Submitted by Jim Jacobson
On a cool, late September day in 1883, a train chugs to a stop at the Darlington railroad depot and a troop of singers and actors step out to be greeted by a small crowd of people who have been waiting in anticipation of their arrival. The travelers marvel at the smallness of this town that is nestled in the Pecatonica River valley. It’s in stark contrast to their home city of Chicago.
They are escorted with their steeper trunks in tow to a building two blocks from the train platform and climb to the second story of a beautiful, newly built opera house that will host their weekend performances. The city has been abuzz with excitement for the show that has been advertised with posters and newspaper stories for the past month.
The train has also been steadily emptying its cargo of show-goers, who will flock to the motels and other establishments until the evening’s entertainment event. Mr. Josephus Driver grins as he witnesses the beginnings of new possibilities his new opera house has created for his city.
Now, 133 years later, this building stands quiet and vacant at the corner of Main and Ann Street. Over eight decades have passed since her stage has seen a traveling show. In a new age where we can watch movies on our telephone, the Driver Opera House has faded into antiquity and disrepair.
Seven yeas ago a group of people took it upon themselves to stop the effects that the ravages of time and neglect have taken on this building that Darlington has inherited from Josephus Driver.
For the first time in 126 years, the building is no longer privately owned. It now belongs to all, under the care of a volunteer board of directors as a non-profit, non-tax funded project with hopes to save it from eventual destruction.
There is now a definite urgency surrounding this project. The Driver Opera House Restoration project is up against the clock to keep the project and efforts of all involved alive with the looming threat of a half million dollar grant expiring in December if enough funds are not raised in order to qualify.
The group must have at least $171,000 in additional pledges by the end of the year in order to secure a $550,000 DNR grant. Approximately $80,000 has been raised over the past few months, through generous pledges and donations from individuals and organizations from both the Lafayette County area and beyond, but it is not enough.
The time is now for everyone to contribute to revitalizing Main Street with the restoration of the Driver Opera House. As the community that houses this historic opportunity will be the one to reap the benefits of its restoration directly, it is therefore also ultimately the community’s responsibility to get that restoration off the ground.
Recently the Driver Opera House Restoration organization was approached by Ted and Angie Thuli with an offer to host a Hollywood movie premier to benefit the Driver Opera House. Ted met the writer, director and actor of the film, Rik Swartzwelder while on business in Burbank, Calif.
They both agreed that they had met for a reason. As luck would have it, that reason was to help the city of Darlington by graciously allowing the showing of “Old Fashioned,” a family film about an old fashioned courtship in today’s world.
If you pledge and attend, you will also be able to see the old Town Theater at the Thuli home that has been missing from Main Street for over 30 years.
If you are interested in pledging over a 2-5 year time span, please contact any of the Driver Opera House board members: Stan Krahenbuhl, Becky Taylor, Candi Fitzsimons, Carla and Jim Jacobson, Jean Kendall, Kerry Black, Leona Havens, Steve Winslow, and Yesenia Valenzuela.
The vision of this project still eludes some. Others have had an epiphany after seeing the building, imagining the new possibilities and hearing the success stories other small towns have to tell about the restorations of their old opera houses.
This project is a crucial first step toward not only maintaining the viability of our city and county, but also insuring a bright, productive future.
The loss of any historic building on Darlington’s Main Street would be devastating to this city. A gaping space occupied by a parking lot in a line of buildings would look like a tooth knocked out of an otherwise perfect smile.