In the last 20 years of the 19th century, Plain City was a growing community. Along with overall population growth came increased school attendance, more clubs and organizations, and a greater awareness of and desire to see the many touring companies and programs that were becoming part of the nation’s life. The churches in town could host some gatherings, and in good weather tents could be set up on the Commons (where the water tower now stands) or in the park, but there was general agreement that the town needed a larger indoor venue.
The International Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) was a fraternal group founded in 1850. The local lodge was organized in 1852. By 1883 the lodge had 80 members and met in rooms on the third floor of the McCune Block. The building still stands on the northwest corner of West Main and North Chillicothe streets. In that year, the Plain City lodge of its offshoot organization, the Knights of Pythias, was organized. Both groups had active women’s auxiliaries, the Rebekahs (I.O.O.F.) and the Pythian Sisters (Knights of Pythias). By the late 1880s the groups were in serious need of a larger meeting space, and the decision was made to erect a building that would serve not just their own needs but the towns as well.
The Opera House was built at 230 Gay St. on the north side of Sweeney Run. Its proximity to the railroad was intended to make access easier for traveling shows, which it did, but it also had the unfortunate effect of sometimes bringing programs to a temporary halt due to the noise of trains passing by.
The building was 70 by 100 feet, with three stories. The auditorium on the first floor was 70 by 70 feet with a stage and gallery and could seat 800 people. Lodge meeting rooms were on the second floor in an area 30 by 60 feet. The third floor was mainly used for storage. It was the largest and most expensive building in town, costing $30,000.
On the Saturday of the dedication, special trains brought visitors and dignitaries into town. There was a large dinner followed by a grand parade and the dedication ceremonies.
The Opera House quickly became the center of town activities. In 1891, a Farmers Institute was organized there and was held annually at least through 1904. An advertisement from November of 1905 announces the opening of a roller skating rink to be available Wednesday and Friday nights from 7-10:30 p.m. during the winter. Graduations, Plain City School Alumni Association banquets and many other large community gatherings were scheduled there.
Traveling shows of all descriptions were also popular. The Harry Shannon Players, the Trelligan Players and the Kickapoo Indian Medicine company all appeared at the Opera House. It was also the site for traveling evangelists. The Historical Society has a yellowed newspaper clipping from around 1910 which details the “Union Evangelistic meetings” being held under the leadership of Rev. Milford H. Lyon. It notes that “one of the side rooms at the Opera House will be kept warmed for the use of mothers and babies.” There is also the request that the ladies “remove their hats for the sake of the people on the back rows.”
The Opera House became the regular site for Al G. Field’s minstrel shows to conduct their pre-season rehearsals. Elsie Janis, who became known as the “singing sweetheart of World War I,” started her career here.
In 1906, Dexter Ketch, a local businessman, purchased the first floor. The lodges retained their meeting rooms on the second floor. The cyclone of June 1912 did serious damage to the building, with most of its roof ending up on South Chillicothe Street. That marked the end of the building’s use as a community meeting space, although Mr. Ketch continued to use it for his furniture and undertaking business. In the early 1940s it was purchased by Jonah Gingrich and Eli Nissley, who had the second floor removed. It was later owned by Parker Adkins who used it as a farm implement dealership, before being demolished in the late 1980s. The building which now houses Plain City Fitness is on part of the footprint of the Opera House.
Rosemary Anderson is the vice president of the Plain City Historical Society.
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