Theatre in 1880s Southeast Colorado: Ten Nights in a Bar Room

A part of the history of Old Boston, Colorado  which might go unnoticed is the attempt by the town founders to build a civil and cultured existence in an environment that seemed to produce anything but civility. Their attempts at taming the “noted burying ground” as it was described in the following news clipping seems like a futile exercise as we look back with 20/20 hindsight. 

Finney County Democrat (Garden City, Kansas) 15 Dec 1888.

Still, some of their efforts with a community theatrical troupe and a community band led by Freeman Jess Newton and the Jennings were admirable. The storyline of the play discussed in this narrative is of temperance, which you might not expect from the characters assembled in the town of Old Boston.  

Other towns in the boomtown era such as Wilde, Springfield, and Holmes City played on the wild nature of towns such as Boston, Minneapolis, Vilas, and Carrizo when recruiting homesteaders and investors. They included statements in their town advertisements such as the following:

“WILDE A PROHIBITION TOWN. While Colorado is not a prohibition State, there are a number of noted towns like Manitou Springs, Greeley, etc., which have adopted the method of inserting a clause in all deeds forever prohibiting the sale of intoxicants, and wherever this method has been adopted and adhered to on the part of the town projectors, it has proved eminently successful. Manitou Springs is noted as one of the most cultured, refined and moral cities in the United States, whether east or west; and it owes it to the one thing of prohibition, which has excluded the whiskey element, and attracted a class of people in favor of temperance, schools and churches. The three town companies of Wilde, Springfield and Holmes in joint meeting adopted the prohibition plan for all three towns, for which are facetiously called dry towns, cognomen* the projectors are only too willing to adopt.”

Other towns such as Boston didn’t seem to have such concerns about alcohol use, but they at the same time entertained with a play whose primary theme was prohibition.

Several news clippings discuss a theatrical production produced by the Boston Colorado amateur dramatic troupe. The play “Ten Nights in a Bar Room,” is based on an 1854 novel, “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There” written by American author Timothy Shay Arthur. In the 1850s, sales of the book were second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ten Nights in a Bar-room was a financial success for Arthur and the novel transferred to play format, so it was used to promote prohibition to large audiences. The play based on the novel continued to be popular even after prohibition in the United States, although it was often presented as a parody.

Illustration from an 1882 edition of  “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There” 

We see the play mentioned several times in Boston related articles, such as this excerpt from The Democratic Principle (Syracuse, Kansas) · Wed, Dec 14, 1887, 

The novel is presented by an unnamed narrator who makes an annual visit to the fictional town of Cedarville. On his first visit, he stops at the new tavern, the Sickle and Sheaf. The proprietor, Simon Slade, is a former miller who gave up the trade for the more lucrative tavern. The business is a family affair, with Slade’s wife Ann, son Frank, and daughter Flora assisting him. The narrator also observes the town drunk, Joe Morgan. The father of a loving wife and family, he meets his moral downfall when introduced to alcohol. Morgan becomes an alcoholic and spends most of his time at a bar. One day, his daughter begs him to return to his family. He ignores her desires until she is hit in the head by a flying glass as she goes to retrieve her father. Slade had thrown the tumbler at Morgan so, to a degree, her death is on his hands. On her deathbed, the daughter begs Morgan to abandon alcohol, to which he agrees. The novel progresses through the ruinous fall of more characters all at the hands of hard drink and other vices (gambling becomes another major reform notion in the text). Shay spends some time discussing corruption in politics with the corrupt “rum party” candidate from Cedarville, Judge Lyman. The narrator notes how even the drinkers in the story call for “the Maine Law“ which will prohibit alcohol from being so temptingly available. The novel closes with the death of Simon Slade, already mutilated from an earlier riotous sequence of murders and mob mentality, at the hands of his son. The two had gotten into a drunken argument and Frank strikes his father in the head with a bottle. In the final scene the narrator sees the post with the once pristine and now gross and rotten Sickle and Sheaf totem chopped down after the town’s moral fiber showed itself in a series of resolutions that led to the destruction of all the alcohol on the premises.

Ten Nights in a Bar Room was the play the Boston Dramatic Troupe was putting on after the shooting of Henry Savoie, in the streets of Old Boston, by Big Bill Thompson.  The January 4, 1888 edition of the Trinidad newspaper, The Citizen tells us,  

“Excitement now about subsided since the burial of Savoie. William Thompson and Ben Darnell left here for Vilas this morning.  They have softened public feeling to a considerable extent by their amicable conducted while here.  Their statement and explanation were very different from Savoies’ They came in on Saturday evening and rough time was expected on account of several rumours which had gained credence since they left several days before for Trinidad.  One of them was to the effect that the editor of the Boston Banner would be brought to terms for publishing Savoie’s ante mortem statement with comments.  The play  “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” was being acted when they arrived and about thirty well armed deputy marshalls were placed in the hall to quell any riot which might arise.  Word was repeatedly sent to the editor that he would be shot on the stage (he was playing the part of Swiehel.) Nothing happened, however, and at last the people are getting down to business again.  – The Citizen (Trinidad Colorado) 4 Jan 1888.   NOTE:  Swiehel was likely to reference the character Simon Slade. 

In the above news clipping, Boston Banner Editor, George Daniels, plays the part of Simon Switzel, however as there was no character with the name Switzel, they are likely referencing the character, Simon Slade. The Leader-Democrat (Richfield, Kansas) · 28 Jan 1888.

Old Boston was as Wild as They Come, but some of the related stories almost humanize the characters who attempted to create this town on the Southeast Colorado plains. Stay Tuned for more….

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