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Burch and the Wadena opera hall

Soon after the end of World War II, when I was new in the hardware business, I made a delivery to Henry Franklin Burch in his magnificent red brick mansion on south Jefferson. When I knocked on the door I was greeted by this pleasant old gentleman, who invited me in, thanked me for making the delivery and asked me if I would like to see his home. My only regret now is that I wasn't in to the history business then and that I didn't ask him a million questions about early Wadena.

He took me through all of the main floor including his bedroom, which was actually the office adjoining the receptionist desk at Kennedy & Nervig, which contained a massive oak bed, with a huge lion's head in the head board, a tour of the kitchen with what appeared to be marble topped cupboards and a commode off to the side which was entered through bat wing doors. The great display of oak wood work was beautiful. Of course you can see some of this today if you visit the Kennedy & Nervig Law Offices, which purchased the property after Burch died.

Burch was born in Quebec, Canada in 1855 coming to Minnesota at the age of 21 in 1876, working for his brother, Charley, at his store in Perham. Another account has it that Henry came to Minnesota at the age of 16, working for a short time at the Bly Store in Brainerd before coming to Perham. It also stated that he spent a short time in the Black Hills fighting Indians. You can pick your story.

In 1877, he came to Wadena taking a job clerking for Pineo & Yeaton, a general store at 11 Aldrich Avenue SE and in 1878 opened Henry Burch's Cash Store. In an 1879 Northern Pacific Farmer, he advertised "Just received fall and winter goods." In 1880 he entered into a partnership with Charles Peake, Peake & Burch General Store at 1 Aldrich Ave. SE.

In 1880, Peake purchased the business of Pineo & Yeaton, a general store, at 11 Aldrich Avenue SE, creating the Peake Store, and later that year formed the partnership mentioned above. An announcement in the Wadena Tribune of September 1880 states: "Peake & Burch are now located in their mammoth new store, which notwithstanding its large size (the largest on the road from Duluth to Fargo) is already well filled with goods and 'Hank' says they are not half in yet." (1 Aldrich Avenue SE)

In 1885, Burch purchased Peake's interest and formed the H. F. Burch Store at 1 Aldrich Avenue SE. Bear in mind that originally the stores on the 102 block of Jefferson (Site of Michael Craig's Ameriprise in 2009) all faced north on Front Street and the railroad tracks rather than on Jefferson.

A story is told of Burch in his early years that one day he faced a lady customer who wanted to know if a certain piece of material would wash. With his usual droll sense of humor, Burch replied, "Sure it'll wash. Anything will wash but I can't tell you how it will turn out."

In 1896, owing to growth of his business, he needed larger quarters and moved to 219 Jefferson South in the building known as Society Hall, the 2009 home of Dave Quincer's number two and three movie screens.

In 1898, his former building, which he still owned at 1 Aldrich, burned and was completely destroyed. The occupants, Ed Lovdahl Saloon and John Breher Hardware, were out of business. After the fire, Burch rebuilt the building now standing at 102-104 Jefferson south (home of Ameriprise Investments, Michael Craig in 2009). He moved back into this building in April 1899.

In 1907, slowing down and getting older, Burch took on a partner, Theodore Thompson, and the store was renamed The Model Department Store. This partnership was amicably dissolved in 1910 with Burch retaining the business. In 1919, after World War I and the return of two sons from service, they took over the store, buying out their father's interests.

In 1927, they had an opportunity to lease the building to the J. C. Penney Company for a 20-year period and then downsized their operation, moving next door into 106 Jefferson South, the Pizza Ranch in 2009, and operating Burch Brothers Grocery. This continued until 1938 when they closed out the business and the building was then occupied by the L. B. Hartz Grocery chain.

In an 1877 Wadena Tribune, mention is made of a turkey dinner given by Charlie Stuart, local depot agent to which Henry Burch was invited along with others and that all of the guests were amply filled.

In an 1879 Northern Pacific Farmer, mention is made of the Wadena Quartette consisting of Messrs. Whitney, Burch, Potter and Strasburg who were starting on their tour after Christmas. I would like to know where the tour took them.

In 1885, when Henry Burch bought out his partner Charles Peake, he of course bought Peake's interest in the building, which included the second floor opera house known as Peake's hall. This opera hall was the show place of Wadena presenting entertainments of traveling road shows, concerts, Chautauquas, lectures, dances, band concerts and political rallies. There is not much notice of the opera hall until 1892 when a Tribune article stated as follows: "Wadena now has as cozy and handsome little opera house as any town of its size in the state, thanks to the enterprise of Henry F. Burch. Recently, a gang of paper hangers, painters and decorators have transformed the hall into a model. Besides painting of wood work, walls and ceilings throughout, the most noted improvement is the enlarging of the stage, located in the south end of the hall, and the putting in of new scenery. The old drop curtain with the mounted Indian warrior for a center piece and begrimed advertisements for a border, has been displaced by a new and larger one. The curtain is of itself a poem and is the handiwork of a first class scenic artist in Chicago. It represents a very pretty and romantic scene in which a silvery lake, dotted with snowy sails of numerous boats, is the prominent feature. The scenery included an appropriate street scene, elaborate and handsome parlor scene, kitchen scene and a forest scene. This will meet every requirement of a town the size of Wadena. The opera house will be opened May 2 by the "Sleeping Queen Opera company." After the fire of 1898 the building was rebuilt and in so doing, Burch, after being convinced that the public would support it, by an advanced ticket sale of 191 tickets at $5 each, installed an even larger, better hall on the second floor. At the grand opening in 1901 the Hall featured the Sanford Dodge Company presenting the play "Virginius" which the newspaper pronounced fully up to expectations. The opera house was the center of Wadena social activities including high school graduations, junior and senior class plays, band concerts and traveling road shows. In 1930, the hall was again improved with new lighting and heating systems, a new stage erected, 10 by 24 feet and new seating arrangements to a capacity of 500 people. These changes were necessitated by the fact that the Cozy Theatre, which in the past had shared productions could no longer do so, due to the installation of talking pictures. The first presentation after the remodeling was the High School Junior Class Play, "Penrod." My main recollection of performances in the early 1930s were "Burch the Magician" (no relation) and a senior class play starring my uncle, Harold Zosel. The last great event was the staging of the "Last Great Gala Event," promoted by Jerry Uselman in 1981. This played to a packed house of mostly old timers come to view the opera house one last time. Of course with the advent of Memorial Auditorium in 1934 the opera hall no longer existed.

During the interim years it housed the Disco Dena, 1967, operated by Ralph Paradeau, in 1968 to 1976, the Elks Club when they first started out, The Loft was operated by Gary Collins in 1976 and the Minnesota National Guard unit for a short period of time. I believe at one time Jerry Uselman intended to put upscale apartments there but this never materialized. The Opera House certainly filled, along with the Cozy Theatre, a great need for the town of Wadena.

In 1884, Burch went back to New Brunswick, Canada to bring Anna Teresa Donahue to Wadena and marry her in the Episcopal Church with the Rev. E. S. Peake officiating. They became acquainted a short time earlier when Anna came to Wadena to visit her sister, Mrs. Thomas Mullen. To this union were born five children, Jeffrey, who died in infancy, Bernard (Bernie) (Laurie Ward), Louisa (Mrs. Rol Barron), Edna (Mrs. Ed Chesnut) and Fenwick (Sophia Edinger.)

Read more about Henry Burch's life in Wadena in an upcoming issue of the Pioneer Journal.