Submitted Stories for
Submitted By: M Bradley
After the Civil War, as well, lead mining declined, and “zinc took over as the primary ore produced in the southwestern region.” By the early 1880s as zinc prices soared, a building boom with a total of 18 buildings erected occurred along Water Street, Shullsburg’s commercial district. Joseph Copeland, one of the community’s most prominent citizens, president of the First National Bank, publisher of the Shullsburg Free Press and owner of the Copeland Mine and one of the town’s finest homes, persuaded the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad to build a spur from nearby Gratiot, Wisconsin, to Shullsburg in 1881, a move that facilitated transferring the zinc ore to market. Copeland’s vision for the community also included building the opera house that bears his name. With round-trip railroad service provided twice daily not only could the zinc ore be transferred to eastern to eastern markets but traveling theatre companies could also easily make the journey to rural, isolated Shullsburg. Construction of the Opera House: “A grand monument to our public spirited townsman” Construction on the Copeland Opera House began in April 1882, which the Shullsburg Free Press described in detail throughout the spring and summer of 1882. By June C. C. Denio, a Galena contractor, had completed laying the brick on the building’s foundation, while by August, the walls of Opera House were being plastered and traveling troupes were arranging to perform at Copeland’s Opera House upon the theatre’s opening. Staley and Slaughter painted the walls and the scenery, the latter built by John Truran, Jr., son of the local prominent citizen, who in the following years also performed in numerous home talent entertainments. Once the walls were completed, the painters began painting a fresco above the auditorium. By the end of August, as the theatre neared completion, H. E. Maclellan, the editor of the Shullsburg Free Press, suggested to the young men of Shullsburg that they “commenced making preparations to dedicate Copeland’s Opera House with a grand ball,” no doubt to allow their young ladies the times to prepare for this momentous event. Constructed of stout maple flooring, the stage stood three feet from the floor of the auditorium and occupied one end of the hall. Eighteen feet deep and 42 feet wide, the stage had a faux proscenium arch comprised of wood and painted canvas 12 feet high and 20 feet wide, allowing for 11 feet of wing-space on either side with a door stage right leading to a second-story fire escape. The stage employed a tongue-and-groove scenery system, and the Opera House possessed a stock painted backdrops that were slid on and off stage. (Many of traveling troupes carted their own scenery to the theatre, a tidbit of information used to entice audiences to attend their performances.) The auditorium measured 42 by 60 feet and seated 400 people. There was no dressing room, no backstage egress except through the auditorium and primitive lighting at best. In fact, it was not until 1894, with a home talent production of The Brownies, that the Opera House rented a calcium light, or limelight, to illuminate the stage. A chandelier over the auditorium was installed in 1885, and a “very neat and convenient reserved seat board” was added to avoid mistakes in seating patrons in 1900.