A revival of arts, culture and entertainment is underway in the historic buildings of Uptown Watertown. You can eat in a retro cafe, marry in a chocolate shop, sip beer that tastes European brewed or enjoy a show in one of the last prairie-style opera houses in South Dakota. (From the July/August 2010 issue).
The resurrected Goss Opera House leads the Uptown movement. After slowly declining for decades, the new Goss Block includes the renovated opera house, a fine dining restaurant, coffee house, and a hall that has housed some of the country’s most popular touring exhibits.
The opera house is a Watertown treasure, but for years the city’s 20,000 citizens paid it scant attention. “The majority of Watertown residents had at least heard of the Goss Opera House, but never really knew anything about it,” says David Berry, the opera house’s owner. That’s understandable. Robert Kreiser’s Rexall Drug operated in the corner space, and a few other businesses occupied other storefronts. But upstairs windows were boarded and a leaky roof was slowly staining the opera hall’s walls and wood floors.
Charles Goss would have been saddened to see his stately building in such disrepair. Goss arrived in Watertown in the 1880s and built a pharmacy and general store at the corner of Kemp and Maple. In the spring of 1888 it burned to the ground. Rather than build another store, Goss wanted something new — a hotel or an opera hall. City leaders lobbied for the hotel. Watertown already had two opera houses; the Grand Opera House sat directly across the street and another stood a block away. But Goss insisted on an opera house, and he laid the cornerstone in June of 1888. He divided the first floor into seven storefronts. The second and third floors housed offices and his grand, 1,500-seat opera house, the largest in South Dakota.
“At the time, Watertown was an epicenter for arts and culture in the state,” Berry says. “That’s really what our vision is here: the renaissance of arts and culture in South Dakota.”
Berry is a South Carolina attorney and the husband of Watertown lawyer and state legislator Nancy Turbak. He heard about the abandoned opera house, toured it in 2007 and immediately bought it. Berry’s original plan as to renovate the opera house only as an entertainment venue, but he discovered the steps leading into the hall did not meet state building standards. So he bought the Kids Depot building next door owned by Lynn Aman, who today serves as the Goss’ events coordinator. He also constructed an adjoining kitchen and meeting room.
Crews built stairs, an elevator and a new roof. The interior walls were stripped of old plaster and sheetrock, exposing the original brick. Because the Goss building is on the National Register of Historic Places, new ceiling tiles and windows were custom made to be historically accurate. When the Second City Comedy Tour performed there Oct. 10, 2009, it was the first ticketed event in the opera house in over 70 years. The applause was both for the show and David Berry’s vision.
Donus Roberts, a collector and legendary Watertown High School speech and debate coach for 39 years, has has lived in Watertown since 1960. He saw many of Uptown’s historic buildings demolished during the 1970s. “In the ’70s it was knock everything down and replace it with new,” Roberts says. “People didn’t think they were worth keeping. We lost one of the great hotels in the United States that way. The Goss probably would have been knocked down too, but it was so decrepit no one had any interest in knocking it down. But David had a vision of bringing it back to life, and it’s been fascinating to watch that happen.”
BARISTAS COMMON GROUND ROAST their own beans and bake cookies and pastries. Chefs at Charley’s (named for Goss) will cut the steaks any size you want. Their menu changes monthly, as does the art on the walls.
The opera hall remains much the same as in Goss’ day. The large mural behind the stage, the curtain, Pied Piper artwork around the ceiling and the wood floor are original. Improvements include a sound system designed specifically for the hall and a fully furnished two-bedroom apartment beneath the stage for performers. The floor, balcony and six box seats hold about 580 people. That’s less than half the original capacity because softer chairs have replaced narrow, wooden benches.
During the three-year renovation, crews found treasures buried in the dirt or hidden away inside. They are displayed in a hallway just outside the opera house. Items include a pair of opera glasses and a newspaper article from 1897 touting a performance of Unknown in the Goss, a benefit for Company H of the South Dakota National Guard.
Some work remains. The renovation now focuses on small rooms that surround the opera hall on the second and third floors. Once used to accommodate actors and actresses, they will become executive offices for the Goss staff. One bears the remains of a fatal fire from the 1940s. A woman was burned to death when her son deliberately set the room ablaze following an argument. The ceiling is still charred and a large, black circle stains one wall.
AN ALL-START TEAM on the second floor of Watertown’s first post office is helping to make the Goss successful. Built in 1909 and home to the post office until 1976, Berry bought that building as well. When Bob Faehn created Water town’s newest radio station, the two struck a deal. Berry offered space in the building in exchange for promotions about events at the opera house.
KXLG 99.1 FM went on the air in September 2009 featuring some of the city’s top radio and sales talent. Faehn owned KSDR /KS93 in Watertown and sold it in 2000 at age 42. He dabbled in other ventures, including a stint in the South Dakota legislature, but soon realized that leaving radio created a void he couldn’t fill. “I missed the business,” Faehn says. “I sold out far too young. It became apparent to me that life is a lot more fun when you’re doing what you like to do.”
Faehn searched for a radio station that would provide a strong signal to Watertown and the area. He discovered that KZNC 99.1 FM in Huron, owned by Dakota Communications, could be moved with permission from the Federal Communications Commission. He contacted Duane Butt, owner of Dakota Communications, and the two agreed to pursue moving the station, then entering into a special programming agreement with a company led by Faehn, Butt and Dean Sorenson.
Faehn initially called their company TORG Broadcasting. The acronym stood for “Three Old Radio Guys.” Due to good natured objections from his partners, he changed it slightly to TMRG (Three Mature Radio Guys).
Once he knew that TMRG would be programming the station, Faehn needed talent, and he signed some of Watertown’s best-known voices. He got Jim Aesoph, on the air at KS93 since 1979, David J. Law, newsman at KWAT since 1971, Jan Robson and Curt Herberg. “I knew I had to get some good folks, because I’m one station competing with six,” Faehn says. “If you’re one against six, the only way you can win is to be better. Our product is people.”
Faehn calls KXLG a classic hits station, playing songs from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s mixed with local talk. “We want to be really local,” he says. “You can listen to radio over the Internet, you can get XM or Sirius. But one thing we can do that all those others can’t is be very local and be involved in the community. That’s how radio used to be. But then it got to be so corporate. I’m sure they didn’t do it by design, but they took the local and the fun out of radio.”
Listeners tell Faehn he can’t be working because it sounds like he, Law and Aesoph are just having a lot of fun in the mornings. We listened to KXLG as we drove around Watertown for two days. The station put out a call for a record player to play an LP a listener had brought in. “Can you believe a radio station has to ask for a record player?” Faehn said. “And there isn’t an inch of tape in the building. It’s all digital.” Listeners were also encouraged to tell their best fish stories.
The new station paved the way for Aesoph to resurrect his Dakota Call. Aesoph and Faehn were at KSDR in 1990 when Rand McNally forgot to include Arlington in its South Dakota atlas. The duo decided to call someone at Rand McNally on the air, and it was obvious that the person who answered knew little about South Dakota. So Aesoph began calling people — often other radio personalities around the country — to quiz and teach them about South Dakota. But as radio stations became more corporate owned, management was less eager to let their talent talk to Aesoph, so he ended the call. Now there’s a new format. Listeners can e-mail the station with suggestions for people to call.
Aesoph’s Dakota Call received the A.H. Pankow Award from Gov. George S. Mickelson for promoting South Dakota. He surely teaches people about our state, but he also stretches the truth. One morning he convinced a person that Mount Rushmore was the longest active volcano on the planet, and because it erupted so close to the Homestake Mine gold often flowed within its lava. He claimed tourists visited with tin cups, scooped lava and cracked it open after it hardened to see if they got any gold. The next day, Faehn’s mother called and insisted he tune to competing station KWAT and its venerable morning show “What’s Up” where callers were asking about lava spewing from Mount Rushmore.
A HALF-BLOCK EAST OF THE GOSS, Mike and Vickie Marotz are filling a longtime void Uptown with a chocolate shop that doubles as a wedding chapel. When they opened their new Watertown Confectionery storefront they included a tiny Italian marble alcove with small bouquets of flowers. A justice of the peace from the Codington County courthouse performs the ceremonies. “Who wouldn’t want to get married in a chocolate factory?” Vickie asks.
The Marotzes are retired; he was a nuclear scientist and she was a nurse. They moved home from Minnesota and started the business in the basement of their home. They moved Uptown in May and expanded to include coffee and beer and wine making supplies. Their store features local and regional art, and a large glass window allows customers to watch Vickie hand dip their mint meltaways (their version of a mint truffle) or create their signature South Dakota Cow Pie, a concoction of chocolate, crushed English toffee and toasted coconut.
ANOTHER OLD BUILDING with new life is on Maple Street. Locals still call it the Midland Building because the Midland National Life Insurance Company was headquartered there. Jim Utne now owns the building, and he has transformed it into offices and the Maple Street Diner, a popular hangout for lunch, pie and coffee. But the big attraction is over 2,500 photographs on the walls taken by Clear Lake photographer Les Jutting.
Jutting worked in the Midland Building with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans until retiring last spring. He’s been taking pictures since age 13. One day nearly four years ago he hung 12 photos of flowers arranged in a diamond pattern above one of the tables and waited to see the reaction from diner customers. “There was a lady who came in regularly for coffee,” Jutting says. “She said, ‘I hope you’re not going to put any more up. People aren’t going to like that."
Jutting ignored her advice and devoted Friday afternoons to applying photos to foam board and sticking them to the walls with a tiny rectangle of Velcro. Arranged thematically, they include tractors, cars, cats, dogs and kids. Soon Utne began a weekly contest for the diner crowd. He offered a free meal to the person who came closest to guessing how many photos were mounted. Since the number had to keep changing to make the contest legitimate, Jutting added more pictures. He stopped counting when he reached 2,500.
UPTOWN PROVIDES PLENTY OF UNIQUE dining and drinking options, too. Grab a homemade stout at Dempsey’s Pub or coffee and a sandwich at Past Times. Dempsey’s Pub on North Broadway was an abandoned food warehouse when Bill Dempsey leased it about 10 years ago. We arrived before the supper crowd and visited over a glass of his home brewed Prohibition Style Root Beer. Dempsey began brewing 15 years ago when his wife bought him a home kit for Christmas. He enjoyed it so much he decided to open a pub.
Behind a huge glass window sits a series of tanks in which Dempsey brews his beers. His tapped specialties include Battle Axe Blonde (an American style light beer), Valkyrie Red (German), Banshee Pale Ale (Scottish), Longship Lager (Norwegian heavy) and Black Bear Stout (Irish). It takes about two weeks to brew a batch of beer.
Flags that customers bring in hang from the pub’s ceiling. The newest addition is a flag from the local National Guard unit that flew in Kuwait last spring. Local artist Larry Negaard painted a mural of a Scottish castle and bagpiper on the west wall. A coat of arms above the fireplace is actually a Polish coat, but Dempsey’s employees had his family’s seal engraved on it. And if you like bagpipes, all you have to do is ask for a tune. Dempsey, pipe major for the Glacial Lakes Pipes and Drums Corps, keeps his bagpipes at the bar.
BACK ON KEMP, Dough and Annrae Herr want diners at Past Times Coffee and Restaurant to feel like they’re in past times, so they decorated to give the place a retro feel. The building’s ceiling was taken from the old high school in Castlewood, and the bar is from the American Legion hall, which was in the basement. The photo wall has images from Watertown’s history, including a community band that was organized even before the city incorporated in 1879.
During our mid-afternoon visit we found eight women playing bridge. One was Prudy Calvin, president of the Mellette Memorial Association. Arthur Mellette, South Dakota’s last territorial governor and first state governor, took the oath of office in his law building directly across the street from Past Times. She often dresses as Mellette’s wife Margaret, and talks with people Uptown about life in Watertown in the 1880s and 1890s. Surely a favorite pastime was a visit to the Goss Opera House, brand new the year Mellette became governor. Thanks to Uptown’s renaissance, modern Watertown residents The Cowboy, a fiberglass Watertown landmark since the 1970s, greets travelers can relate.
The Winona and St. Peter Railroad extends its line from Marshall, Minn., to Lake Kampeska and a small settlement rises. In a few years the businesses moved east, and Watertown was born.
Charles Williams buys a tree claim on Stony Point at Lake Kampeska. He opened a store and eventually added a bowling alley, pool hall, dance hall, bathhouse and a slide into the lake. Stony Point became one of Watertown’s most popular recreation areas.
Charles Goss lays the cornerstone of his grand opera house at the corner of Kemp and Maple.
S.X. Way buys the Watertown Public Opinion. The newspaper stayed in the family for 94 years.
Frank Bramble donates a collection of pheasants and waterfowl to the city. It was the first exhibit in what became the Bramble Park Zoo.
Florence Bruhn, an art teacher at Watertown High School, creates the Ki-Yi legend that is still used for homecoming.
Four Watertown women raise $600 to buy the home of Arthur Mellette, South Dakota’s first governor. After years in disrepair, the home was restored as a museum.
Ross Case, general manager of radio station KWAT, creates a new morning talk show called What’s Up. The program remains a staple.
Jerry Drake opens the Drake Motor Inn at the junction of U.S. Highways 81 and 212, today one of the busiest intersections in the state.
Mayor Herb Jenson begins raising money to fix the 6-foot clock Watertown bought in 1888 and build a tower for it. The clock ticks along Highway 212.
The Redlin Art Center opens. It houses over 150 of Terry Redlin’s original oil paintings, his early drawings and an amphitheater.
Barbecuers gather at Stokes-Thomas City Park for the first Kampeska Wing Fling, a popular summer event. This year’s is July 16-17.
South Carolina attorney David Berry buys the Goss Opera House and begins a three-year renovation. The new Goss Block includes a coffee house, art gallery, emporium, restaurant and exhibit hall.
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