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Historic Landmark Burns


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Yesterday while I was grocery shopping, the newspaper headline caught my eye as I strolled past the newspaper rack outside the store. It was something to the effect: Local Landmark Lost to Fire. Obviously I took a closer look to see which landmark it was. Peering in through the tiny cloudy square of plexi glass, I recognized the building at once. My heart sank.....it was the Opera House located right on Old US 40 in Wilson Kansas. I had stopped there two years ago to take pictures of the exterior. I loved that old building. It was one of my favorite places to pass when traveling Old 40. Since being bitten by the 40 bug, I have driven through Wilson numerous times, but unfortunately never stepped foot inside the structure. I have attached a picture from the Hays Daily News, and the accompanying news article is below. I also attached some photos of that I took of Wilson, I have a photo of the Opera House sign, and the adjoining buildings to the West, but do not have a photo of the Opera House loaded on my PC - I'll have to check my photo archives for that one.



Ellis, KS



mcorn@dailynews. net

WILSON -- By day, the basement of the historic Wilson Opera House had been home for soon-to-be 80-year-old Libbie Sebesta, cataloging the history of the Czech Capital of Kansas.

It was a monumental task for her to view the charred, destroyed remains of the building where she had spent so much time.

Instead, she stayed home, jotting down the vast number of artifacts that had been contained in the building's basement, in the event the Opera House foundation carried insurance on the building.

The 108-year-old Wilson Opera House was one of three buildings in Wilson destroyed by fire Friday morning.

A passerby reported embers coming from the building at 2:35 a.m. Friday, contacting Wilson Police Chief Mike Schoenhofer, who remained on the scene throughout the night, diverting traffic around Old U.S. Highway 40, the historic highway that passes in front of the row of buildings.

In addition to the opera house, an adjoining brick-fronted building was destroyed and a wood-frame doctor's office was damaged so much that it was rendered unusable.

Schoenhofer said the fire appeared to start in what is called the Johnson building, in the center of the three-building fire scene.

Inside were a number of items, including antique cars and other collectible items.

Everything but a 1959 Ford parked in the rear was destroyed in the fire.

The destruction was catastrophic, attracting townspeople and 12 to 15 fire departments who came to help fight the fire.

It's not yet known what caused the fire, and Kansas Fire Marshal Rod Oldridge deferred questions to Schoenhofer.

While three buildings were destroyed, four other historic buildings on the block were saved, including the limestone building that houses the American Legion.

The Russell City Fire Department, bringing two trucks to the fire, was charged with keeping the legion building safe.

A ladder truck and a pumper was brought down, said Capt. Shane Preston.

"That was our main concern," he said of the Legion building.

Russell firefighters were called out at about 2:45 a.m., arriving a short time later.

Preston said the opera house was fully engulfed when they arrived.

Russell firefighters focused their attention and their water on the Legion building, spraying it down to keep the flames from spreading.

Preston said firefighters went inside the building every 60 to 90 minutes to check out the situation.

While it's likely the contents of the building could see some damage, either from heat, smoke or water, most of the damage will be contained to the exterior of the building.

The fire scene attracted dozens of onlookers, including Sebesta.

"This is one of the greatest losses that the city could have," she said.

The opera house, she said, was finished in 1901.

"This was the centerpiece of the town," she said.

For Rudy Hoch, the fire signaled the loss of years of memories.

"I saw the Yellow Brick Road in there when it came out," he said, of the Wizard of Oz.

And he said he likely wore out a couple pair of shoes on the dance floor inside the building.

Hoch grew up in the Wilson area, born in 1923.

"I'm going to be 86 years old," he said. "It was a movie theater, a dance place and a gathering place for local people."

While the opera house is situated about a block south of Wilson's historic downtown area, Hoch said it is the center of the town.

Even the doctor's office, he said, is where four of his children were born.

Although Sebesta sought to diminish her role in the museum, she was quick to tick off a list of items contained in the building, and the names of the people who either donated them or were responsible for getting them.

It was all things Czech, including money and books.

She mentioned a 100-year-old sugar bowl, a 102-year-old wedding dress, and she made it clear that many of the people in the community migrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia, with a few coming from Bohemia before Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918.

"There were lots of pictures," she said, "lots of pictures."

There were maps, and Czech eggs.

"Beautiful Czech eggs," she said. "I couldn't begin to tell you some of the stuff we had."

As for Sebesta, it will be a dramatic change in her life, no longer having the museum to toil in.

"I'll keep busy," she said. "All my scrapbooks are down there. They're gone."

"It kind of takes your insides out," Hoch said of the loss of the building. "It's irreplaceable. It's a tremendous loss to the city. But it's gone."




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It is a shame to see the old buildings go. A lot of memories went with this one.


I took a Google Earth street level tour of Wilson. The old Opera House was clearly a major landmark.


I wonder the history of the red and white service station building kitty corner from the opera house. Its a little charmer.


Sorry again.




Keep the Show on the Road!

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Wilson is about 60 miles away from where I live in Ellis, but whenever I travel East, I try to take old 40 and I especially enjoy going through Wilson. Is it like a step back in time. For such a small town, population about 800 people, it still has many great old buildings and signs. There is also an old Phillips 66 service station on the west edge of town that is really neat as well. I have taken quite a few pictures of Wilson, but everytime I pass through, I seem to notice one more thing that I should photograph.

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That obviously was a treasure. One that I'll not get to see. In some cyber-fumbling, I noticed the Historic Midland Hotel not too far away. Indications are that it is currently operating as a real hotel and it looks like a bit of a gem itself.


Denny and Steve,


Midland Hotel….and still in operation!!! Interesting.


Did you know that in 1916 at the Vlcek garage in Wilson, you could get your car repaired for 60 cents an hour. But the Golden Belt Garage in Ellis would do it for 50 cents an hour! And BTW, Ellis and Wilson were on the Golden Belt Highway, “the best and shortest route to Colorado.” Short maybe, but it was dirt. (Source 1916 TIB). By 1920 it was “dirt, in fine condition.” (Source 1920 TIB).




keep the Show on the Road!

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