The building at 429 West Water Street that today houses Fox River Country Mercantile was built in 1880 by the Princeton Turn Verein – a German gymnastics, social and cultural club – and known as Turner Hall. The Turners in 1905 renovated and expanded the building, which was billed in later years as the Princeton Opera House and Princeton Theatre.
The Turn Verein did not officially incorporate until 1878, but the Turners were active as early as 1874 when Louis Kunz, who founded a tannery here on the west side, agreed to lead the gymnastics classes.
Princeton Republic, July 11, 1874 – “We hear that the Turners’ picnic on the Fourth was a bright lively affair that pleased everyone who attended. The society is new, having only been organized some three or four weeks, but Mr. Kunz, the captain, is thoroughly posted in the business and has half a dozen young men who have had considerable experience. We hear they intend to rent a hall for the present but will as soon as possible build a good hall.”
Princeton Republic, September 5, 1874 – “The Turners of Princeton had a gala day on Monday last. They picnicked in the afternoon in the grove just south of the village, where we are informed after considerable hard work at turning, they partook at a bounteous repast, to which all spectators were invited. In the evening they congregated at Thiel’s Hall and tripped the fantastic, or more appropriately speaking, waltzed around until morning. … Altogether the day was made very enjoyable to those who love such sport. The Princeton Turners are now fully inaugurated and will be, henceforth, one of the institutions of the burg.”
Water Lot 32, where the Turn Verein erected its first Turner Hall in 1878, was among five parcels that Henry Treat, who purchased all the land in the original plat of Princeton from the U.S. government in June 1849, sold to Philo Knapp for $40 in September 1849 (Deeds, Volume B, Page 346).
Knapp sold Lots 31 and 32 to Charles Stacy for $50 in November 1849 (Deeds, Volume C, Page 292). Stacy sold Lot 31 and 12 feet off the west side of Lot 32 and the west 54 feet to Lafayette Fisher for $20 in November 1850 (Deeds, Volume D, Page 243), who sold a combination of lots to Jerome Fisher for $600 in July 1854 (Deeds, Volume J, Page 284).
Jerome Fisher sold to Lafayette L. Anjer for $165 in January 1867 (Deeds, Volume 28, Page 151).
Princeton Republic, Sept. 5, 1867 – “L.L. Anjer, Esq., is about to build on his lot at the intersection of River Street with Water Street – just east of Parsons’ jewelry store.”
(I am unsure whether Anjer built on Lot 32.)
Anjer sold to Lafayette Fisher for $250 in August 1868 (Deeds, Volume 30, Page 56). Lafayette Fisher sold to F.T. Yahr for $200 in October 1877 (Deeds, Volume 37, Page 502).
Princeton Republic, Dec. 7, 1877 – “The Turners have sought or have made arrangements to buy the lot just east of Rat Parson’s old store for the purpose of erecting a Turn Halle.”
Yahr sold the east 50 feet of Lot 32 to the Princeton Turn Verein in 1878 for $200 (Deeds, Volume 40, Page 191).
Princeton Republic, May 16, 1878 – “The Princeton Turners had the finest of a time last Tuesday night, it being the christening of their Hall. The music was first-class and the whole party was a success.”
Princeton Republic, May 29, 1878 – “The Turners undoubtedly know their own business, but the hall they are putting up near Rat Parsons’ old stand, the dimensions of which are 24×40 feet, is creating some surprise, inasmuch as it was anticipated that they would put up a fine hall, 40×60 feet, with stage, scenery and dressing rooms, according to the latest style. Such an enterprise would have proved a profitable venture, but the small hall now being erected will only serve for their own meetings, and we fear they will find it too small for their comfort or convenience.”
Princeton Republic, Sept. 12, 1878 – “The Turners have erected a fair-sized stage on the south end of their hall, and from a Princeton view, it is a big thing inasmuch as it is the first regular stage built in this village. The hall is ready for plaster.”
The Turners barely had time to break in the building before fire wiped out the south side of the 400 block of Water Street and several buildings on Short Street in April 1880.
Princeton Republic, April 15, 1880 – “The devastating hand of the fire fiend has been laid heavily upon Princeton. Eleven buildings have gone up in flame and smoke. By far the heaviest conflagration this village ever experienced occurred last Sunday. A little after four o’clock smoke was discovered issuing from the Hubbard House barn. The alarm was promptly given, and our citizens commenced rushing toward the Hubbard House corner. … By this time, the flames were bursting through the building and attention was directed and an effort made to save the Hubbard House, the rear end of which was some two or three rods from the barn. But soon the intense heat made this attempt abortive. Soon flames were issuing from the rear of Mart Wicks’ building which was just east of the Hubbard House and seemed to be rather nearest in the line in which the wind carried the flames. The smoke soon issuing from the rear of the Hubbard House showed the utter weakness of all human attempts to fight the fiend, and attention was turned to saving what could be secured from doomed buildings which lay in the path of destruction. Soon the Hubbard House and Wicks building were a sheet of flame. A few short minutes and T.J. Jakeman’s dwelling a few feet farther east was wrapped in the fiery element. Mr. Jakeman’s jewelry store was next in turn. From that in a short space of time the seething, blistering flames had enveloped Turner Hall, Mrs. Dantz’s house, Charlie Hess’ wagon and blacksmith shop, Tim Paull’s icehouse, and a house belong to Mr. Paull, occupied by Mr. C. Piper, and a small barn belong to the premises also used by the latter gentleman. In the space of a hour or the above property was reduced to ashes. … In the destruction of their hall the Turners claim a loss of $900. Insurance $400.”
While it would take several years for most of the burned buildings to be replaced, the Turners announced within a month of the fire that they would rebuild.
Princeton Republic, May 6, 1880 – “The Turners will commence the erection of a new hall ere long on the site of the burned one. The dimensions of the new building will be somewhere near 40×70 feet. The hall will be about 20 feet from floor to ceiling. There will be a basement which will be ample for society meetings, storage rooms, etc. The above is simply an outline of the project as near as we can learn, although not definite in particulars perhaps, as present plans are liable to change as suggestions are made.”
Princeton Republic, May 27, 1880 – “The Turners lay the cornerstone of their new hall today.”
The Republic reported the foundation was almost completed by the end of June. The lumber arrived on time, and carpenters commenced elevating the frame about July 1. The lot in the rear was later fenced and landscaped.
Princeton Republic, Sept 2, 1880 – “The flag of Columbia can be elevated about 80 feet in height upon the new flag staff erected on the Turner Hall.”
Princeton Republic, Sept. 30, 1880 – “The Turners did not have as large a crowd at their hall dedication as they expected. If they were disappointed in the crowd Thursday during the day, the dance in the evening was a success.”
Princeton Republic, Oct. 4, 1883 – “The 200th anniversary of the landing of the first Germans in America occurs next Saturday. The event will be observed in a great many cities and other localities in the United States. The Germans here celebrate by giving a dance at Turner Hall that evening.”
Princeton Republic, Feb. 7, 1884 – “The grand opening of a roller-skating rink will take place at Turner Hall in Princeton on Saturday evening, Feb. 2. J.E. Williams manager. Will C. Pettibone, the champion skater of the Northwest, will give an exhibition of fancy and expert skating. If the management receives sufficient encouragement the rink will be continued for the season. Music by the Princeton Brass Band. Exhibit at 9 o’clock. Doors open at 7. Admission 10 cents, skates 15 cents. The hall will be open at 2 o’clock in the afternoon for practice. Admission 10 cents; skates free.”
The Republic on several occasions over the years unsuccessfully encouraged the Turners to veneer the building with brick. The newspaper also faithfully tracked the group’s improvements.
Princeton Republic, Dec. 5, 1889 – “We expect to see Turner Hall improved with a covering of brick next season. In that case probably its walls will no longer be used as a bulletin board and plastered with last year’s circus pictures.”
Princeton Republic, Sept. 4, 1890 – “The Republic failed to mention in proper season the fact that the front of Turner Hall has been painted and the name ‘Turn Halle’ painted in conspicuous characters over the door. The appearance of the structure is materially improved.”
Princeton Republic, Jan. 7, 1897 – “Through the courtesy of Messrs. Caldwell and Case, the writer was a privileged admirer Tuesday evening of the new curtain just hung at Turner Hall. As a work of art, it is a masterpiece, and does, indeed, fill the proverbial ‘long felt want’ as the old curtain and scenery has not been in keeping with the other improvements of the for hall for several years past. The representation on the curtain is a Venetian scene, painted in terra cotta and a lovely blue, around which is ground the advertisements of a number of our most prominent and enterprising businessmen. The scene painting is one that Mr. Caldwell may well feel proud of, and the work by Mr. Case is well done and artistic. Two more scenes have also been added to the old scenery, and if the members of the Turn Verein would now put in new scenery throughout, as undoubtedly they will, no place of our size in the state could boast of a finer hall for entertainment, and we would get the class of shows that have not patronized our town before as our scenery was not such as they needs must have to put on a first-class entertainment.”Princeton Republic, June 1, 1899 – “The Turners have been having the walls of their hall calsomined this week and the woodwork of the basement re-painted, which brightens up the interior very much. Fred Caldwell is doing some neat fresco work in Turner Hall. The scenic view which he painted back of the bar presents a handsome view of mountain and wooded landscape.”
Princeton Republic, June 1, 1899 – “The Turners have been having the walls of their hall calsomined this week and the woodwork of the basement re-painted, which brightens up the interior very much. Fred Caldwell is doing some neat fresco work in Turner Hall. The scenic view which he painted back of the bar presents a handsome view of mountain and wooded landscape.”
Movies were showing regularly at Turner Hall by 1904, and the Turners decided in 1905 to enlarge their hall. Bert Shew, Ed Zierke and Robert Schaal visited Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and Appleton in April to look over stages in opera houses preparatory to drawing plans for a new stage for Turner Hall.
Princeton Republic, October 12, 1905 – “The opening dance of the new Turner Hall will be held Friday evening, Oct. 27th. Princeton now has a hall that it may well feel proud of. The hall has been lengthened about thirty feet and a new large stage erected, finely fitted up with state scenery. A complete outfit of waterworks has been installed, dining room fitted up, repainted and galvanized iron siding put on the building. This has put the Turn Verein to an expense of $6,000. They will hold an opening dance on Friday evening, October 27th.”
Princeton Republic, November 2, 1905 – “The Turners’ opening dance, which was held Friday evening, was a decided success. Upwards of 300 tickets were sold. As the people came into the hall, they were much surprised to note the great change in the appearance of the interior of the building. The hall proper has been lengthened about twenty-five feet and a fine new stage erected, including a beautiful arch. The walls are covered with oil paintings representing the four seasons of the year, which are the work of artist F.M. Caldwell, who deserves much credit for the excellence of the work. Our people had not heretofore appreciated the artistic talent of this gentleman.”
When electricity became available, the hall managers voted in July 1911 to install two large electric fans in the hall.
Princeton Republic, Nov. 24, 1920 – “The Turner Hall for the past great many years owned and conducted by a number of our citizens was recently sold to three of our hustling young businessmen, V.F. Yahr, Frank Mueller Jr. and Orlo Maulick. The newly organized company contemplate many changes and improvements in the Opera House. Last week they went to Milwaukee and purchased 320 new opera chairs of the latest type which are expected here in a very few days. New chandeliers have been purchased and other electric fixtures will be installed, which means an entire new lighting system. A new spotlight was also procured. The new company will also install a new gallery that will accommodate several hundred people. The front entrance of the hall will be remodeled, swinging doors will be made, and the ticket office will be installed in the hallway. A canopy will be built which will extend over the walk. When completed it promises to be one of the best equipped and most complete opera houses in this part of the state.”
Princeton Republic, July 7, 1932 – “Application of insulating material to the interior of the Opera House and changes in installation of apparatus have made a wonderful improvement to the acoustics of the hall. Patrons of the movies will now be able to enjoy perfect reproduction of sound. No other movie house in this territory can now truthfully claim to have better reception.”
Arthur Freitag and Walter Golz managed the opera house from November 1933 to January 1934.
Princeton Republic, Jan. 11, 1934 – “The Princeton Opera House will be under a new management in the month of February. Wesley Ladwig, formerly of this city, now of Milwaukee, has taken over the building. His plans are to replace the old machinery with an entire new outfit and promises are made that Princeton’s movie show will rank among the best in the state.”
Princeton Republic, Feb. 8, 1934 – “The motion sound engineer of Milwaukee has arrived in Princeton and is installing the new movie sound equipment at the Princeton Opera House. The work will be completed in time for the first picture scheduled to be shown this coming Saturday and Sunday evening. A record crowd is expected as this is the first picture to run in Princeton in some time and the first with the new sound. The equipment is of the very latest design, and everyone will want to hear it. W.J. Ladwig, the new manager, has informed us that he has booked some of the outstanding successes of this year and will begin with Warner Bros. special “Footlight Parade.” That picture has an all-star cast including Joan Blondell, James Cagney, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee and others.”
In addition to managing the Princeton Opera House, Ladwig purchased the Montello theater. He installed new lighting equipment in Princeton in September 1934 and air conditioning in 1936.
Princeton Times-Republic, July 22, 1937 – “Work of installing two hundred new velour upholstered opera chairs in the Princeton Theatre was finished last week. … Not only are the seats extremely comfortable, but, through the stagger arrangement, each occupant has an unobstructed view of the screen. Then too the wide aisles between rows enable patrons to take their seats without disturbing those already seated.”
In March 1939, Princeton Turn Verein Inc. sold the property at 429 West Water to Dennett and Eileen Barrett “together with all the furnishing, furniture and equipment now in or upon the above-described premises pertaining to the theatre or motion picture business” (Deeds, Volume 104, Page 6).
Princeton Times-Republic, April 18, 1940 – “The management of the Princeton Theatre announced that they have booked the feature movie attraction of the decade, “Gone With the Wind,’ to show at the Princeton Theatre Thursday and Friday, May 14-15. This will be the complete picture and will be shown exactly as presented at the Atlanta premier. Princeton is among the first of the smaller communities in the state to secure a date for this picture, and the management of the Princeton Theatre is to be congratulated upon its enterprise in securing this fine attraction for the show-goers in this area.”
The Bennetts also purchased the theater in Montello, but their stay was short-lived.
Princeton Times-Republic, Dec. 12, 1940 – “Reserve Captain Dennett Barrett has received orders to report for active duty. … Mrs. Barrett will manage the Princeton and Montello theatres during her husband’s absence.”
The Barretts sold their theaters in Princeton and Montello to I.J. Craite for $20,000 a few months later (Deeds, Volume 104, Page 531).
Princeton Times-Republic, July 10, 1941 – “A deal was concluded Wednesday (yesterday) by which L.J. Craite, formerly of Horicon, became the owner of the Princeton and Montello theatres. Mr. Craite comes here with 15 years of experience in the show house business. He had a large theatre in Fort Atkinson and, later, built up a fine show business at Horicon which he sold about a year ago. … Captain and Mrs. Barrett have made many friends since coming to Princeton in March 1939 who will be sorry that the circumstances of national defense have made it necessary for them to withdraw from the show business.”
(Capt. Barrett was en route to the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941. He was assigned to base headquarters in Australia and later to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s advance headquarters in New Guinea. He served 31 months overseas and was promoted to major.)
Princeton Times-Republic, June 4, 1942 – “A new modernistic front of maroon and cream Masonite has greatly improved the appearance of the Princeton Theatre. Manager Craite is to be congratulated for this fine improvement and has certainly set an example that could be followed by other local business places.”
Princeton Times-Republic, Dec. 9, 1943 – “The Princeton Theatre is having a new wood ceiling installed.”
Craite sold to Melvin and Helen Reibold in August 1944 (Deeds, Volume 108, Page 582).
Princeton Times-Republic, July 6, 1944 – “One of the most important deals to be concluded here recently involved the sale by I.J. Craite of his theatre properties here and at Montello to M.L. Reibold, of Waupun, an experienced theatre operator. The theatres will be under the management of Edward Bartell, of Beaver Dam.”
Princeton Times-Republic, Dec. 2, 1948 – “A new oil heating system is being installed at the Princeton Theatre. This will conclude quite an extensive program of improvements, including an air-conditioned system and the installation of rest rooms which make this one of the best-appointed smalltown theatres in the state.”
That completes our survey of the first 100 years of Water Lot 32 (1848-1948), but I looked ahead a few years while at the register of deeds office earlier this week.
The Reibolds sold in March 1958 to the Princeton Theatre Corporation (Deeds, Volume 145, Page 475), which managed the theater until March 1965, when it sold to Elmer Krueger (Deeds, Volume 186, Page 589), who had first made his reputation as a projectionist by showing outdoor movies in area communities on weekends.
Elmer Krueger worked hard to keep the theater open but could not make it work. He sold the building and east 50 feet Water Lot 32 to Betty Seavecki, who relocated the local dime store from the 500 block to 429 West Water Street, for $10,000 in April 1973 (Deeds, Volume 251, Page 280).
I will update with additional details as my newspaper research expands into the 1950s and beyond.
Thank you for reading and caring about local history.