“The Gay ’90s” in Springfield

“Young socialites” in the lobby of the original Leland Hotel, 1889. They were attending one of the semi-regular Assembly Balls referred to below. Left to right, they were: Temple Smith, Philip “Bart” Warren, Will Shutt, Horace Wiggins, Henry Walker, Carl Batchelder (the Leland’s night clerk – the photo was taken at 12:45 a.m., as the clock indicates), Fred Merritt, Waldo Reed, George Buck, George Wetherbee (seated front), and Will Vredenburgh. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

In 1943, V.Y. Dallman, longtime editor and columnist for the Illinois State Register, published a three-part reminiscence of the “Gay ‘90s” – at least, as they were experienced by Springfield’s upper crust. The series was written by a certified member of that upper crust, John Williams Black, the grandson of one of the city’s pioneer merchants. Here is an edited version of Black’s memories.

Springfield from its early settlement has always been a political as well as a social center. …

The assembling of the Legislature every Winter was an incentive and inspiration for its hospitable citizens to entertain for the members, and many were the gay parties given by them during the sessions.

At that time, it was the custom to keep open house on New Year’s Day for the men of the community to call on their lady friends. Those open-house receptions were wont to take on the aspect of brilliant parties where the parlors were shut out from the daylight, and relighted with gas and candles, with the hostesses in evening attire serving the most tempting and delicious viands covering the whole list of delectable dishes and often exhilarating, if not intoxicating, liquids.

These New Year’s receptions continued to the early Eighties when what are spoken of as the “Gay Nineties” began.

Receptions, parties and balls, as they were then termed, were frequent, as were the old-fashioned quadrilles or square dances. With these came the desire for round dances other than the old polka and the waltz,­ and the organizing of dancing clubs. Two of the earlier ones were the “Qui Vive” and the “O.S.D.C.” (Our Social Dancing Club), which held sway for some time, culminating in the Assembly Balls given each Winter season in the large dining room of the old Leland Hotel, on the first floor extending along the entire north side.

Here gathered the elite of the younger set with their guests from the surrounding cities. Prof. Louis Lehman, and his orchestra, an adjunct of the 5th Regiment Band, played the most enchanting waltzes by the best known composers.

These balls were in a way a revival of those given some years before by the old Governor’s Guard in their first Armory, the original Market House at the southeast corner of Fourth and Monroe, now the site of the Mine Workers building.

In this period the theatre was at its best. Springfield, being enroute between Chicago and St. Louis, enjoyed the best talent and best productions at the old Chatterton Opera House, also all the popular light operas, notably those of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Grand opera had found its way west from New York to Chicago. The finest voices of the day could be heard at Chatterton’s, which was the mecca for all enjoying that form of entertainment.

There were many fine vocalists, including Scalchi and Nevada, Eams, and, of course, the incomparable Adelina Patti, who by the way (as probably no one now living remembers) appeared in Springfield in the early days as a little girl and gave a concert with her older sister, Carlotta – as I had it from good authority – at a hall  opposite the C&A station on Third Street, and, I think, stopped at the old Chenery House. I also understand that Joseph Jefferson made his first appearance here at about the same period, as he did many times later.

So you see Springfield took to the theatrical stage from its early history. In the Gay Nineties there was some good local talent. The Governor’s Guard gave a play called “The Color Guard,” in which its members and their lady friends gave a very creditable performance, with Dick Dodds, Sam Grubb, Major Ed Hill and others making outstanding hits in their roles.

Also there was outstanding musical talent, including Mrs. Ella Huntington Henkle, Will Grimsley and Charles Wood (Carlos Modini) – who, after finishing his musical education abroad, was given on his return a complimentary concert at the Chatterton Opera House, in which the best local talent of the city took part, including those mentioned above and Mrs. Knapp, Harry Ives, Mrs. Lucy Williams and others.

At this time several amateur theatrical clubs were organized which gave plays, one of the most outstanding being the “Esmeralda” group, which presented performances – two here, one at Lincoln, Ill., and one at Jefferson City, Mo. At the latter place they were entertained at the Executive Mansion, of the regime of Governor Crittendon, uncle by marriage of John Nuckols, who was one of the cast. The other members were Hally Elliott (later Mrs. Franklin Ridgely, and Fanny Clark (later Mrs. Edward Ridgely), who alternated in the title role; Gertrude Dement (now Mrs. Edwards Brown), Lou Wolf, Ada Richardson (now Mrs. George W. Bunn Sr., Tom Kimber, Jacob Bunn, Charlie Lanphier, Will Tracy and the writer.

The “German” or Cotillion became popular at this period, one of the first being given at the residence of the late Col. William D. Richardson by his daughters, Emma and Ada, at the residence on South Second Street, now the American Legion Home. Later was organized the Mystic German Club, which gave a number of cotillions, one of the most outstanding of which was “The Mikado German” given at the Executive Mansion during the regime of Governor Richard J. Oglesby. …

Next came the era of card parties when many card clubs were organized, giving parties at the residences of the members, where progressive euchre and old-fashioned whist were played for prizes given for the highest scores.

Also picnic parties were popular and were held principally at the grounds of the Springfield Fishing Club at Clear Lake, east of the city, and Glenwood Park, southeast of the city on the south fork of the Sangamon. The participants often engaged the old high red bandwagon from Little’s Livery Stables and went in a group behind a four-in-hand team. The occupants, perched high in the air and singing as they proceeded on their way, presented a gay scene. Other more exclusive couples drove out in private vehicles to join the party of the bandwagon at the grounds.

The Sangamo Club was organized about this time, and with an adjunct club house at the State Fair Grounds where the members had a place to entertain their friends, political and social, during the State Fair and where liquid refreshments were served – exclusively and profusely – during the races.

Here many exciting finishes could be observed from the veranda, balcony and roof. One of the most notable was that between Joe Patchen and Star Pointer, which established a world’s record for pacing harness horses that lasted quite a while.

This club house stood for some years until the track was changed and the new grandstand was built. During these years there were several national political campaigns and many local clubs organized, and the day parades and the torchlight processions by night were very gay and exciting, engaged in by many from surrounding towns and villages, the lines of march often being miles in length.

The various local militia companies were organized into the Illinois National Guard about 1881 and first encampment held at Camp Cullom, in the northeast part of the city, near the Lutheran (Concordia) College. The following year a brigade encampment was held southeast of the city on the Elijah Iles farm, now the Wanless development. Both of these were participated in by Company C, 5th Regiment, the old Governor’s Guard.

Later the State Encampment Grounds were laid out at Camp Lincoln, at the northwest corner of the city, and the I.N.G. regiments each had a week of drills and parades which the citizens enjoyed, particularly the dress parades in the evening, also the regimental dinners and band concerts following. …

We had during these years a Floral Parade through the city streets and to the State Fair grounds, and there were many beautiful equipages decorated in the most exquisite style and admired by the onlookers as well as those taking part. Also, many lawn parties were given on grounds of private residences, some of the most outstanding being those given on the grounds of Dr. E.S. Fowler, South Second Street, occupying a full block from Cook Street to Wright Street, now Lawrence Avenue. On these occasions refreshments were served and often dancing, archery or lawn tennis enjoyed.

Later came golf, the first course being laid out on the infield of the old race track at the Fair Grounds, just after it was vacated by the troops departing for the Spanish-American War. Then a club house was built and a course laid out on West Lawrence Avenue, now Pasfield Park, and with similar developments at the Illini Country Club, in more recent years.

This period, often referred to as the “horse and buggy days,” was the time the horse came into his own, and many enjoyable drives were had behind a fast trotter, either to buggy or sleigh, not to mention those beautiful moonlight jaunts behind the same nags, which were trained to stand without hitching while the occupants gazed at the heavenly bodies and perhaps at those closer at hand.

At this time the Springfield Fire Department equipment was drawn by horses and though perhaps not as rapid or efficient as at present, to see engines dashing down the street behind a span of beautiful horses at full speed was much more spectacular than at present. …

So I trust you can judge by this brief outline that these years were well called the Gay Nineties. Perhaps there never was before and perhaps never will be again any more outstanding or enjoyable period in the history of Springfield.

Capt. John W. Black

John W. Black, undated (courtesy State Journal-Register)

John Williams Black (1862-1948) was the grandson of John Williams, who came to Springfield as a clerk in Elijah Iles’ store and went on to found Illinois National Bank, among other businesses.  Williams Boulevard in Springfield and the village of Williamsville are named after John Williams.

Black was a member of the Fifth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard (“the old Governor’s Guard” mentioned above), which he eventually commanded. He joined the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and saw active service in Cuba and Puerto Rico. As a businessman, he was associated with Ridgely National Bank, managed the Aetna Foundry and Machine Shops and invested in real estate. Black was a founding member of the Sangamo Club.

“John Black has for decades been a factor in the strengthening of the community which he served so long and loved so well,” the Register said in an editorial published when Black died.

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