HomePlace-Based ForumVoices of Spoon River: The Ellisville Opera House

Voices of Spoon River: The Ellisville Opera House

Voices of Spoon River is a collaborative effort that celebrates the sense of place in small, rural communities located in western Illinois’ Spoon River Valley. Sponsored by The Rural School and Community Trust’s Center for Midwestern Initiatives in conjunction with the Knox Writers’ House project, the Voices of Spoon River provides a school-centered narrative of how students, teachers, and townspeople make up the community fabric. “Authored” by recent Knox College graduate Emily Oliver, Voices uses audio recordings, essays, and pictures to celebrate community pride and purpose.

Photos by Kent Kriegshauser

Add your “voice” to the Voices of Spoon River on this website or Facebook.

Voices: Ellisville's 'HERO's and Little Rascals

Voices included: Bonnie Powell, Paula Helle, Chris Janssen and his children Robert, Jacklyn and Thomas

The Ellisville Opera House

Driving over the bridge to the village of Ellisville, Illinois is entering a world of miniatures. A one-room town hall. A squat brick, post office museum. The smallest library in the state. Crossing the bridge seems to change the reality of both scale and time. The downtown, which spans the length of one city block, is populated by big windowed buildings of another era.

“We laugh because Ellisville was at one time larger than Chicago, but that was when Chicago was an outpost,” recalls Paula Helle, a junior high choir and piano teacher who runs the Spoon River Rascals theatre company out of the restored Ellisville Opera House. “It used to be a very thriving town. But then, when the railroads started shutting down, the small lines and the mines closed down in the area, it dried up and by the 1930s,  it was just a shadow of what it used to be.”

Downtown Ellisville has a population of 87. “And in the rural delivery people who have an Ellisville address is around six hundred,” explains Bonnie Powell who served as the Ellisville postmaster for 31 years and is currently serving as secretary of HERO, the Historic Ellisville Restoration Organization. HERO bought the dilapidated Ellisville Opera House from the local Odd Fellows chapter for one dollar with the promise that the building would remain an opera house.

HERO fundraises by selling cured hams around Christmas time and hosting a sarsaparilla festival, featuring homemade tea and soda. They raised enough to keep the Opera House from falling down but it sat unused until Helle asks if she could use it for a children’s theatre company.

“My great-great-grandfather helped build the opera house…just knowing that my grandfather played there for many dances when he was a young man. And then as a child, I would play there for different events. I love getting the kids away from TV sets to practice,” she says.

Helle believes the children who participate in the Little Rascals are able to connect to a place-based understanding of their history—Ellisville history.

“Also, they have a ball coming down there…for being in a building with no restroom and no heat and no air conditioning and sometimes we fight the wasps. It's a pretty rustic thing but the performances are magnificent.”

 Eighth grader Robert Janssen, who has been in every Helle’s Little Rascal productions since he was in kindergarten, agrees. “Adults love it. The younger people love it. And it reaches out to communities around here and close to here and it kind of keeps all those communities, in a way, sort of closer than they usually would be.”

While HERO was able to restore the Ellisville Opera House so that it could function as a resource for community activity—housing a theater troupe of a dedication and caliber unusual even in larger towns—the repairs are unfinished. They hope to soon raise enough funds to install a bathroom in building.

“Right now,” Helle says, “the kids run across the street and use the neighbors’.”