This column has included information recently about the bad guys in Denison and how the town was settled down in its early days. But the bad guys weren’t the only ones forming the young town in the last quarter of the 1800s. The more genteel residents had ways of enjoying their lives too.
There were picnics on the Fourth of July and also on birthdays and other special events. The entire town was invited to the July 4th picnic that was held in Forest Park.
The Vorwaerts, the Grayson County Protective Association and the Fruit Growers Protective Association had frequent celebrations or birthdays and many times as many as 1,000 people attended. Partying usually went on all-day up into the night for the entire family.
The Vorwaerts Society was organized in June 1877, the same year the building was built in the 400 block West Chestnut. This group of singers performed weekly.
Often there were parades, not always for a special reason. When the parade ended, watchers would gather to hear one or more speakers. Some of these got a little lengthy too. While most were listening to the speakers talk about various subjects, the women would spread the picnic basket lunches brought and most included fried chicken and always a pie.
After lunch, games such as horseshoe pitching or croquet were played by the older folks while the more athletic boys had different kinds of races, such as climbing greased poles in the middle of the afternoon.
Around 4 p.m. a baseball game would usually get under way. Sometime the Native Americans from the Territory would come to Denison and play the Denison Blue Stockings or maybe two different tribes would play at the picnic. On July 4, 1880, the Chickasaws played the Choctaws for a purse of $100 and the winner played the Denison team for another $100. Winners were not named in the early history report by the unidentified Denisonian that I have been following. The purse money was raised by Denison’s businesses and the Territory’s prominent men.
Horse racing was popular in early Denison. Races were held in Denison, Sherman, Dallas and Fort Worth between horses owned by men in the four towns. Betting was a feature even then.
Cock mains, better know today as cock fights, were entertainment for some people. Today these events are illegal and it’s pretty evident why.
Even though some of the saloons on Skiddy Street featured high kicking dance hall girls that brought the rough and ready railroaders into the business, there were places where calmer entertainment could be found. Denison’s first show place was opened by Jerry Nolan on the second floor at 200 West Main.
One of the favorite places for the more culturally minded was the Denison Opera House where such plays as “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet.” “Macbeth.” “Julius Caesar,” and “The Merchant of Venice” were performed. Often the Opera House would be standing room only for the outstanding performances. People would come from all directions to see the play. Even the Marx Brothers got their start in Denison’s Opera House, but that’s another column.
Eppstein’s Opera House was located at 114-116 West Woodard. A second Opera House, owned by J.B. McDougall, built in 1880, was located upstairs at 221 West Main. There was a third opera house known as the Brookstone Opera House located in the 500 block West Main. Every week there was a melodrama, musical concert, high class performance or just a gathering to discuss politics and listen to candidates expound on their platform at one of the locations.
Several years ago in 1978, an elderly friend, Frank McCune, whose memory of Denison’s history was exceeded by no one, remembered seeing the J.B. McDougall building where a portion of Chase Bank now stands. He said the first floor was occupied by a Bank Exchange Saloon on one side and the opera house on the other side of the 75-foot wide building.
He said he thought Eppstein’s Opera House was built in 1896, then razed to one story before being torn down to make room for The Babcock Brother’s offices. He said he understood that the McDougall Opera House ceased to operate about the turn of the century. McDougall also had a hotel at the Katy Depot and a laundry across the street from today’s Post Office. The laundry burned in 1907 and a city fireman, Bud Freels, was killed, McCune remembered.
Then came the movie houses, earliest of which brought flickering film to a screen with an arc-light projector and a few folding chairs. These entertaining places could opened in any vacant building and could leave as just as quick. Any youngster who could scrape up the 10-cent admission could see his favorite star.
Construction of the Rialto in 1920 signaled that the motion picture industry had hit the big time in Denison. The Rialto had a stage that attracted live performances, an organ and sometimes a live orchestra.
By that time the opera houses were dead with the talkies taking over to bring to every town in America a quality of acting and sound not familiar on the early stage in frontier towns.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.