Part five of a series
Internationally acclaimed stage actress Ethel Barrymore appeared in a play at the Opera House in Spring Grove in 1918. A small town could attract touring entertainment if there was an appropriate venue for the performance. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, entrepreneurs in southeast Minnesota invested in some combination of traveling stage companies, silent movies, roller skating and dancing. In the early 1870s, there was Nelson’s Opera House in Rushford. In 1887, Union Hall was constructed in Caledonia. In 1893, Ristey’s New Hall hosted a Thanksgiving dance in Spring Grove where the newspaper promised, “Fine music will be furnished, and a grand time guaranteed. Supper at the New Hotel.”
Ristey’s Hall was evidently bygone when only four years later the newspaper professed the “immediate“ need of a place for “public gatherings.” That requisite was resolved two years later with the 1899 construction of a new brick school. But Grovers would not be waltzing in the new school but instead in two of the old school buildings. The 1872 two-story schoolhouse and a pair of newer one-story additions were all moved to make room for the grand brick replacement.
One of the smaller buildings was moved by Sven Ellestad to became Woodman Hall where the Modern Woodmen of America held public dances and later in another downtown location until 1920. The newspaper advised in 1906, “a dandy time is guaranteed at the Hard time dances at the Woodman Hall.”
The other school annex, purchased by Andrew O. Roppe, moved to the town center to become Roppe’s Opera House. He extended its length and seating capacity to 300. It would host public dances, movies, medicine shows, Chautauqua programs and road shows and was available for civic organization benefits and private wedding dances. It thrived for nearly 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 now sits.
Likely, the first dance was held on May 25, 1899, (music by the Folstad Brothers) a week before the first play, presented by J. H. Oakes Musical Comedy Company. Roppe’s Opera House was enlarged again in 1903, doubled in size at a cost of $1,400. The building would change ownership several times, later known as Ristey’s Opera House. Martin Ellingson bought the Opera House in 1920 for $5,500 (which had the purchasing power as does $80,000 in 2022.)
In 1927, the Opera House advertised an Old Time Fiddlers Music and Dance Contest with $50 cash prizes. “A feature picture will be shown before contest. Doors open 7:30, children 20 cents, adults 40 cents. Dancing starts at 9 o’clock p.m.”
Later that summer, there was a Thursday performance of the Cotton Blossom Singers from Pineywood, Mississippi, a Friday night dance followed by Saturday and Sunday showings of the wildly popular silent movie, It, starring Clara Bow (the “It” Girl).
Talkies (talking movies) arrived in 1930. An October 1937 newspaper ad touted an “Old Time Dance” at the Opera House on Friday and went on to advertise an Anne Southern movie on Saturday and Sunday, followed by a different movie on Wednesday and Thursday and then another Friday night dance.
Unfortunately for the performing arts, the Opera House was sold and became a manufacturing plant. Al Norman and His Orchestra played for what was billed as “Spring Grove’s Last and Biggest Dance” on Friday the 13th, February, 1948.
There would be no grand scale replacement. Private dances moved to two upstairs dance floors – at the Masonic Lodge and also Pine Crest, the latter located on the second story of the building still behind the post office. Weekend dancing was available at Elmer’s, a supper club a few miles east. In 1966, a youth center, the Que Club, sponsored teen dances.
After the opera house 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 area’s largest, most prominent dance halls – Avalon Ballroom in La Crosse and Matter’s in rural Decorah.
Sources: Spring Grove historians Thom Carlson, Georgia Rosendahl and Don Ellestad plus newspapers on microfilm at the Houston County Historical Society