In 1887, Grainfield, Kansas, much like many communities of the era, became came home to a brand new opera house.
But while many small town opera houses have disappeared or been replaced over the decades, the Grainfield Opera House still stands, restored and active thanks to the efforts of a group of dedicated and resourceful community members.
The 1880s were big boom years for settlement in the high plains of western Kansas.
People were coming out here and settling with the Homestead Act.
They were from all walks of life.
A lot of them were young and they were used to entertainment.
Well, it happened to be that every little town usually had an opera house of some sort because they would support traveling acting troupes that were coming throughout the area, put on all sorts of plays, from Shakespearean plays to various comedies.
The opera house was both kind of the gymnasium and the auditorium and provided facilities, whether it was a maybe a debate or musical entertainment, political gatherings, opera houses was the town's auditorium.
There's a good example of an opera house in Grainfield, Kansas, that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was very, very important to the people of Grainfield in the early days along the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
Grainfield is a railroad town, so a lot of people came in there for entertainment.
I'm Herbert Queen.
I am the current president of the Grainfield Opera House, Incorporated.
The Opera House was built in 1887 by the Grainfield Town Company.
The ground floor was used for retail spaces, grocery stores.
We had a printing office, a leather shop, general merchandise store.
At the same time, they had their stage shows, traveling group shows upstairs, boxing matches in later years.
They even had the movies on the weekend.
They'd have their dances, celebrations, weddings, you name it, upstairs here.
I moved here in 1955.
I went to high school here.
I remember having our high school prom up here.
Grainfield Rural High School.
1919 to 1968.
The first three years they had the high school in here.
On the ground floor.
So my name is Dee Foster, and I am from Grainfield.
I was born and raised here.
So I have a lot of ties to this town.
It was a lot of different things when I was growing up.
There was always seemed to be something in here.
You know, there was at one point in time a used clothing store, and then there was an appliance store, a tire shop.
Those are the things that I remember.
But it still wasn't being used, you know, like I knew it could be.
And nothing was ever up here on the top floor.
It was always things down on the bottom floor.
That's why I was very curious about what the building looked like.
So it wasn't, you know, all boarded up and in this disrepair like it was.
Later on, after all of the businesses moved out of it.
I've lived in Greenfield since 1972.
Well, I'm sitting here and I owned the business next door.
I just seen it going to waste.
They had said it was condemned and the birds flew in the windows and out.
The windows was knocked out.
And so we had a pretty big mess up here.
Thought well, ought to be restored, you know, and then something, at least cleaned up.
I know that there was a lady that had bought the the opera house at some point and was going to use the woodwork for a business that she owned.
And so then when the Lions Club heard that she was going to dismantle things and take out the original, I think that's when they kind of decided that they didn't want that to happen and got involved in getting it.
And then the wheels started turning then.
Was a member of the Lions Club that took over this building in 1995.
We formed our nonprofit corporation, the Grainfield Opera House, and the Lions Club deeded the building to the corporation.
So the people of Grainfield got together and to see what they could do.
They talked to the Kansas State Historical Society to see if it would qualify for being on the National Register of Historic Places.
My name is Katrina Ringler.
I am the Preservation Office Supervisor at the Kansas Historical Society, and we administer national programs like the National Register of Historic Places.
Any property that is going to be eligible for listing on the register has to be at least 50 years old, and it has to have integrity of materials, design, place feeling and association.
And then we look to see if it's significant in some way.
And there's four criteria that we that we look at.
One is the association with a historic event or trend.
So it could be an opera house would be significant just because it was the entertainment center of the community where some important event happened there.
It could be associated with a historic person.
Architecture is the big one.
Most properties that are listed in the National Register are probably listed for their architectural significance.
So it's just a good example of its style.
With the research it was because it's very significant to the life of people in western Kansas, and that it was only one example.
Well the people from Grainfield organized to go through all the paperwork.
There's a lot of T's to cross and a lot of I's to dot.
There has to be an assessment.
Can it be salvaged?
Especially that it qualifies it or some after to reconstruct it.
And even the future of what use it would have.
We always advocate for knowing the use of a property before you undertake a rehab project.
Because if a building doesn't have a use, it won't last.
Because if it's vacant, then it's not going to be maintained well.
People care less about it.
It just doesn't.
It doesn't perform well.
There was a lot of repair work for many, many years.
But the people from Greenfield did that the community did it.
They stuck together.
It took a long time.
It took a lot of money to apply for grants.
They had to do it as far as specifications presented by the National Register of Historic Sites Office.
So there are a lot of things to do, and they did it.
I mean, everybody said we was stupid.
Through dynamite in it and blow it down, get 'er hauled way.
Well, you don't do that with a national historical monument.
You know, you've got to go ahead and fix it up.
We got the Heritage Trust Fund grant to put the roof on it, fix the bricks, doing some repairs on the tin work up front.
And then a couple of years later, we got another Heritage Trust fund, which is very odd that, you know, they normally don't do two to the same entity.
And we got a second one and we was able to get all the windows and doors refurbished, get the building really closed up.
We get the boards off the windows and we can start, you know, really seeing things move.
When properties are listed on the National Register, that does make them eligible for some funding resources that different entities have.
In Kansas, we have a state funded grant called the Heritage Trust Fund.
Grainfield was awarded two different grants at separate times.
Things like repairing roofs, walls, windows, doors tend to be more successful than just esthetics, but things like stained glass windows, historic plaster, restoring things that were lost can also be eligible and can be funded too.
It's quite a process to get grants.
We've worked with the Kansas Heritage Trust Fund, was able to stabilize the building using the initial grants from them.
When the very first thing that we done is we got a contract for the roof, but while we was waiting on that, why there was a big chunk of concrete in the southwest corner.
And we went ahead and started on that.
And then, you know, the bricklayer come in.
Here a while back, a younger fella come by and he says, My dad and his brother done the brickwork for you.
You got your pictures?
We found the picture.
He had to get his camera out and he had take a picture of that picture.
They repointed the whole outside.
If you look at the back side outside, you can see where it's all new brick.
And then the remodeling of the steel, the metal front.
The front, they call it a Mesker.
The cast iron and the upper part is actually galvanized steel, and it's been there since 1887.
It was re-fastened on that first heritage grant.
There is one other building that we know of that has a front on it, very similar to this in Ouray, Colorado.
You could pick out your design from their catalog.
They would put it together and furnish you all the necessary equipment, plans on how to build it, how to build the superstructure behind it.
You know, one guy came through and he wanted to buy the building just for the front, and he was going to dismantle it and take it to Colorado Springs and put it on another building.
Well, why do that.
We've got it right here.
Let's fix it up here and let's make something out of it.
Four of us pretty well started it and done a lot of work before more people start joining in.
They had an ad in the paper at one point in time that said they were going to do some restoration.
They had received a grant.
So I called the number and that's how I got started helping with the Opera House.
I always thought that it was such a cool old place, and as a youngster I'd been on the bottom floor, but I had never been up here where the stage was or in the basement.
And so I was really curious as to what this big old building looked like.
I was pretty awestruck at how bad it really was when I got inside.
I mean, I knew the windows were boarded up, but when I came inside, I was amazed at really how bad it had gotten.
We come in here, this was covered with, uh, 3/16 masonite, and we was walking around on this.
We lifted up and there was nothing underneath it.
I mean, this was rotted out.
There for cosmetic reasons.
We was taking the drop ceiling down out of here we dropped a 2x4 and it went clear... it went clear through.
When we first got started, it was... the ceilings was, you know, in bad shape and the walls and everything.
So we closed in the outside to keep it weatherproof.
And then after that, why you know, we started working on the inside, you know, getting the windows put in here and that to keep the birds out.
And got under the stage and cleaned everything out under there, because that's where the birds seemed to want to hang out because they didn't have the wood front on the stage.
And so that was pretty filthy.
I can't tell you how deep the pigeon drippings were under there.
Took shovels, scoop shovels of stuff out, pitched it out the window into a truck, started cleaning.
Then the guys got the windows all boarded up so that wouldn't happen again.
Downstairs, um there was a big hole in the west side on the floor, you could see clear down into the basement.
We actually went down to Collier and cut the floor out of a house.
Houses that was being torn down.
We went out and salvaged the floor out of them.
This has all been replaced.
So that way not only were you getting the, getting the floor, but it was more of a floor that was actually more consistent with the original.
It was the same wood that we've got in this floor here, but it turned out very good.
The walls, the paint had come off, plaster had come off of some of it.
The ceiling was in places down.
Working on the floor.
We got the ceiling, the walls painted, the walls plastered.
Nowadays, plaster repair is a lost art.
People don't really know how to repair plaster.
Then if we needed to put it back to the way it was originally, we had to put the plaster back up.
I offered to put an ad in the paper that goes out to like 18 North-Western, Kansas counties.
It wasn't very long.
I think the next week we got a phone call from a gentleman that said, I know how to plaster.
Had an old boy come in here and just watching him do the plastering job was like watching a symphony.
He was so good at it.
You had to see him do it.
What we wound up doing is we picked one day a week and usually it was on a Wednesday night, you know, we'd come in every Wednesday night for 20 years and work.
So it took us 20 years to get it completely restored.
Like you see it today.
I remember thinking when I first started, I will never see the day that this gets finished, that I will be able to see a performance up here.
Because that was everybody's goal when we started, is we're going to get this back so we can have performances and we can get it going to what it was supposed to be an opera house.
And I thought, Oh my gosh, I'm not going to live long enough to see this happen because it was in such bad shape.
But every Wednesday night that we worked, we could see that we had gained something.
And so I think that's what kept us going, is we are making a difference.
We are getting there.
It's not leaps and bounds sometimes, but there there is light at the end of the tunnel.
But we just got to keep going and 2007 we had the bottom restored enough to where we could actually rent it out for someone to have something in here.
That was a high school prom.
So that was actually our our first thing on the on the bottom floor that we were able to have.
So the next year in 2008, we had a wedding.
It was also downstairs because we didn't have upstairs finished, but we gradually started having more events in the opera House.
And then as we started having them downstairs, then we were able to work on the upstairs because we first like we've got to get one floor done at a time.
So we concentrated on getting the bottom floor done and then after that then we could work on the upstairs.
We didn't have the upstairs done whenever we had our first entertainment in here, we wound up having it downstairs, and we had Frank Werth, an Elvis impersonator.
We had chairs in half of the building.
It was a full crowd.
Then when we got the upstairs done, then he came up here.
He performed several times.
They like it.
I don't know.
It was kind of unbelievable because I did not think that I would see that day.
It was very awesome.
And to just stand back at the back of the room and just see somebody up here performing and we're like, Yeah, man, we actually did it.
We did it.
Yeah, it was a, it was a great moment.
It takes a lot of time to do any sort of restoration, such as tackling the Grainfield Opera House.
So it is a long, drawn out thing and will take years to do it.
That's why a lot of people say, well, it isn't worth it if it's going to take 20 years or time.
But once you see the Grainfield Opera House, you'll see that it was.
That these a few people worked hard, work together, scrimped and saved and did everything they did, volunteered the labor, and it all fell together.
I shouldn't say that.
It all raised together and is a very substantial, very nice building.
My name is Jason Moses and I'm the director of economic Development here in Gove County.
Grainfield is a real gem when it comes to small communities in northwest Kansas.
Many communities are doing some great things, but Grainfield really stands out.
And not only do they like to preserve the past, but they're very, very good about looking towards the future and making sure that we have a great place to live for generations to come.
Like in any community, it's important to have community gathering places.
We're just very fortunate with the Opera House because of how unique it is, how long it's been here, and how much work went into the preservation of it.
This weekend we got a fella coming in here to celebrate his 95th birthday.
In July we got a wedding, wedding reception, the whole nine yards.
So not only do we have a community place to gather, but it's very unique and really stands out amongst the crowd.
You know, if you look at the Opera House in and of itself, and understand that in the day it was put here in 1887, how much work and how much fortitude it took to build such an amazing structure and that it still stands in this community all these years later, that plays over to folks such as the group that's working to preserve it and the other individuals in town who are working very hard to make sure that, again, we still we have something to to come home to.
Just looking at the opera House and looking at where it was 20 or 25 years ago.
You know, those things don't happen by starting them and putting a little bit of effort in them when it doesn't exactly go your way on the first try.
You can't just walk away and they haven't.
And when you go and look at the at the facility, it's obvious and it shows very well that it took a lot of stick to itiveness and fortitude and determination to get it to where it is today and to keep it that way.
We've got volunteers.
They keep the place swept and dusted.
We've got some ladies who do the decorations and they're changed just about every month.
And, you know, that's a lot of decorations in them windows.
There is a basement here and all these shelves is full of decorations for the windows.
So you got flowers, you got your summer decorations, your school, You got your Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, Christmas.
This is our historical memorabilia side here.
You know, we've got various different things, Gaslight Fixtures, I was telling you about that we found in here.
Exchange State Bank, Gove, Kansas, founded 1897.
Safe was bought by Stuart and was used by him in Grainfield.
Donated to Grainfield Opera House in 97.
The combinations are unknown.
There's 14 of these pictures and we've got all but one.
The trail along and Smokey Hill.
Thomas Curry he was an art teacher at Colby Community College.
He interviewed a lot of people to do this.
You got Trego, Grove, Logan and Wallace County.
Then there's the tangible connection with our history.
A lot of times I talk to people about authenticity.
You know, there's some really pretty things at Disneyland, or if you go to an amusement park or something like they have built facades that are gorgeous and even look like historic buildings.
But if you walk up and touch them, they're not actually old.
When you go to places like the Grainfield Opera House and you get to walk inside of them and touch the things that are actually 100 years old, it provides that tangible connection with their histories.
The Grainfield Opera House is a monument to people to remind them that the investment they make in their community today, much like the investment they made in their... in the Greenfield community in 1887, will last.
It will persevere and people will respect and maintain it.
So not only do we enjoy the the history, but it's also a monument to our future.
If you want to build your version of the opera House, that would benefit the community for today's needs, because of the type of people that we have here, that investment is going to be good in the future.
It's super important that we preserve it.
It is one of the original things from when the town was established.
It's part of us, it's part of Grainfield.
When I come back here in 75, it was kind of disappointing to see that the building had deteriorated.
It just kept going worse and worse and worse until we... until the Lions Club took it over in 1995 and we brought it back alive.
Over in Europe, there's buildings, some of them over a thousand years old, and it's quite common to see 400 or 500 year old buildings over in Europe still being used.
And there's no reason why we can't take some of our old history and maintain it to keep it alive.
Feels good to know that this building is going to stand for another hundred years.