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  • Alice Kay Hill

QUEEN OF THE PRAIRIE



Dusty-backed rattlesnakes, coldly oblivious to an artificial world, were displayed in an unlikely place: the storefront windows of the two-story 1907 Shirley Opera House, Atwood, KS. Rawlins County boys tasted fear and conquered it by rapping on the wavery panes of original glass, hoping to create a strike. This was an ageless form of entertainment, baiting danger at the expense of a perceived enemy. It was not, however, fit entertainment for the Opera House.

My first awareness of the “Queen of the Prairie” was in the early 1970’s. This was a low point in the history of the Shirley Opera House; a time of decay and misuse as one era bled into the next. Many historically valuable properties original to the settlement of this northwestern corner of Kansas had fallen during the 1950’s boom of modernization, but the Opera House persisted.

The original use of the main floor was Mr. Shirley’s “Cash Grocery”. It has been related that Mr. Shirley would stay open until he had sold one dollar’s worth of candy and then close for the day.

The upstairs, accessed by the exterior cement stairs seen in the photo, offered local talent such as “A Prince of Liars, May 10, 1907, directed by Miss Beulah Monroe”. The Atwood Orchestra played for dances and the Woodmen held their First Annual Grand Ball within the large space. Traveling performances by theatrical groups such as the Ruth Craven Company, the Ted North Players, and the Hillman Stock Company brought drama, culture, and comedy to the upstairs stage.

While the second floor changed with the times to house a saloon, a rolling skating and shooting gallery, wrestling matches, and political debates the main floor businesses included a printing office, a dental office, the Moss Grocery, an abstract office and, in 1932, the Owl Café. That is when UNDER A FULL MOON The Last Lynching in Kansas finds its connection.

For thirty years, beginning in the 1940’s, the main floor of this fine building had been used as a meat processing plant and cold storage facility for the area; Mr. Charlie Bird’s Locker and Grocery. Livestock was butchered in an annex built onto the far-north end of the original building and more than once a terrified animal escaped onto the streets of Atwood, literally fleeing for its life.

When my youthful attention was attracted to the molesting of the snakes I was in my early teens and angry at the mindless teasing I witnessed. I was also disgusted by the condition of this classic building. At that time, it was owned by Arlie Hafer who continued to run the locker business. His interest in wild animals of the plains included a coyote run between the Opera House and the law office building to the east. This area could be viewed from above by climbing the original stairs to the second floor. Many cruel acts towards this helpless creature also entertained youth sent to bring home bacon or burger for the family meal.

Soon, however, new regulations relating to food safety closed the livestock/locker business. For a short while the building was owned by a non-local, Mr. Ronald Van Riessen who used the facility as storage for his frozen food distribution enterprise. No improvements were made.

The next owner was Fred Downing who purchased the building in 1976 to house his “Horsetrader’s Antiques” operation. Several young women, myself included, set up a sewing shop in the main room with the idea of designing custom shirts for the men in town. This project did not last, and the decline of the building continued.

Finally, a rescue! In 1980 Darrel and Deanie Weber purchased the building at public auction and opened “Homesteaders”, an import and spice store. They are credited with extensive renovation of the main floor; without doubt saving it from ruin. The rich odors of bulk spices chased away the mustiness of years past. I have a sense that the spirits within the walls breathed a collective sigh of appreciation.

The late 1990’s brought another change of ownership. Don Beamgard, an Atwood native who was a community bulwark, purchased the building and then passed it on to his son Dick. A metal roof and HVAC system further preserved the integrity of the structure. “This Old House”, an interior home remodeling business and “The Mustard Seed”, a soda fountain and hang-out place for youth were two business that ran during the period of 1997 to 2002.

How did our family come to own the Opera House? My mother, Phyllis Charlene Bockhold Kay, left her children an inheritance. My husband Jeff and I chose to use this money and other funds to purchase the building from Dick Beamgard with the idea of opening a steakhouse. We had no experience in the restaurant business and no idea of what we were doing, but that never stopped a pioneer spirit.

The building had been unused for some time in 2002. We put in a commercial kitchen using equipment from school closings including a monster Wolf stove with eight burners, a flat grill, and two ovens that required a forklift to move in. We spent money like crazy but did nearly all the labor ourselves including building walls, painting, refinishing tables and chairs, and rearranging spaces. We were both working full time while farming/ranching and developing a hunting lodge from our farm home. No, I cannot believe we did it either! Added to all that we had two weddings and a grandbaby born within the first twelve months of operation. But the Aberdeen Steakhouse and Pub had its opening night July 4th, 2003!

One of our dreams was to have the building recognized by the Kansas State Historical Society. A year’s research to validate the building’s history resulted in its placement, on both the Kansas and National Registers of Historic Places. A community grant group supported this by paying for the official bronze plaque that is affixed to the exterior. The building had just celebrated its 100th birthday!

In 2009 we received the highest grant allowed by the Heritage Trust Fund program. This provided funding, with matching money that we borrowed, to stabilize the upstairs. Included in the restoration work was insulation, wiring, window repairs, new doors, and refinishing both the original wood floor and original pressed tin ceiling tiles. My goodness how the upstairs shone!

The next year we were also successful in obtaining a second Heritage Trust Fund grant to restore the south face, the public face, of the building. The QUEEN OF THE PRAIRIE was wearing her good clothes again. No more snakes (though we did have bats for a short while), no more coyotes, no more sad and neglected space!

Did I mention spirits in the walls? I’ll save that for the next episode.

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