Virtual Museum

With a Lens On History

By Deb Nicklay

Research Library volunteer

We have been incredibly fortunate, especially in our small county, for the thousands of artifacts, documents and records we have in the Mitchell County Historical Society Museum.

Most of you probably don’t think much about how we came to have these holdings – but let me assure you, they don’t just magically appear. Descendants of Mitchell County pioneers, lovers of history and others who have recognized the value of an item have, over the years, donated the items we now protect in our museum and at our different sites around the county. Without their foresight and willingness to donate, we would not have the museum we have today.

I am personally drawn to our photograph collection – and for several reasons. Some are pure art, while other images are valuable for their historical value. Some of the photographs are the only ones that exist. Others are rich in research value; there are times when what is in the background of a photo (are there electric lines? What year is listed on that calendar? What does the sign on that shop window say? Do we know the year of the cars parked at the curb?) gives us clues to where and when a photo was taken. That reminds me to ask all our photographers of today to make sure to print your notable photos, and mark your photos with the year they were taken -- researchers in the future will thank you for it! We have many photos whose subjects are not identified, and we would love to know who they are. Perhaps once our new museum opens next year, we will be able to hold a “Do You Know?” display of photographs.

We ask those wishing to donate items to the museum to contact us first, since our museum is in transition and short on space. For more information, please contact our curator, Starla Cassmann, at the museum, at 641-832-2574.

West Mitchell was once a thriving community.    This is a photograph of the community probably taken sometime in the 1890s.

Karen Nissen is seen in a photograph probably taken in the early 1920s. Her generosity created the first Nissen Public Library in St. Ansgar. She was a devoted member of the St. Ansgar community and active in her church; later, when she moved off the farm, she moved into a home in Osage. In 1923, she willed her home, along with some funds, to create the Nissen Hospital in Osage.

The Sprague Opera House was a popular venue for traveling shows and later, early movies. The opera house, located in the building on the left side of the photograph, was operated by Milton A. Sprague. Do you recognize the buildings on the right? The middle building formerly housed Art’s Shoes, and Wright’s Plumbing and Heating is located on the right. The opera house location today is home to a parking lot and the First United Methodist Church (formerly the Masonic Hall).

The Happy Hooligan Band was a popular comedic addition to many events and gatherings. The group was made up as characters found in the Happy Hooligan comic strip popular at the time. This photo was taken during a Shriner’s Day event, and taken in front of the Cleveland Hotel. There were several such bands named for Happy Hooligan during that era, including one in St. Ansgar.

Prominent Pioneers of Mitchell County

By Deb Nicklay

Mitchell County Research Library

Dr. Sumner Burham Chase ‘was one of those grand New England men  seemed destined expressly for town builders, many of whom have founded scores of thriving towns and cities in every western state.’

History of Mitchell and Worth Counties, 1884

Dr. Sumner Burnham Chase

Almira Chase

When you are talking about Osage as “The City of Maples,” you are speaking directly to the heart of one of its most prominent pioneers, Dr. Sumner Burnham Chase.

It was Chase who wanted to bring the beauty of his home state of Maine to the mostly bare landscape upon which Osage was founded. Maple trees – and many other varieties – were planted along the streets and he was the one who gave the original east-west streets their names, such as Poplar, Ash, and Walnut, to just name a few (the north-south streets are numbered). The only ones that did not carry the names of tree varieties were Pleasant, Vine and Mechanic – and, of course, Chase Street, which originally was called “Free.” The street was later renamed in his honor.

According to the History of Mitchell and Worth Counties, Chase came to Osage in 1856 and was among the earliest landowners in Osage. He served as register of deeds for the U.S. Land Office for three years; he also served as postmaster for a time. While the beautification of city streets has been the most quoted story about him over the years, the planting of trees is not the only reason Chase should be revered.

One of the community’s earliest physicians, Chase was known for his faithfulness, friendliness and unerring respect for his fellow residents. He served in many capacities as a man of medicine (he was also a member of the bar, although he never was a practicing attorney) and was responsible for forming the county medical society and the nine-county Cedar Valley Medical Association. He also served as president of the state medical association. He was a loyal Democrat – he served as a delegate to the national convention that nominated Grover Cleveland for president -- and was a leader in the Congregational church. He was also a trustee of the Cedar Valley Seminary for several years.

You could also say that Chase helped initiate a medical dynasty. Chase was the father-in-law to Dr. John Lord Whitley, another of the town’s most respected citizens and whose son, Ralph Whitley, served as a physician in the community for over 50 years.

Chase’s wife, Almira, was the sister to two other physicians, Dr. Stephen M. Cobb and Dr. William B. Cobb, who served Osage for a short time in its early history and then moved to other locations to establish practices. The Chases’ two sons, Dr. Charles and Dr. Frank, were also physicians. 

Dr. Charles Chase

Eulalie Chase

The Mitchell County Historical Museum has several Chase artifacts and the most recent acquisitions are among the most exciting. Oil portraits of Dr. Sumner and Almira Chase, most likely painted in the 1880s, were donated to the museum by great-great grandson Charles F. Larimer of Chicago. Two other portraits of the Chases’ son, Dr. Charles Chase, and his wife, Eulalie Ritner Chase, were also donated. Dr. Charles Chase, who practiced in Waterloo for many years, also had a distinguished career as head of the Department of Materia and Pharmacology at the University of Iowa.

The Chase family collection represents just a fraction of the many artifact donations held by the Mitchell County Historical Museum. We hold a vast array of records, documents, photographs, furniture, textiles, farm implements and other artifacts that will soon be housed in our new museum complex at the Cedar Valley Memories site west of Osage. We’ll keep you posted on the building progress!

Steve Darrell: The bad guy who made good

By Deb Nicklay

One of Hollywood’s hardest-working bad guys was born in Osage, livening up B-westerns with all sorts of mean tricks and dishonest deeds.

Steve Darrell appeared in a raft of Hollywood movies -- about 60, according to estimates – over a 35-year period, from the late 1930s to the mid-1960s.

“The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James” (1948) was one of Steve Darrell’s best-known appearances. He portrayed Frank James opposite Clayton Moore as Jesse James in the western movie serial. 

He was born in Osage in 1904 as Darrell (sometimes spelled Darryl) Eugene Horsfall. His family did not stay in Mitchell County for very long and there is no clear answer as to why his family came to Osage at all. There were several residents in Osage with the same last name, so there may have been some family connection. His father is listed in census reports as a railroad employee for most of his working life, living in Virginia for a time before landing permanently in Cedar Rapids. 

Darrell grew up in Cedar Rapids and as a young man worked as a sign painter. Somewhere along the line he became interested in the theater, and acted in several plays as part of the Cedar Rapids Community Players, according to an article written in the Cedar Rapids Gazette in the mid-1940s.  He eventually moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s and appeared on stage in Los Angeles. He was able to land bit parts in a number of movies before earning larger parts in western movie serials featuring Buster Crabbe and Gene Autry. In 1948, he appeared in perhaps his best-known film, “The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James,” playing Frank James opposite Clayton Moore (TV’s “The Lone Ranger”) as Jesse James.

Darrell never earned star status – but he seemed to have worked consistently throughout his career, whether in movies, on stage, or on the radio.

In the Cedar Rapids interview, he said he was sought for markedly different roles between the mediums.

“In the westerns I’m the guy who always steals the mine from little Nell or pulls the crooked tricks at the gambling table,” he said. “It’s a funny thing but whenever people cast me for a stage or screen role, they see me as a heavy. When they use me for radio, where just my voice counts, it is for a ‘good’ part – a business man, a minister – anything but the villain.”

His range of roles even included horror flicks – “Tarantula” and “Monolith Monsters.” He also appeared in TV westerns, such as “Gunsmoke,” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” In later years, he was often cast as the sheriff in western shows. His last appearance was most likely on “Gunsmoke” in 1965 before falling ill with a brain tumor.

Darrell died in 1970 and is buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Survivors included his wife, Gertrude, and a son, James.

Steve Darrell (center, front) with the Riders of the Purple Sage, in the movie, “Under Colorado Skies,” produced in 1947.

E.J. Carpenter appeared in an issue of the Globe Gazette in Mason City, after his story appeared in Collier’s Magazine, in 1947.

Ernest Carpenter: 

The King of the Road Shows

By Deb Nicklay

Ernest J. Carpenter died 60 years ago – and if you are unfamiliar with his name, you’re not alone. When he returned to his hometown of Osage in the 1930s, some people didn’t know who he was, either.

But plenty of Broadway theatre owners knew him. For over 25 years, Carpenter, the son of an Osage farmer, Horace Carpenter, produced touring Broadway shows across the U.S. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Will Rogers, George M. Cohan, W. C. Fields, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert and Lionel, John and Ethel Barrymore – all stage actors who eventually found their way to early silent films and stardom. His wife, actress Millicent Evans, appeared opposite Lionel Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks on stage and on film; John Gilbert’s mother served as Millicent’s matron of honor when the couple wed in Salt Lake City in 1902.

Carpenter was born in 1869, on a farm just outside of Osage. His early adult years were a study in tenacity. Between 1887 and 1893, he worked at a number of jobs, including stints as lunch counter manager in St. Paul, dry goods store manager in Mankato, Minnesota, and as a photographer in Minneapolis. Just a few years later, in 1900, a Mitchell County Press article reported that Carpenter was “proprietor of a first class (theatre) company playing ‘Quo Vadis?’ (a Broadway production first performed in 1899) in larger towns.” Carpenter – who by this time was known formally as “E. J.,” not Ernest -- had finally found his life’s work as a stage producer.

His years of taking Broadway productions on the road were stunningly successful. In a Des Moines Register article in the 1940s he said that people called him “The Ziegfeld of the West” (“Ziegfeld” refers to infamous theatre impresario Florenz Ziegfeld) and had as many as 12 shows on the road through the early 1930s. He would later say that his shows visited every small town of 5,000 people or more or smaller towns if they had an opera house. When he retired from his life as a producer, Collier’s Magazine, a popular culture magazine of the day, wrote a story about him, calling him “King of the Road Shows.”

But the success of road shows – and vaudeville -- died when talking movies took over. According to an interview published in the Globe Gazette in 1947, Carpenter said a $100,000 investment in the production of “The Student Prince” in 1929 bombed, and he lost $30,000. The crash of the stock market that same year took the rest of his wealth, he said.

By 1936, Carpenter had shut down his office in Times Square in New York City and returned home to Osage. They were most likely tough years for Carpenter. His father had died two years earlier and his mother died the year he returned. Two other siblings – sister Ida and brother Willie – both died before reaching adulthood. He and his wife had divorced in 1917 and their only son, John Hunter (who took his step-father’s last name), left the U. S. to be raised in London when Millicent remarried in 1919. John Hunter earned his own reputation in the entertainment world, working as a screenwriter in England, most notably for the horror film studio, Hammer Films. It was reported in the Register article that Carpenter kept a photograph of his ex-wife hanging on his living room wall. He spoke of all the memorabilia that was cluttering up his living room – he was saving it so that if his son, Jack, visited, he would have a chance to see the publicity about his father. It is not known if Jack ever visited Carpenter before his death.

Carpenter’s wife, Millicent Evans, was a stage and film actress who appeared with early stage and screen stars, such as Lionel Barrymore. Date unknown.

After his return to Osage, Carpenter seemed to have lived a comparatively simple life. He took tickets at the Strand Theater in Mason City for a time, but then permanently retired. He was an active Mason and earned his 50-year award. The Register article noted that “he stays up late … (and) never gets up until noon.”

“He … chats with old friends and sometimes drives his 1936 Ford car to Spring Park to fish.”

The “King of the Road Shows” died at age 95 in June 1964 at a Mason City home for the aged. He is buried in the Osage Cemetery.

A first page of a sheet music featured in the production of “Bringing Up Father,” produced by E. J. Carpenter. Date unknown, but most likely about 1914-15, after the production opened on Broadway.

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