Sandburg's Hometown

April 15, 2013

Galesburg Opera House, 1870-1886.  Owner: Brechwald 

The Galesburg Opera House

By Barbara Schock

In his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers, Carl Sandburg writes of the fire which destroyed the Opera House at the corner of Prairie and Main Streets. He was almost 9 years old at the time. He describes how the stage and curtains burned. He remembered seeing “Hamlet” performed there as well as the Kickapoo Indians who sold patent medicines. He had also seen a diorama of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the most dramatic battles of the Civil War.

The next day, young Sandburg returned to the site of the fire which was still smoldering. In his imagination he could see the stage, the orchestra pit and the balcony where he had sat so many times. It was all thin air with the smell of the fire rising above it.

There is a small problem with the story. The Opera House fire occurred on December 30, 1886, but it was the Galesburg Opera House erected by Charles Brechwald in 1870. The building stood on the south side of the Public Square near the east corner.

Charles Brechwald was born in Germany on December 31, 1829, to Michael and Margaret Brechwald. In 1853, he emigrated to Cook County, Illinois, where he worked on a farm for about a year. For the next eight years he worked for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company supervising the use of steam machinery for cutting wood. In 1854, he married Barbara Walz whom he had met while living in Cook County. They had seven children, of whom five survived to adulthood.

In 1863 Brechwald established a wholesale liquor dealership in Galesburg and it became one of the largest in West Central Illinois. With two partners, he erected a three-story building on the Public Square. The first floor housed several saloons. On the second floor were offices for various attorneys and a jury room. A large meeting room was located on the third floor.

After members of the County Board succeeded in moving the County Seat to Galesburg from Knoxville, Circuit Court sessions were held on the third floor of the Brechwald building. The theater curtain served as a backdrop for the legal proceedings. County records were also stored in the building. When theatrical productions were slated for the facility, the courtroom furniture was removed and chairs were brought in for the audience.

The Knox County Courthouse was completed in the fall of 1886 and occupied shortly after the first of the new year. It contained commodious courtrooms for legal proceedings. There was also space for county offices and records.

Charles Brechwald died of spinal sclerosis at his home on January 13, 1884. His sons, Fred and Nick, continued with the wholesale liquor business and the opera house. It was refurnished and repainted in 1885.

The Brechwald Opera House promoted a variety of entertainments. The Knox College Archives holds several programs from the 1880s which describe classical music programs, fund-raisers for the Galesburg Hospital and an evening of entertainment for Post 45, Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Civil War veterans who had served in the Union Army.

After the fire, efforts were made to erect another opera house on the property, but were unsuccessful. Several of the walls were used to build a two-story building which provided space for businesses and offices. Four years later, the Auditorium Theater on the southeast corner of Broad and Ferris Streets was erected and opened in November, 1890, by another group of liquor dealers. It was named after the Auditorium Theater which had recently opened in Chicago. The Galesburg theater closed in 1925.

During the 19th century in the Midwest, opera house was a common term for any large space with a stage. Galesburg was fortunate to have several halls, some of which seated as many as a thousand people. The competition was fierce in those days before the introduction of movies, radio and television.

The stories of the other opera houses in Galesburg will appear in the future as research is completed.

Sandburg's Hometown
Date Title
April 14, 2013 The Galesburg Opera House
April 8, 2013 Grocery Stores and Sample Rooms
April 1, 2013  A Hearty  Breakfast 
March 25, 2013  The Lost Wallpaper Legend 
March 18, 2013 Martin G. Sandburg
March 4, 2013 The Edison Talking Machine
February 25, 2013 Joe Elser, Civil War Veteran
February 18, 2013 Remember the Maine...
February 11, 2013 Lincoln's Birthday
February 4, 2013 Curiosity