A historical quest for entertainment
By Peggy A. Ford. Originally published in the September 19, 1998, edition of the Weld County Past Times
Entertainment in Greeley in the 1870s was sparse when compared to contemporary standards, but people focused their efforts on building homes and businesses and digging irrigation ditches which were essential for successful farming in the semi-arid region.
The principles on which the town was founded – temperance, religion, education, cooperation, agriculture, irrigation and family values – attracted and unified a conservative group of easterners who were willing to gamble their lives’ savings to start anew life in the west.
A model temperance community, Greeley passed ordinances prohibiting saloons, variety halls and billiards within the city limits, so entertainment here was dramatically different from that found in other towns in Colorado Territory.
Attacking and burning down makeshift “watering holes” which sprouted on the city’s outskirts was Greeley’s unique version of a recreational activity with a moral victory attached to the effort.
Dubbed “City of Saints” because of its temperance rules and many churches, Greeley received a number of complaints that there was nothing to do in town.
For example, Grace Greenwood, a British correspondent was warned by a fellow passenger as she rode the Denver-Pacific train from Cheyenne to Greeley: “Don’t stop in Greeley. You’ll die of dullness in less than five hours. The place it humbug.”
Another Englishwoman, Isabella Bird, visited in 1873 and in her book “A Lady’s life in the rocky Mountains” wryly observed that by 5 p.m., “as the men have no bar rooms to sit in, Greeley is asleep when most other places are just beginning the revelries.”
Sensing that the colonists needed inspiration beyond their daily work to keep them happy, Greeley’s founder, N.C. Meeker, urged people to form clubs to meet their needs for education, entertainment and social life. Clubs were established for every interest or activity and provide home-made diversions from the daily grind of living.
There were lyceums, literary societies, musical and dramatic clubs and farmers’ organizations.
In 1870, humorist and showman Alf Burnett presented the first entertainment in Greeley in a 34-foot by 64-foot frame barracks building known as the “Hotel d’Comfort.” It was purchased in Cheyenne and converted into a crowded dormitory for people newly arrived from the east.
Later that year, the Greeley Dramatic Associated was organized in the attic of E.T. Nichols Emporium at 8th Street and 9th Avenue. The troupe presented the first play in Greeley, “Handy Andy” and “Dutchman’s Ghost,” followed by the ever-popular “Ten Nights in a Barroom” and “Jumbo Jum.”
The love of music resonates deeply throughout Greeley’s history. Many Greely pioneers were New Yorkers and accomplished musicians, and concerts garnered large audiences.
The Greeley Silver Coronet Band was one of the several musical groups founded in Greeley, and the town board paid for the instruments the group ordered from Chicago. Taking advantage of the grandeurs of Colorado, band members established their dedication to music and fitness when they ascended Long’s Peak on Sept. 21, 1880.
Instead of backpacks, they shouldered their instruments and all but two reached the summit, for a “Rocky Mountain high” concert of patriotic songs.
Entertainment popular in the 1870s included plays, parlor skating and croquet. Of croquet, the Greeley Tribune commented that it was “the favorite fall and winter amusement of our people. It is a frightful moral game and would be nicer if it were naughtier.”
In March, 1875, P.T. Barnum, the great showman and circus king bought the Nichols block from his cousin, E.T. Nichols, and reopened it as “Barnum Hall,” Greeley’s first civic auditorium.
The Good Templars performed here in December 1875 and in his review, Mr. Meeker proudly wrote, “Aside from the lady teachers, almost all the actors are farmers, and collectively they have raised this year 20,000 bushels of grain and potatoes. It is certainly a mystery as to where and how they received so much culture, for it is generally supposed that only wealthy young men of the best families and of large opportunities are nay way fitted to excel in private theatricals.”
The Good Templars fired up local enthusiasm for “Theatricals” in May 1878 with their rendition of “The Streets of New York.” One of the scenes features a burning house on the stage at Barnum Hall, and although dangerous, the Tribune reviewer felt the staged conflagration was a “particularly praiseworthy scenic effect.”
Greeleyites were treated to band performances such as the German Military Band and minstrel shows such as the Tennessee Jubilee Singers.
Although plays such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were big hits, original works by local authors were also showcased. Annie M. green, a colonist from Pennsylvania, organized an amateur thespian troupe, the Union Colony Victim Company, and staged in Barnum Hall her drama “Ten Years on the Great American Desert,” a satirical and humorous expose of Greeley from 1870 to 1880.
Greeleyites’ eyes were opened in 1879 by a “scantily clad” female tightrope artist who tip-toed across a rope stretched between buildings at the intersection of 8th Avenue and 8th Street.
In September of 1880, P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus brought 400 entertainers to town in 54 railroad cars.
A tent capable of holding 10,000 people was set up on the circus lot in east Greeley – near present-day Sunrise Park.
To round out the month, the Wizard Oil Combination, a traveling medicine show, and a lecture by Mrs. Anna Eliza Young, on of Brigham Young’s disenchanted wives, provided diverse entertainment options for a growing city of almost 2,000 residents.