The History Of Turner Hall

The Beginning

To completely understand the history of Turner Hall, we must look back well before the Hall was actually built to 1778 and the birth of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, a German educator and patriot. Jahn felt strongly about the importance of physical exercise and thought that it should be incorporated into school programs. While teaching at a boys’ school in Berlin, he expanded gymnastic courses by devising new exercises and paraphernalia including the horizontal bar, parallel bars, side horse, balance beam and vaulting horse. In 1811, he initiated mass open-air exercises in the first Turnplatz, or outdoor gymnasium. This gymnastics movement spread rapidly and Turnvereins, or associations of gymnasts were formed. The word Turnverein comes from the German “turnen” to practice gymnastics, and “verein” which means club or union.

The purpose of this movement was actually two-fold and had a nationalistic motive which was to prepare German youth to defend their country against Napoleonic France, and gymnasts were encouraged to develop a spirit of patriotism and Deutschleit or “Germanness” along with their gymnastic skills.

In the German states during the Revolution of 1848, some turnverein members sided with factions who unsuccessfully revolted against the monarchy, and they were forced to leave the country. Turnveriens were subsequently established by such émigrés in other countries, notably the United States, at Cincinnati, OH in 1848, where the organization now called the American Turners was founded.

The Turner Society in Galena

The Turnverien in Galena was founded in 1851 at which time the group met in a place called Harmonia Hall. Now, while the original object of the Turner Unions was the development of scientific gymnastics, that object seemed to languish somewhat among young German-Americans and the association became mainly social, while the exercises became a means of occasional amusement. The Turners also had an auxiliary dramatic company which stored its scenery in Harmonia Hall. It appears that at this time, the Turners were made up of highly respected members of the Galena German population. The society continued until the outbreak of the Civil War, when it disbanded, and the majority of its members, inspired by love for the flag of their chosen country, left their homes to assist in maintaining it honor and the perpetuity of the States.

On April 6, 1872, the Turner Society re-organized and began to meet at Wierich Hall. As their numbers grew, they felt the need for larger quarters. Meanwhile, the general populace of Galena was also feeling the need for a large civic building. This was apparently a highly debated issue in town at that time, as described in the Galena Weekly Gazette of June, 1874 on the occasion of the laying of the Turner Hall cornerstone.

“Monday was a gala day in Galena, and one long to be remembered by her citizens. The erection of a public hall in this city was a necessity. Ways and means had been devised by the more enterprising ones, by which this great need could be met, yet the spirit of opposition prevailed, and the project sank out of sight, spasmodically coming to the surface, however, through the public print and amusement loving circles, whose indignations at the poor accommodations Galena offered to first class entertainments was expressed in words only, instead of efforts to remedy the evil. The subject was brought prominently before the public through the columns of the Galena Gazette during the past winter, and the absolute necessity of a public hall adapted to the wants or our city, clearly set forth.”

Breaking Ground

According to the Gazette, the Turner Society formed a building committee, “whose indomitable energy and perseverance, aided by this paper and many of our monied citizens” caused the building of a public hall to become a reality. The Turner Society purchased the land for the Hall on April 1, 1874 for $1050. The laying of the cornerstone was a huge event in June, 1874. Here is more from the Gazette about the day in question:

“The day broke on a city alive with strangers from the surrounding villages, called thither to witness the pageantry and ceremony attending the laying of the corner-stone. Main Street was almost impassable, the hotels were crowded to their utmost capacity, and still each incoming train brought more. At half past 10 o’clock a.m. a signal from Liberty’s bell tower announced the time for morning the line, and a general rush was made for Bench Street where were quartered the different societies and companies, resplendent in gold lace and elegant attire, while over their heads floated silken banners bearing the insignias of the respective Orders. Although the sky was overcast with threatening clouds and the sun but occasionally lent its aid in enhancing the grandeur of the scene, it was such as to inspire the utmost enthusiasm on the part of the beholder, and not a little pride among the participators”.

The processional moved all through town and finally arrived at the future site of Turner Hall where an address was given by the President of the Day, Frederick Stahl. His address included the following:

“Our city needs a public hall of sufficient capacity to accommodate a large audience, both for the purposes of amusement and instruction. This building, which is now being erected, appears to be well suited to meet the present and future wants of our city. It will present no stately columns, no beautiful statuary, no lofty dome to attract the wonder and admiration of the beholder; but it will be simple in style, durable in structure, simple in its dimensions and in harmony with the means and wants of the community. May I not add, that when finished, it will present to the mind a fitting emblem of the character of the sturdy men who are now engaged in its erection.”

Preparations were then made for laying the cornerstone, by depositing therein a zinc box, hermetically sealed, containing the following objects: A list of the members of the Turner Society, a copy of the subscription list and private donations for the Hall, a copy of the constitution and by-laws of the Turner Society, a copy of the Galena Daily Gazette of June 13, 1874, a copy of the Galena Weekly Gazette of June 12, 1874, a copy of the Volksfreund, several envelopes containing donated valuables, a book of poems, a collection of coins, and the bylaws of several Galena organizations. And so the cornerstone sits yet today.

At the time of the Hall’s dedication, Mr. Charles Scheerer was Treasurer of the Turner Society and for many years was the business manager of the hall. In March, 1910 he was suddenly stricken with a fatal heart attack and died in the building that had been his pride and care for so long. At the time of his death he was serving his third term as Mayor of Galena. According to popular local legend, he is currently making his home in the Hall spooking innocent set builders and the like.

Back in 1875, the Hall was built for $15,000 and was considered by traveling entertainment companies to be one of the finest in Northwestern Illinois. In fact, the next few decades saw several illustrious visitors to the Hall. In January of 1877, Former Vice President Schuyler Colfax gave a lecture at the Hall. In March of that year, Charles Stratton, otherwise known as General Tom Thumb, visited, along with his wife, Lavinia Warren, Miss Minnie Warren and Major Newell. The four little people, or dwarves as they were then known, were making their fifth visit to Galena, the first four appearing at Davis Hall. The Gazette reported that

“Turner Hall was crowded last evening with people of all ages ranging from the two year old to the three score and ten, and more delighted audience never assembled in Galena—the little folks appeared during the evening in comic and sentimental songs, tableaux, etc. and made a grand display in the costly silks, glittering diamonds and other ornaments.”

Other lecturers in 1879 included Wendell Phillips speaking about the fair treatment of Indians, and Franz Sigel, a brigadier general, speaking about the Second Battle of Bull Run. According to the Gazette, Mr. Sigel “closed with a patriotic appeal to his hearers to do their full share toward the healing the wounds caused by the late war, and restoring that fraternal feeling by which people of all parts of the union should be actuated, one toward another.”

On April 27, 1893, William McKinley spoke at the Hall. He arrived in Galena on a special train from Chicago. The reception committee escorted him from the Illinois Central Depot to the corner of Main and Green where a parade was formed which proceeded to Turner Hall. Governor McKinley was greeted with great enthusiasm as he stepped to the front of the stage. It was several minutes before he could speak and his oration lasted an hour. Three years later, he would be President.

On April 27, 1900, Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York and future Vice President and President, was a guest speaker at the U.S. Grant birthday celebration. He commented on “the fertile quality of the soil and the prosperity of the farming district” near Galena.

It wasn’t all lectures at the Hall during those years. The Hall was the site of a mass mourning for U.S. Grant in 1885. There were also many social events including masquerade balls and a New Years Ball on December 31, 1878.

Some time around the turn of the century, the Turner Society sold the Hall to a stock company known as the Turner Opera House Association. Turner Hall became known as the Turner Opera House. Club meeting were held in the Hall along with theatrical and musical events. In July, 1911, the Galena Commercial Club held a banquet in the Hall that included speeches by the members and a vaudeville performance. In September of that year “The Third Degree” was presented with the ticket price of $1.

The Fire

1926 was a huge year in the history of Turner Hall. In the spring, the Hall was sold to the Eagles for $10,000. The very popular show “Abbie’s Irish Rose” was brought to the Hall in April 1926. In May, 1926 the Hall was officially dedicated as a combined opera house, dance hall and general hall. Luck was not with the Eagles, however, for 10 weeks later, on July 1, 1926, the Old Turner Opera House was gutted by fire. The loss was considered nearly total or over $12,000. At 10:50 AM, Mrs. F.H. Rickeman of Prospect Street turned in the alarm. According to the Gazette:

“Others also noted smoke issuing from the cupola of this massive building at about the same time, but thought that bats or bees were being smoked out of the apex of this building. The custodian, Wiliam Wilhelmi, was working in the building at the time the general alarm was sounded and did not know that the structure was on fire until he came out to see where the fire was.”

The cause of the fire was never determined. At least one person reported seeing lighting strike the cupola of the Hall. It was also suggested that faulty wiring might be the culprit. There was also a faction that believed a pigeon brought a lit cigarette butt up into the cupola. Whatever the cause, the Hall was severely damaged and the $8000 of insurance money collected by the Eagles was not enough to rebuild.

Rebuilding

The Eagles began fundraising efforts and made plans to build a modest hall. Their simple plans, however, caused an outcry from the public who believed that a grand, up-to-date building was called for. The support for a modern large Hall was so great that the Eagles relented and made new plans, but asked for financial support from the citizenry as well. In the September 16, 1926 Gazette a list of people donating money to the cause was printed.

Over the fall and winter of 1926, the rebuilding of Turner Hall progressed rapidly and was duly reported in the Galena Weekly Gazette. In October it was reported that the Hall would have separate restrooms for men and women. That it was “indeed some task to blast and hew out the huge boulders for a furnace room and to make room for a stage and chair room underneath.” They also reported that the Hall was to open on December 1.

In November, the Gazette said “Galena will no doubt be overly proud of its spacious modern hall with a stage as large as any theatre in the big cities, up to date balcony, steam heating plant, rest rooms, check rooms, etc.” In early December it was reported the Hall would have a big opening week beginning December 27. In mid December it was reported that “two boxes are arranged at either side of the stage, each box accommodating parties of 8”, that in the basement, in addition to the heating plant, will be shower baths and a dressing room, and that the hall would open the first part of January.

Finally on December 30, it was announced that the Hall would open on January 7 with the world famous production of “No No Nanette” the “round the world musical comedy sensation” with a notable cast of stars and a gorgeous garden of girls. Tickets for the grand event were $2 plus war tax. The Gazette’s headline after the event was “Eagle Auditorium Opening Most Successful Event ‘No, No, Nanette’ Super Fine.” They noted the marble floored lobby and stated it was “Just a step from the old antiquated Turner Hall to this dreamland of an opera house” Just a step and $75,000.

January 10, 1927 was the grand opening of the Eagle Auditorium dance floor with Don Bestor and his Victor Record Orchestra–$1.50 for couples, extra lady .50.

The months that followed were filled with lots of grand entertainments reflecting the times. In January there was the musical comedy extravaganza named, appropriately “The Sensations of 1927”. In February, the Hall was visited by America’s Greatest Colored Band, King Elgar and his famous Creole Orchestra. There were many plays and dance bands, but in March came the first hitch in the long line of successful events. The Gazette of 3/19/1927 printed the following:

“The Cat and the Canary played to a mighty slim house” and “the theatre going public will have to perk up a bit if it expects the manager of the Eagle Auditorium to provide high class, big time shows, for no manager can be expected to bring good troops to Galena unless the audiences are more encouraging.”

In April, the Hall was visited by Jess Pugh, Humorist Extraordinary and in May it was The House of David Band – King Ben’s Long-haired Sheiks of Jazz. As now, the high school did their plays in the Eagle Auditorium. On May 3, 1927 Galena High School presented their production of “Sun Up”. On the walls backstage at Turner Hall, high school and adult thespians have signed their names to help document the history of the Hall. Signatures dating back to the 40’s are still very clear today.

The entertainment continued through the 1920’s including a show that would now be called community theatre but was then referred to as a show using “home talent”. “The Girl from Babylon” was a huge hit. In 1930, Cliff Floto and his Alaskans–“A Cold Name but a Red Hot Band”—appeared. March 9, 1930 was the first day of roller skating at the Hall. Skating was on Sunday afternoons and Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings for 30 cents. The Hall continued to host events including, in 1935, a Progress Exposition showing “Exhibits of the latest models in automobiles, radios, refrigerators, electric and gas stoves and household appliances”–orchestra and novelty acts both days.

At some point between 1935 and 1948, the Eagles sold the Hall to the City. During this period, there ceased to any more professional groups brought to the Hall. It was mainly used for community events, such as the Galena Fire Departments annual Easter Dance and high school events.

In February of 1949, St. Michaels Church sponsored an amateur show that was billed as “the best entertainment to hit Turner Hall in half a century”. First place in the amateur show and $30 went to James Levins for his slide trombone solo.

The Years of Decline

The decline of Turner Hall during the next several decades can probably be blamed on the Stanley Theatre, a movie house weekly bringing Shirley Temple, Clark Gable and others to the people of Galena, and television. Theatre was becoming less popular with the people all over the country not just in Galena.

In June of 1949, the Turner Hall Commission stated in a report to City Council that “The rental of this building which really means so much to the City of Galena has been so low that the building was not even paying for itself, let alone being able to make any improvements.” The roof needed repairs and only 9 of 23 heating units were working. The fund held $65 and the roof alone would cost $350.

Restoration

The Hall continued to deteriorate until 1960 when the Galena Art Theatre was formed to put on plays and attempt to earn money to help preserve the Hall. For their first production, “An Evening with the Galena Art Theatre”, audiences had to endure rain through the aged roof, no heat, falling plaster and pigeon droppings. In 1970, the Save Turner Hall Fund was formed from the Galena Art Theatre to concentrate on raising funds to restore the Hall to its former grandeur. Their efforts over the past decades and a steady stream of money from the City of Galena have preserved the Hall for us to use today.

Currently, Turner Hall is regularly booked on weekends for weddings, plays, concerts and many other types of special events. The rental cost of the Hall has intentionally been kept low, to make it easily accessible to the citizens of Galena. Unfortunately, the high cost of maintaining the Hall has meant that it never supports itself through rental income alone, and continues to need significant financial support from the City of Galena. In 2002, air-conditioning was installed in the Hall.

Turner Hall has always been an important part of Galena, and we hope it will continue to figure in the lives of citizens of Galena and surrounding areas for many years to come.