughing and crying and for enjoying the company of other people who had come for entertainment in the late romantic style; it probably added a rich dimension to all of their lives.
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