Twenty-Third in a Series
By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Friday, August 10, 2018
Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing
Team sport became break-through amusement of the Victorian Era, captivating millions, amassing public crowds across Europe and North America. Athletics as entertainment were moving beyond circus rings and gymnastics halls, onto marked fields and courts. Team games were played and watched as social events, and by 1900 football spectacle was the American ritual of fall season, a thrilling collision sport in grand setting.
Heroic tackle football forged men from boys and warriors from wimps, according to advocates led by politician Theodore Roosevelt. Youths were influenced immeasurably, and in southeast Missouri a newspaper commented, “We once thought that we would like to be a preacher, a fiddler or a soldier, all rigged out in military togs, in order to gain the admiration of the women, but now we see that we were mistaken in all. The star performer on a football team is the thing.”
But music and theater still boasted more players than football in flatland Missouri, special entertainment culture. Homegrown musicians sprouted in the delta, more arrived by river, rail and trail, and audiences would materialize from timber, sandy ridge and slough. This area was remote, infamous for floods and earthquakes, but also significant in arts since antebellum days. Song, dance, comedy and drama—those constituted local tradition in Bootheel Missouri, for all ages, unlike football yet.
Show business literally washed up here, performers and companies, landing from the great rivers during the 19th century. Regional lore included Nelson Kneass, early pop musician said to have arranged his hit Ben Bolt on a steamer moving through southeast Missouri and southern Illinois, likely in latter 1847. Thomas F. Lennox and his “floating theatre” played the Bootheel landings in 1849, on an only sojourn down the Ohio and Mississippi. And Cairo, Ill., emerged as hub of circuses and showboats prior to the Civil War, then afterward boomed as an entertainment showplace. Cairo, companion delta city to southeast Missouri, hosted American and international stars of circus, theater and music.
The song Ben Bolt roared back to popularity in the late 1890s, featured in the hit play “Trilby.” Bootheel musicians learned the Kneass classic by ear and—for those who could read notes—sheet music. Humming and whistling, they worked out Ben Bolt on banjo, piano and cornet, impressed with the melody’s ragtime form, a contemporary sound embedded long ago.
Community building, meanwhile, progressed as well as possible in southeast Missouri and the delta southward, dominated by river frontier.
In the 1900 census, for Missouri population in eight delta counties, less than 100,000 people lived amidst a thousand square miles of flatland and marsh. Levee-building continued on a learning curve for engineers, regionally and worldwide, while drainage canals were just underway in southeast Missouri. Logging companies swept through a million acres of virgin timber, first taking trees 30 inches thick, double the diameter of normal harvests. A hundred rail cars shipped daily with logs and cut lumber, loaded of white oak, black oak, walnut, cypress, red gum, and beech, among prime woods for markets worldwide.
“Empire builder” Louis Houck laid small railroads where supposedly it couldn’t be done, inspiring marshland Missourians at outset of the 20th century. Houck, a lawyer and writer in Cape Girardeau, valiantly pushed tracks in every direction from his hometown along the Mississippi. The Houck lines freed Cape Girardeau and Caruthersville from river isolation and opened up Kennett, a post formerly marooned on far side of Little River swamp.
The Houck family indulged music, and elder Louis added a ballroom to his Elmwood mansion in Cape County. “The young folks had a fine time at Elmwood last night,” reported a local paper on Dec. 23, 1899. “Some of the old folks took part in the dance. Even Mr. Houck, who is supposed to be devoting all his time to the railroad business, got out on the floor and danced.” Brass bands greeted Houck aboard the inaugural train into Kennett and Caruthersville, and he relished their salutes.
Population of Cape Girardeau, the old French bluff settlement at northern edge of the delta, fortified by Spanish a century ago, stood at 4,815 people. Downstream in southeast Missouri, New Madrid counted 1,489 residents and Caruthersville had 2,315. The Kennett population was 1,509, Malden’s was 1,462, and Poplar Bluff, surging at intersection of rails and trails in the western lowlands, gateway to Ozark hills, totaled 4,321 citizens. Sikeston, located in heart of the Missouri delta, often surrounded by water, mustered 1,077 in population at turn of the century. Charleston tallied 1,893 in the year 1900.
East of Charleston and Bird’s Point, across the river, Cairo population reached 12,566 in the new census, including about 5,000 Afro-Americans. A few thousand “country people” inhabited the vicinity around Cairo, a township with flood protection to envy.
Commerce and population had mushroomed during the latter 19th century, juiced by entertainment business and related capital. Cairo held a cosmopolitan air in rural surroundings, due in part to multi-ethnic citizenry, but particularly for transient population from the rivers and railroads, estimated high as 200,000 visitors annually.
Cairo, at confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, resembled Little New Orleans for aspects besides traffic flow and show business. Cairo occupied an earthen bowl like New Orleans, sitting within jaws of a watery wrench, as a newsman described. Cairo relied on a high ring levee system and water pumps against threat of disaster, like New Orleans.
In turn, Cairo reflected the towns of southeast Missouri, even served as mother city, having weaned several of those communities for survival in the frontier. Cairo remained a regional lifeline for goods, services, markets and jobs. And southeast Missouri shared flatland with Cairo, if separated by the raging Mississippi. Cairo was different than typical Illinois country, starting with elevation from sea level. From Cairo and southernmost Illinois, fronting the great rivers, the rest of the state was uphill. Delta Missourians could relate.
Moreover, Cairo was regarded with respect in southeast Missouri, contrary to much of Illinois. Delta Missourians thought of Cairo as their own metro, and many savored the glittery entertainment sector. Group excursions to Cairo ranked with trips to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for popularity around southeast Missouri. Cairo had it all for show: riverboats, theaters, dance halls, circuses, outdoor concerts, street players, saloons, gambling rooms, race tracks, fairs, baseball, football, boxing and more amusements.
Cape Girardeau groups enjoyed riverboat excursions to Cairo, chronicled in local papers. “August Shivelbine visited Cairo last week with Mr. R.E. Gannon and he had a good time,” The Cape Democrat reported in 1896. “Cairo, he says, is a live town.”
Thomas F. Lennox won American acclaim as an actor and comedian during the 1830s and ’40s. The Scotsman Lennox was renowned for stage characterizations of Rob Roy MacGregor in tragedy and satire. Lennox met misfortune and debt as a theater owner, but the indefatigable optimist renovated a steamboat in Cincinnati and hired actor-musicians to travel the big rivers.
The revolutionary Lennox showboat resembled Noah’s Ark, and he steamed southwesterly on the Ohio “with a full and efficient company,” according to an advertisement. Lennox hired more players downstream, in Kentucky and Indiana, notably young Lafayette “Yankee” Robinson, a future circus star and owner who would mentor the Ringling brothers in Wisconsin.
River travel was always risky but this trip posed further perils such as winter flooding. Most disconcerting, a cholera plague covered the southern Mississippi Valley. People were sick and dying aboard riverboats while paranoia gripped shorelines, of dread contagions.
At Cairo, Ill., mounted cannon served warning, guns fixed along the wharf to prevent boats from dumping cholera sufferers and corpses. The Lennox showboat reached Cairo, or Mouth of The Ohio, around Jan. 1, 1849, apparently without illness in the troupe.
Cairo was a busy, dirty, rough settlement, perpetually damp for seep water’s pooling behind levees, with a few hundred permanent residents and transient waves. Along the Ohio River, many businesses and households occupied wood barges moored to the bank. A cavernous “wharf boat” offered lodging, food, alcohol, gambling and more. In this period circuses landed on other side of the Mississippi, at the Missouri clearing known as Ohio City, to perform and camp.
At nightfall scores of watercraft turned in at Cairo landing, crowding together amidst the flotsam piles and boat wrecks. At dawn a wave shipped back out, but in winter 1848-49 many travelers halted here, with the Mississippi closed northward, blocked by ice gorges, and fear of cholera southward.
Lennox had his own concerns, in face of financial collapse. While stage critics were impressed by the Lennox showboat thus far, “business along the route in the Ohio river towns had been bad,” by one account. Lennox had built the boat primarily on credit in Cincinnati, and now lenders were calling in notes.
The Lennox steamer left Cairo on the Mississippi, trekking southerly along the river stops of southeast Missouri, Kentucky, western Tennessee. Boat traffic was considerable in daytime, crowded in the tight bends, ranging from huge steamers to dinghies. The freighters ruled, obviously, but retail watercraft bobbed about, jockeying to haul goods and services such as groceries, clothes, footwear, hardware, nails, lumber, wood-sawing, tin-mending, blacksmithy and entertainment. Competition for cash and barter was stiff at riverside in southeast Missouri, an outback where serious folks weren’t foolish with their resources.
Lennox had difficulty paying show permits at landings along the Mississippi, and his Cincinnati creditors exerted pressure from afar. The steamer was often impounded by local authorities who removed the throttle valve, recalled Yankee Robinson, singer and dancer. “Business was not very good, and at many places we showed, the boat was tied up for debt,” Robinson said decades later. “But we managed to extricate ourselves until we reached Memphis.”
Police seized the floating theater on the Memphis wharf in early February 1849, according to news reports. Lennox was “unable to pay the past due installments on his venture,” The Memphis Public Ledger later confirmed. “The creditors took possession of the boat, and the [Lennox] company was put ashore out of money and disconsolate.”
But as Lennox lost possession of the showboat, he helped found Memphis theater. The Lennox troupe in Memphis—“The First Legitimate Theatrical Company,” observed The Public Ledger—adopted a vacant church as stage and crowds paid nightly for a premiere run into April.
Lennox relished gate success but only briefly, for he died that October, possibly of cholera in Memphis. [Cause of death wasn’t clarified in historic news reports retrieved through electronic search at time of this posting.] Lennox’s newfound business partner had just recovered from a cholera bout when he succumbed. A widow and children survived the showman.
Cincinnati friends of Lennox were crestfallen, having believed, finally, “his prospects were fair to amass fortune for his family.” An Enquirer editorial stated, “He was a man much respected by all who knew him. Alas, poor Tom, he has made his last exit.”
Music and theater carried forth in the riverine wilderness Lennox helped to crack open. Showboats multiplied in his wake on the Mississippi, utilized by American circuses in their golden age of the latter 19th Century. Excursion steamers surged in popularity, for pleasure trips lasting hours or days, offering dance music foremost. Land theaters and opera houses were erected at feasible locations, as marsh levels fell in the northern delta through human invention.
Lennox’s familial legacy came to include children and grandchildren who excelled on the American stage, and a son who followed him in everyday gallantry.
Thomas Lennox, as a young actor in 1842, witnessed a girl sink in churning waters at Baltimore. Thomas threw aside his hat, “leaped into the falls, swam over, and by a skillful dive” rescued the child. She was able to walk home, The Sun reported. In 1878, St. Louis telegraph operator George Lennox reflected his late father, bravely volunteering to enter the quarantined disaster zone at Vicksburg, Miss.
Yellow fever had wiped out wire operators, news reporters, doctors, nurses and river pilots, among officials at Vicksburg, where a journalist reported, starkly, “the unacclimated who come here will take the fever and probably die.” And a telegrapher from St. Louis did die quickly, after one week at Vicksburg, but his name was C.M. Carr. George Lennox was also stricken but survived, “lying very low” for weeks until released to return home upriver, where his recovery continued.
In show business the Lennox family came full circle at Cairo, Ill., where a family member arrived as comedy headliner in 1882. Walter Lennox, Jr., was performer-manager of the “My Partner” hit troupe from New York. The late Thomas Lennox had once passed through Cairo, a penniless thespian with unknown players, his theater boat in hock. Now his grandson rolled into Cairo by train, enjoying first-class coach among stars of American comedy, to perform in the elegant Grand Opera House.
Cairo had come a long way itself in showbiz, having arrived as an entertainment hotbed of the Midwest, staging great performances regularly.
Matt Chaney, writer and consultant, is compiling a book on historical song and dance in the Missouri delta, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock ‘n’ Roll. For more information, see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: email@example.com.
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