Henderson County, Kentucky History



The first place of such a character in the city of Henderson was Woodruff Hall, in the big brick building facing the river between second and third streets.

The City Hall came next. It was located in the building on the west side of Main Street, up over the store of W. W. WILLIAMS and SCHLAMP'S grocery.

Then the Gabe Opera House, which was remodeled into the LAMBERT-GRISHAM Hardware Company.

The Pythian Building and Theatre, which was nearly on the site of the present theater, came next.

After it burned, the Grand Theater house was built.


At these times in the early days the courthouse was used for amusement purposes. That was in 1820. It was the only hall in town; shows, concerts, balls, parties, dances and church entertainments were held in this room.

The court passed an order, which shut out all theatrical or other performances from this building.

During March of 1856, the then renowned reader and actress, Mrs. McCREADY, accompanied by Mlle Camille URSO, a little prodigy of musical science, at that time 16 years of age, gave an entertainment which delighted a large audience of Hendersonians. This entertainment was given in the dining room of the Hancock House that once stood on the site now occupied by the Nicholson Building because there was no suitable hall in the town for amusement purposes. Mlle URSO was a violinist and later ranked with Ole Bull.


In October 1857, a number of young men organized what was known as the "Thespian Society", a dramatic and literary organization. During the fall and winter of 1858 this society gave entertainment at "Woodruff Hall" to large audiences. This society undertook such pieces as "Ingo mar", "Lady of Lyons", "Still Water Runs Deep", and others of a difficult and popular cast. L. W. DANFORTH, a most humorous young man of that day, was exceptionally fine in comedy work.

In March of 1859, COOPER'S celebrated opera troupe played a three night engagement, starring Miss Annie MILNER, the best English soprano heard in this country up to that time. Her entire rendition of "11 Trovatore" was a great success and stamped her as a great lyric artist. The entertainment is said to have captivated the town. The great DUDOLFSON was with the company.


As mentioned, the City Hall is the first place of amusement in Henderson of which I have any recollection.

I saw and heard "BLIND TOM", the Negro prodigy, perform on the piano. The various musicians of the town were there. Each and every one played a selection on the piano and "Blind Tom" would sit down and play the same piece without missing a note. He was an idiot, and had no sense save the musical sense.

Professor C. F. ARTES, who was at that time organist at St. Paul's Episcopal church, went to the piano and played a selection, which he improvised and composed as he proceeded, and then arose with the air that "I've got him." But Blind Tom sat down and played the selection without missing a note, exactly as Professor ARTES had done.

Jim McCULLAGH was the manager for many years of this place of amusement, and he looked after his patrons with that suaveness and geniality that made him very popular.

"Cal WAGNER'S Minstrels" was one of the attractions during that period, and we boys always attended, and sat in the "peanut gallery" which was in the rear of the house.


Later on the Gabe Opera House was built, and the City Hall was no longer used for amusement purposes. It served for a while as an armory for the local state militia company.

The Gabe Opera House, so named because John GABE had erected it, was opened by that great vocalist, Emma ABBOTT, at two dollars a seat, and the house was packed. It was a great day for Henderson and it was a great show.

A company of gentlemen composed of R. E. COOK, J. W. ALLEN, D. C. WORSHAM, J. B. LETCHER and others leased the house, and they brought good attractions there.


They gave the people of Henderson an opportunity to see Joe JEFFERSON in "Rip Van Winkle". The house was packed at $1.50 per seat, and the S. R. O. sign was hung out. It's of no use here to say that it was a splendid performance, as the name of Joe JEFFERSON is enough to justify that.

Then there were a number of home talent shows. "The Mikado" was given by Col. Edward A. JONAS, C. T. BLACKWELL, George M. ATKINSON and other talents in the cast. It was given for the benefit of the "Home Mission" and was a decided success.

Later on a benefit play was given by home talent for the Temple Adas Israel. It was entitled "Deborah" and Miss Minnie BALDAUF took that role. Among the cast members were Morris GOLDSTEIN, George M. ATKINSON, Starling L. MARSHALL, Dick JOHNSON and others.

The Maria GREENWOOD Opera Company, with 35 artists, was one of the popular aggregations that exhibited at the Gabe Opera House, and was largely patronized. That was in 1891.

Then there was Lizzie EVANS, who played "Fogg's Ferry", and that talented comedienne, Patti ROSA.


George WILSON'S Minstrels, a survivor of the BARLOW, WILSON, PRIMROSE and WEST Minstrels, packed the house at 25, 50 and 75 cents.

Then we had Daniel KELLEY in the "Shadow Detective". Then BARLOW Brothers Minstrels announced it's coming in "Regal Splendor."

"Faust" was also given by Reeves ENGLISH Opera Bouffe Company, in which it advertised "adequate actors."

Coming on down the Pythian and Elks lodges and others got together and built a handsome and attractive structure next to the BARRET House which stood on the NICHOLSON site at the corner of First and Main Streets. The Pythian Building Association was incorporated May 11, 1893, with a capital stock of $50,000, in shares of $50 each. The largest subscribers to the stock were John H. BARRET, James R. BARRET, James E. RANKIN, Ivy LODY of Pythias and R. H. SOAPER at $5,000 each, and T. K. GIBBS at $2,000.

This building contained a commodious lodge room; theater and offices. The lodge room was used both by the Knights of Pythias and the Henderson Lodge of Elks, and was the best-equipped lodge room in the state at that time, according to all reports.

It was opened by that renowned actress Rose COGHLAN, in "Diplomacy". The town turned out to the performance, as it did so many other succeeding attractions. Col. Alex D. RODGERS was the manager, as sideline to his insurance business, and what he didn't know about the theatrical business was not worth knowing.


When the Pythian Building, Park Theater and BARRET House burned on the morning of July 20, 1896, it entailed a loss, all told, of approximately $150,000 with insurance amounting to $91,500. This building had served its purpose for three years, two months and nine days.

Col. E. L. STARLING, the editor of the paper, published the following account of the fire:

"The cruel fire fiend has once again visited Henderson, thus entailing the heaviest loss ever sustained in this city. To say that a spirit of gloom and sadness pervades the city from end to end, is putting it mildly indeed.

"The people stand in awe before the smoldering ruins and behold in holy horror the work of Mephistopheles. Nothing is talked of but the great loss the city has sustained. Go where you will, in what assemblage you may, and there you hear nothing but comments on Henderson's irreparable loss. The high and the low, the rich and the poor, all-alike are of one saddened mind.

"The city yesterday and last night resembled a grief-stricken camp, worse still, a community bowing in sack cloth and ashes to the cruel blow of the fire fiend.

"Men, women and children blocked every foot of ground on the courthouse, hill and central park, looking in horror on the terribly beautiful scene. The folked flames leaped high into the air, flame frolicking with flame, prancing hither and yon as though cognizant of the power they possessed in the utter helplessness of the people to hold them in check. These awful scenes made the heavens lurid.

"Great walls crumbled under the intense heat to which they were subjected, tumbled pell-mell in awful confusion, made the earth tremble and rumble as the distant roar of thunder."


The fire was first discovered by Jim CHRISTOPHER and Bob BAKER, night clerk and porter, respectively, and the alarm given. The fire department was at that moment trying to extinguish a fire at WINSTEAD'S Distillery, and before they could get a part of its equipment to the downtown fire, the flames had gained such headway that control of the blaze was lost.

L. H. WALKER and Dr. Arch DIXON, Jr. who had rooms in the building had narrow escapes. Dr. DIXON in attempting to descend by means of a rope got a hard fall by the breaking of the rope, dropping him on the shoulders of some men in the alleyway, considerably bruising them as well as himself.

The guests of the BARRET House were all awakened and escaped with their luggage. Capt. Lloyd W. WHITLOW, the manager, was absent from the city with his family, and they lost their trunks, clothing and personal belongings.

Manager Alex D. RODGERS and his family, whose rooms were in the Pythian building, had been aroused, and made their way out as best they could, leaving their possessions to the fury of the flames.


The following is the estimate of the losses sustained in the fire:

BARRET estate, loss on BARRET House & appurtenances, $40,000; insurance $24,000.
Pythian Assoc., opera house and hall, $85,000; insurance $50,000.
SNEED and YEAMAN, dwelling house, $1,000; insurance $600.
John C. ATKINSON & Co., coal and ice, loss on furniture, etc. $300; no insurance.
A. D. RODGERS, manager of opera house, $750; insurance $600.
Henderson Title Co., papers, documents, etc., $2,900; no insurance.
Drs. DIXON & DIXON, $3,000; insurance $1,500.
Dr. C. H. JOHNSON, furniture and instruments, $1,500; no insurance.
Dr. E. C. BLACKWELL, $500; no insurance.
Wynn DIXON, stock of drugs, $2,500; insurance $1,750.
YEAMAN & LOCKETT, lawyers, $2,000; insurance, $650.
S. B. and R. D. VANCE, lawyers, $4,000; no insurance.
R. H. CUNNINGHAM, lawyer, $2,000; no insurance.
M. MERRITT, lawyer, $2,000; no insurance.
CLAY and CLAY, lawyers, $500; no insurance.
W. P. COOPER, lawyer, $1,000; insurance $300.
W. B. MARRS, lawyer, $750; no insurance.
E. G. SEBREE, lawyer, loss $500; insurance $625.
W. J. PETER, lawyer, $100; no insurance.
DUDLEY & FITTS, lawyers, $1,000; insurance $395.
John ANDERSON of England, clothing $200; no insurance.
McCLAIN & RODGERS, insurance $200.
Walter BRASHEAR, architect, $200.
Ivy Lodge K. of P., paraphernalia, $500; insurance $200.
Western Union Telegraph Company, $1,000.
L. H. WALKER, clothing and furniture, $300; insurance $200.
W. O. FULLER, florists, $400; no insurance.


For a considerable period after the Park Theater was opened, the GabeOpera House was leased and operated by William H. HELD and George W. SCHNEIDER.

On August 5, 1896, Col. Alex D. RODGERS, former manager of the theater that burned, announced that he had leased the GabeOpera House. He also announced that the opera house would be overhauled and repaired and opened by the Al G. FIELDS Minstrels on the fifth of September.


In 1910, the Park Theater Company took over the new theater. This company was capitalized at $24,000 and was composed of T. A. PEDLEY, J. B. BURCH and J. G. of Owensboro, Kentucky.

On January 19, 1914, the Park Theater Company executed a deed to the Central Trust Company of Owensboro and on March 28, 1914, the property was conveyed to Henry L. HUNT of Jacksonville, Illinois at and for the sum of $19,000. The Henderson National Bank retained a lien for the unpaid purchase money. As the result of the suit to collect the purchase money, the property was bid on by the Henderson National Bank for $13,500.

On August 12, 1922, the bank sold the Grand Theater property to the Henderson Theater Company, at that time composed of Thomas BASKETT, Leo BASKETT, Louis HAYES and Stewart STARLING.

Reprinted with permission from the Henderson Historical & Genealogical Society
Article found in the Society's business files.

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS