From a firefighter’s perspective, you know it’s going to be a tough day when you’re on the way to the call, only to find out that the fire is at your own fire station.
That was exactly the call firefighters in Walton faced on Tuesday evening, Dec. 10, 1912, when fire broke out at the Opera House block, between Gardiner Place and North Street. In this large building, the fire department shared space.
Reports from The Oneonta Herald and Walton Reporter said that the blaze was discovered at about 6 p.m., and the fire bell, located in a tower atop the building, was rung between six and eight times. The spreading flames made it impossible to either to extend the alarm or to get more than a part of the fire apparatus out of the department quarters. The hook and ladder cart and supplies were removed before the fire had gained such headway to prevent further entrance into the building.
Flying sparks from the fire created more problems, so residents got out their own garden hoses to help firefighters with the opera block, as well as at several residences and the Methodist Episcopal Church nearby.
“The firemen fought doggedly,” according to the Reporter, “never giving up. Chief Biedekapp, perfectly cool, directed the operations of his men. A great fire, which might have swept the better part of the town, was averted. It was fortunate that the wind blew from the south. Had it been north, as it was in half an hour after the fire was out, all the block of buildings between North and Gardiner place to the river must have gone.”
The origin of the fire wasn’t known, but it was the opinion that it started from cigarette stubs thrown on the Opera House block floor by a group of boys believed to have been playing cards there during the afternoon. The total loss in Walton was estimated at about $11,000. The Opera House block was insured. That fire bell in the tower had fallen about 100 feet into the cellar. Although cracked at the top, it was recast.
Gone with the block were the memories of entertainment in the town hall upstairs, the actual opera house, with a seating capacity of 800. As soon as it was safe to do so, the work of clearing the charred remains began. Village offices and the fire department quickly found temporary quarters, but steps were taken at once to erect a new building.
The Reporter had a headline in its Jan. 18, 1913, edition asking readers, “What Does Town Want?” The question was whether to make this new building strictly for municipal purposes, or to include the town hall, as it had been before the fire.
A special election was held on Tuesday, Jan. 28, for residents to decide.
“The proposition to bond for $20,000 for the new village hall was carried Tuesday by the largest special election ever held in Walton,” it was reported on Feb. 1. “396 votes were cast, of which 269 were for and 121 against,” with the other ballots spoiled.
“Eighty four women voted, and though it was the first time that many of them had ever been inside a polling place, they had not the slightest difficulty in registering their vote.” Of the 84, 66 voted in favor of the hall. Planing and construction were soon under way.
Construction progressed quickly, and on April 24, 1914, “Within the Law,” a professional/amateur production, opened to a standing-room-only crowd of about 1,500 in the new Walton Theater. That’s a lot of people standing, considering the current seating capacity is 400.
The theater went through many phases over the years, hosting professional troupes of Vaudeville players and personalities, such as Tom Mix. Live productions alternated with movies, which were shown beginning in September 1914. Movies thrived under the direction of theater mogul William Smalley, who leased the space in 1923, for many years.
The theater was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, but had fallen into disrepair. The Walton Restoration Committee was formed in 1986 to restore the hall to its former glory. It is known today as the Walton Theater Preservation Association. While successful in restoration over the years, two major floods since 2006 have been major obstacles to overcome — which the Association and community have triumphantly completed.
In addition to movies, now shown by a state-of-the-art digital projector, the Walton Theater is home to productions by the Delaware River Stage Company and musical performances through Music on the Delaware. Visit www.waltontheater.org for upcoming events.
On Monday: Nazi escapees from World War II found a home in our area in 1947.
City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.