1781 - 1954
The Hyde Park Opera House was originally built to serve as the Town Hall for the Shire Town of Lamoille County. From an inspection of the building however, with its sloped floors, excellent sight-lines and acoustics it becomes clear that the people who had it built had a more broad purpose in mind than just a meeting hall. By tracing the history of this building I have found that a big fire, politics, community will and town pride all contributed to building this unique structure.
The Town of Hyde Park was established by a charter granted by Gov. Thomas Chittenden in 1781. At that time Hyde Park was part of Chittenden County, over the years it was also a part of Rutland, Addison, Orleans and in 1835 took root in Lamoille County. When Lamoille County was being formed, the state declared that "When some town should erect a suitable court house and jail, the county should be deemed organized."' The towns of Johnson to the south and Morrisville in the north both rallied for their towns to be named Shire Town. A committee was formed to choose the recipient of the Shire and after an impassioned speech in the 1835 General Assembly by Joshua Sawyer, Hyde Park secured the county seat.
The town paid for the new county buildings and included among them, a court house and an ample Town Hall that could be used for county and town functions. These buildings were well maintained and regularly improved. In 1884 a stage and better lighting 'were added to town hall, reinforcing it as a place for meetings and entertainment. In 1891 an eighty foot clock tower was added to Town Hall. These structures were a great source of pride for, Hyde Park and a firm foundation for the county seat.
In the 1854 and 1855 General Assembly sessions, bills were introduced to relocate the Shire to Johnson and in 1859 Morristown tried the same. None of these acts came close to approval but the competition for the shire was clearly evident.
On April 17,1910 Edward Shattuck and Edward Jacobs, both from Jeffersonville and both serving ten days for public drunkenness, were enjoying a Sunday brunch with Mr. Shattuck's father and brother. It was a very windy day and so to keep the chill off the inmates built a huge fire in the stove. The fire was so hot that the stove pipe set some of the timbers between floors on fire. This was not the first time that this had happened but on this day the strong wind took the smolder to a blaze and almost before anyone saw what was happening the building was consumed.
A boy named Oscar Lilley is credited with first seeing the fire. He and Proctor Sage Sr. alerted Sheriff Stevens and the sheriff in turn sounded the fire alarm. What followed was a combination of heroism, community action and just enough miscommunication to really wreck things.
According to newspaper accounts of the day, the power plant was shut down on that Sunday. When Sam Manley at the power plant got the call he turned on the generators and started the pumps. As the lines were pressurizing he 'allegedly' got another call to shut the pumps down. The fireman were greeted with a trickle from the hoses and by the time the pumps were charged again the fire was out of control.
Jeanette Daley, a Hyde Park resident for her whole life, said that on that day she was in Sunday school at the Congregational Church. She remembers hearing the fire alarm and coming out of the church to see the town starting to burn. Her immediate concern was for their own house which was upwind of the fire at the time, but all that would be required for the fire to claim it would be a shift of the wind. The wind spared her house but not ten houses and tenements, the Court House, Jail, Congregational Church and the original Town Hall
Fighting the fire was a county wide effort. Fire departments from Stowe, Johnson and Morrisville all were on the scene to control the spread of the fire. Jeanette Daley says she and others distributed coffee and food to the men fighting the fire well into the night. During the fire men went into public buildings and homes, some of them burning, to save valuables. Town and County records were hurriedly shoved into the vault at the courthouse. Five pianos and two organs were set out on the Page Mansion lawn. Two stained glass windows and some pews were saved from the church. At the Town Hall several rows of seats were saved, those seats are now in the balcony at the Hyde Park Opera House. After the fire the town sent each of the fire departments who had helped fifty dollars. Stowe fire department officials sent back twenty-five dollars saying they only needed twenty- five to repair hoses damaged in the fire.
Certain incidences in this fire bear mention. It has been surmised that the Senator Page mansion, curiously located in the middle of the fire's path, survived because the limited water available ( the reservoir quickly drained after the pumps were finally turned on) was all dedicated to that structure at the sacrifice of the rest of the town. Also what was the source of the call to Sam Manley at the pump house to shut down? It could be speculated that an unscrupulous Morrisvilian interested in taking the shiredom from Hyde Park placed the call upon hearing of the fire. Or it could have just been the panic of the moment.
After the fire a chamber of commerce organization called the Morrisville Board of Trade raised $25,000 by subscription to build County buildings on a site already chosen in Morrisville. Their argument for moving the county seat to Morrisville was that they had private funds not taxes to build with. These efforts were received by Vermonters as an insult to Hyde Park and in the fall of 1910 the General Assembly voted $30,000 in bonds to rebuild county buildings in Hyde Park.
Perhaps spurred on by the threat of the loss of the Shire, the people of Hyde Park moved quickly to do their part in rebuilding the town. Senator Carroll S. Page returned to Hyde Park from Washington D.C. as soon as he heard about the fire. Upon his return he said that Hyde Park would once again "be the finest village in the Green Mountain State'12 He was recognized in the newspapers for his leadership in organizing the town to rebuild. The insurance companies did their part too. They settled all claims on residential and public buildings in less than ten days. The settlement on the County buildings was for $19.05 less than their valuation of $12,000.
A special Town Meeting was called two weeks after the fire. In that meeting the following resolution was adapted; "Whereas, our town hall has been destroyed by fire and it has become necessary that a new one be erected without delay suitable for the accommodation of the town and for meetings and conventions called at this place by reason of Hyde Park being the County Seat". The Town voted to spend no more than $5000 plus the $3400 received in insurance to build "A Town Hall for the Town of Hyde Park that shall be in every way suited to the needs of the Town as the shire Town of Lamoille County".
On June 3, 1910 Judge Edwin C. White sold the lot that his home once stood on to the town for $300.00. This would be the site for the new Town Hall. Plans were submitted to the committee by an architect from Burlington named Cradell. On July 6, 1910 a contract was awarded to Nichols and Parker of Essex Junction to build the new Town Hall. Nichols and Parker later won the bid to build the new county building as well as some residences in Hyde Park. The plans called for a'44x80 structure of concrete and wood with an assembly hall and other rooms for town use' that it shall have' an incline floor and gallery with seats for 450'. The plans also called for stage accommodations including a drop curtain and electric lights. Also 'waiting rooms and toilets', The work was to be completed by December 1, 1910.
Ground was broken on July 10, 1910 and work went on into the winter. A newspaper article in December notes that 'new chairs of a modern style have been ordered for Town Hall. The setees saved from the fire are to be placed in the gallery'. Any modern Opera House patron will tell you that without a cushion the 'seats of a modern style' are most uncomfortable, and that the gallery seats from the 1800's are worn but much more pleasant.
For the people of Hyde Park perhaps the most exciting and gratifying aspect of the new Town Hail, besides its attractive Georgian Revival design, was the art work done inside the opera house by the artist Charles Hardin Andrus (1851-1924). Born in Enosburg Falls Mr. Andrus enjoyed a long career as a painter of large murals, theater curtains, frescoes, trade cards, and commercial signs. At the Town Hall he was charged with painting a curtain with a local scene. During the months of January, February and March Andrus did paint a tremendous scene on the curtain but its subject was only partially local. The scene he used was the Natural Bridge at West Virginia with Vermont's Killington mountain in the background. The story of his reaction to criticism of his using a non-Vermont scene when Vermont has so much scenery to offer was 'The Natural Bridge is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and this Opera House is the Eighth'. Very little more needed be said.
Newspaper accounts show that as well as the curtain Mr. Andrus also painted frescoes in the Opera House. Jeanette Daley who used to sneak into the Opera House with her friends to watch Mr. Andrus work says she doesn't remember the frescoes but that the curtain was so impressive that any other work might have failed her notice. Unfortunately these works (if they really existed) have been painted over for some unknown reason. Also lost forever are the set scenes he painted for the stage at the Opera House. In March of 1911 and again in May of 1913 he painted elaborate backdrops for plays that were performed by local groups and traveling shows. Besides the Hyde Park Opera House Andrus 'work in Vermont can still be seen at the Bakersfield Town Hall, lrasburg Town Hall, Enosberg Opera House, and St. John the Baptist Church in Enosburg Falls. Other works include his 17'x28' "Sheridan's Ride" owned by the Vermont Militia Museum and a large portrait of native Vermont Civil War hero General George J. Stannard owned by the Vermont Historical Society. Also at the V.H.S. is a huge and rare 150'-Iong, 7'-high panorama painting of the civil war depicting ten scenes from the war. This painting toured from town to town in Vermont in the late 1800's and was accompanied by a narration of each scene as it was presented. Clearly C.H. Andrus' art is important to Vermont and to Vermont's history. That a piece of his work exists at the Hyde Park Opera House increases the value of the Opera House as a part of history.
On March 1,1912 the News and Citizen announced that the finishing touches were being put on Town Hall. Mr. Andrus was still working on the curtain. The floors had yet to be finished and the new seats installed but that it was to be ready for Town Meeting on March 7. The total cost for the Town Hall above the insurance received was $3750.00
Also scheduled for the evening of the seventh was the first non-political entertainment for the new Town Hall. 'Phil Ott and his Twenty-five Merry Singers, Dancers and Beauty Chorus' were to perform. Admission was 35 cents, 50 cents and 75 cents. The show was a huge success with over 500 people attending.
In its first day of service the Town Hall began serving it's multi purpose as a meeting house and a house of entertainment. While the Congregational Church was being rebuilt Sunday services were held there. Town records were stored there for a time. All of the town meetings were held there as well as regional and National elections. High School graduation exercises were held there for thirty years. Local groups and schools presented plays and musicals for fundraising. Traveling medicine shows would come through, presenting an entertaining show and then hawking their snake-oil remedies to the audience. Jeannete Daley recalls attending one of these shows with her father and being scared "because there was shooting". The Nellie Gill Players came annually to perform to full houses. In its review of the Phil Ott Show the News and Citizen refers to the new Town Hall as the Opera House. In subsequent articles it seems that its name depended on the function the building was being used for.
The last Town Meeting at Town Hall was held on March 4,1952. The Town was finishing up work on an addition to the school which included a gymnasium large enough to accommodate any meeting. It was decided that maintenance requirements on Town Hall would be too expensive given the money that had just been spent on the school. So the Town voted to sell Town Hall to defray the expenses of the school.
The following year at the 1953 Town Meeting the committee charged with selling the Town Hall building recommended that because there were no other takers the building should be sold to the Village of Hyde Park for the sum of $1.00. On April 21.1953 the Village voted to accept the Town's offer and became the proud owner of a slightly used and neglected Opera House.
Meanwhile a spirited young minister, the Reverend John Knight of the Second Congregational Church needed a new furnace for his church. The Opera House was right across the street from the church and that gave him an idea to raise funds. He was reported to have said " Let's do something that will bring everybody together in one big concerted effort, I tell you let's put on Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado!'14 Of course this did cause some hub-bub. First of all a Minister singing and dancing was still a little controversial and second how could such a small area produce enough talent to present something as complex as a full scale musical. As it turned out there was quite a lot of good talent in Lamoille county and soon a cast and crew of over seventy people was assembled from all over Lamoille county; and on September 10, 11 and 12, 1952 the show went on.
The Mikado was a colossal success, filling the house every night of its three date run. It was so successful that a benefit show was given the following week for Copley Hospital. The Reverend got his furnace but more importantly the groundwork was laid for a theater group that would and still does entertain people every year at the Hyde Park Opera House. The people that produced the Mikado had such a good time they decided to do it again. On April 30,1953 Mrs. J.B. Viets held a meeting of what was then called the County Dramatic Group for the purpose of presenting a new production. On May 7, 1953 the second show to be produced at the Opera House was announced; Gilbert & Suilivan's Gondoliers. Then on May 18, 1953 The Lamoille County Players were officially formed, Bylaws were written and officers were elected. The first officers of the L.C.P. were: Natalie Viets Chairman, Don Mc Keraghan-Secretary and Phyllis Currier- Treasurer.
Finally at the April 20, 1954 annual Village meeting the Village agreed to lease the Opera House to The Lamoille County Players for the annual rent of $1.00 plus upkeep and insurance. The players had a home and they set about the business of repairing the Opera House. Funds were raised from their many successful productions as well as from gifts and contributions. A new furnace was installed, the roof was repaired, and paint and plaster work was done.
Over the past forty years the Players have continued their success as a theater group, attracting talent and audiences from all over the county, state and even from around the country. They have continued their efforts to maintain and improve the Opera House. This includes installing a new lighting system and building an addition for set building and storage. The most recent improvement was the addition of a handicap access ramp and handicap accessible bathroom.
Since the day of the great fire the Opera House-Town Hall has in fact been truly suitable in every way to the needs of the Town and of the County. As the community's needs changed so did the uses of the building. True to the intentions of the dedicated people who resolved to build this elaborate structure, the Opera House has continued to bring the people of Lamoille County, as the Reverend said 'together in one big concerted effort'. It is a privilege to have the use of a structure that by its design has the ability to do just that.
Hyde Park - Vermont Shire Town of Lamoille County An Historical Story published by the Town of Hyde Park and its Bicentennial Committee. 1976 Essex Publishing Co. Inc.
Hyde Park Town Meeting Minutes
Hyde Park Land Records
Vermont History News
Published by the Vermont Historical Society
The Lamoille Newsdealer
Newspaper articles 1864-1877
The Lamoille News
Newspaper articles 1877-1881
The News and Citizen
Newspaper articles 1881-1954
State of Vermont Division for Historic Preservation
Historic Sites and Structures Survey
Vermont Life Magazine
Spring 1955 volume 9 number 3
Vermont History Magazine
Volume 45 page 214
First person interview with Jeanette Daley long time Hyde Park resident.
Inventory of the Town, Village, and City Archives of Vermont No. 8, Lamoille County Vol.V, Town Of Hyde Park