Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center, Part 163 – The Art Bug

Part 163: The Art Bug

Thomas G. Moses wrote, “The “Art Bug” began to develop in me quite early. It was at this time that I should have had an opportunity to see if I was qualified to become a real artist, or a good cobbler.” By the age of twelve he was awarded a prize at he county fair for his pencil drawing of the 2nd Ward school house. Of this time Moses commented, “I was then considered Sterling’s Artist, and a brilliant future was seen for me in the Art World by many.”

That year he had the opportunity to take a few art lessons. Mrs. Worthington, an elderly lady in Sterling, instructed Moses in landscape painting. This gave him a slight foundation that pointed him in the right direction. Moses recalled, “Being twelve years of age and quite young to determine what I wanted to do in life, my County Fair prize picture had brought to me the serious question, which was easily answered – Painting.” He remained something of a “dreamer” as he examined small circulars advertising touring productions such as “The Black Crook.” Moses wrote, “The gaudy illustrations of the different scenes were the most artistic things I had ever seen. How I longed to see wonderful painting. Would I ever be able to paint pictures framed in heavy gold frames, my name on the corner, and hanging in an Art gallery? If I couldn’t do that, could I paint ornamental signs on glass? Or fancy scroll work and landscapes on the side of an omnibus? Or flowers on rocking chairs? It was paint, paint and nothing else.” He wasn’t discerning at all about the type of genre, completing a number of small pictures and dreaming of a life as an artist. Moses remembered that all he hungered for was paint.

As in many cases, the dreams of a young child did not mesh with the expectations of his parents. Lucius Moses saw a great future for his son in the tannery. He used the example of the great General U.S. Grant who had started life as a tanner and ended up as President of the United States. Regardless, no argument could have compelled Moses to change his mind after he became determined to paint. For Moses, his work at the tannery was simply “irksome.” As he only owned one suit of clothes, the smell of the tannery lingered wherever he went, especially at school. It must have been difficult to impress his school mates when “that awful odor from the tannery” would saturate his clothes.

A view of employees at a Tannery in 1870. This was from the same time when Thomas G. Moses was working in his father’s tannery at Sterling, Illinois.

It was at the age of thirteen that Moses first ran away from home, escaping to a nearby town. Traveling by rail with very little money in his pocket, he sought employment outside of the tannery. In Ambrose he visited a car shop for a job in their paint shop. There he was told to return and ask again the following day. After sleeping on a park bench that night and waking to heavy frost, he returned to the paint shop without breakfast. A constable met him at the door and dutifully escorted the young man home as his father had sent a telegram while he slept. Moses remembered his return writing, “There was no fatted calf cooked for this prodigal son, but there was a short interview in the wood shed.”

Four years later, he travelled to Chicago. This time with his father’s permission as he wanted to see the destruction left by the 1871 fire.

A photograph depicting blocks of devastation in Chicago after the fire in 1871.
The ruins after the 1871 fire in Chicago, Illinois.
A map depicting the “Burnt District” in Chicago after the 1871 great fire.

He went with a family friend named William Bigelow, the conductor on the Sterling freight train. Moses recalled that Chicago immediately appealed to him, writing in 1872 that “There must be a chance in such a big place for me and I made up my mind to go. All summer I pleaded with Father to allow me to go. He refused. If I wanted to paint, I could get a job at the wagon works at home.”

For the next year, Moses studied hard at school, published articles in the local paper and followed all of the rules. He wrote, “I was given a little more freedom this Winter and I went out a good deal to parties and sleigh rides. Father had relented and gave me some money so I could pay my way. It was harder for me to make up my mind to go to Chicago, but I felt I must get started.”

That spring during April of 1873, his “wild career as an Artist” began. Since his father declined to assist him with his with any artistic aspirations, Moses waited for the right moment and left for Chicago with ten cents in his pocket, a new pair of boots, warm clothes and “a lot of pluck.” He hitched a ride early in the morning with his conductor friend Bigelow, arriving in Chicago late that day. He sought out a family friend who was a Master Painter for the C. & N. W. Rail Road in Clinton, Iowa.

A map depicting the railroad lines in Illinois.

Mr. Michaels wrote a letter to Lucius Moses asking him to let his son give the art world a try and promising to look after him. The next morning, Mr. Michael helped Moses secure a position at the P. M. Almini Company for four dollars a week. The day after, he received his trunk from home, and with it a diary. Within four days of arriving in Chicago, Moses was making a living painting for a decorating studio.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 162 – Frank Deming Moses

Part 162: Frank Deming Moses

Thomas G. Moses wrote about the separation of his family after his mother’s death. His sisters, Lucia and Illie, were sent back to the East with Aunt Annie while he and Frank remained with their father in Sterling, Illinois. He wrote that they were left to “the tender mercy of servants, who allowed us to run wild with the horses and other wild things, as Father had no time to give for us.”

The brothers were only two years apart in age and spent countless hours getting into mischief. Moses wrote, “If a vacant house was assaulted and all the glass broken, or an orchard or vineyard disturbed, either in the moonlight or daylight, the good people would exclaim, “It must have been those Moses’ boys.” He recalled that they were never vicious, only mischievous.

To stay out of trouble, the boys caught fish in a local river, selling them to the residents of Sterling for a little spending money. Unfortunately, this did not sit well with their father as he considered it a disgrace to the family name – “a Moses did not sell fish on a street corner.” However, with all the money they earned from selling fish, Frank was able to buy books.

The boys soon left their fishing partnership and sought employment opportunities elsewhere. Frank did a little work at the new gas works while Moses worked at their father’s tannery and harness shop. Both were obligated to give all of their hard-earned wages to their father. This never sat well with Thomas as he had aspirations to begin a painting career in Chicago. He would need funds for travel and lodging to seek employment there. Moses eventually left for the big city, with Frank remaining his only link to family and the Sterling area.

As adults, each brother travelled extensively for his respective career. Frank made a name for himself designing, installing, and supervising the new gas plants that were appearing all across the country. He was extremely well known and respected in the gas industry.

Around the same time that Thomas began his artistic career at the interior decorating firm of the P.M. Almini Co. in Chicago, Frank began his career as a lamp lighter for the Sterling gas company.

An anonymous lamplighter during the nineteenth century.

In 1879 Frank journeyed to Indianapolis as a “gas maker,” soon becoming the project foreman for the area. From 1882-1889 he worked in engineering and construction at Kerr-Murray Manufacturing Co. in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Between 1889 and 1898 Frank travelled with the Mutual Fuel Gas Co. of Chicago and was stationed in various cities, including St. Joseph, MO, Zanesville, OH, and Bellevue, KY. By 1898 he moved to Trenton, NJ, and took charge of the new gas plant. The company was later absorbed into the South Jersey Gas Electric and Traction Company, but Frank became chief engineer and remained with the company until 1902. The following year he went into business for himself, building gas works and later incorporating the Gas Engineering Company. Frank was one of the pioneers who introduced gas ranges in this country.

One of Frank D. Moses’ advertisements for gas ranges.

He had large contracts for selling and installing ranges and appliance in many eastern cities that included Trenton, NJ, Camden, NJ, Baltimore, MD, Troy, and Albany, NY. At the end of his life, Frank D. Moses was president of the Gas Engineering Co. of Trenton, New Jersey and applied for a patent on a gas apparatus. He passed away on November 7, 1927, after spending 52 years in the gas business.

Frank D. Moses’ design for a gas apparatus.

The American Gas Association Monthly noted Frank Moses’ contribution to the gas industry when he passed away, listing him as one of the gas industry’s “old guard.” Thomas’ son, Pitt, followed the career of his uncle and worked with him at the gas plant in Jew Jersey. Moses recorded in his diary that he had been unaware of any health concerns with his brother. It was a time when personal illnesses were not always openly shared with family members.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 161 – Son of a Son of a Sailor

Part 161: Son of a Son of a Sailor

When I first viewed the damaged Fort Scott scenery at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center, I kept thinking, “They really don’t really understand the significance of the artist or this acquisition.” Why would anyone leave the repair and hanging of these large scale paintings to inexperienced hands? At the time, it was difficult to wrap my mind around the CEO’s final decision, especially after I had repeatedly explained the importance of this unique artist and his work.

Up to this point in my tale, I have presented information about the history of the collection, its components, the removal and transportation from Kansas to Minnesota, its subsequent destruction during an attempted restoration, and the many other manufacturers of painted illusion. I will now examine the talented individual who designed and painted the 1924 scenery collection at sixty-eight years old – Thomas Gibbs Moses (1856-1934).

Here are the first few lines from his typed manuscript:

“I was born in Liverpool, England, July 21, 1856. My father, Lucius M. Moses, was born in Great Falls, New Hampshire, April 21, 1822. He married my Mother, Mary Wingate Titcomb, August 14, 1849, at Wells Beach, Maine, where she was born on May 14, 1825.”

Moses’ parents both came from significant New England families. His mother was one of five children born to Joanna Wentworth Rollins (1804-1860) and Jeremy H. Titcomb (1801-1880). She married Lucius Moses of Somersworth, New Hampshire, in 1849. The wedding took place at her father’s property in Wells Beach, the well-known Atlantic House. Titcomb had opened the residence for business on June 15, 1846.

The Atlantic House in Wells Beach, Maine, where Thomas G. Moses’ parents were married in 1849.

Moses’ father was a sea captain and part owner in the ships that he sailed, the last being a bark built by William Hanscom in 1833. Moses recorded, “The wonderful full rigged ship “Pactolus” was handed over to another Master, much regretted by my Father, for he loved salt water and sailing. As I do sketching and painting, I am afraid I inherited some of his roving disposition.” Lucius M. Moses was certainly “the son of a son of a sailor.” I recalled the line sung by Jimmy Buffet, “As a dreamer of dreams and a traveling man, I have chalked up many a mile.” Moses was born at sea. The family sailed as far as east India and as far south as Rio de Janeiro.

Photograph of an unidentified three-masted bark, similar to the Pactolus – the last ship sailed by the Moses family before moving inland.

The Sterling Daily Gazette, would later note Lucius Moses as “one of several old New England sea captains who settled in Whiteside county” (Dec. 13, 1927, page 2). Genealogical records state that Lucius’ career on the sea lasted for twenty-two years before returning to land. Lucius Manlius Moses, mainly known as Capt. L. M. Moses, was born the son of another sea captain who had worked for many years in the merchant marines, Theodore Bland Moses.

Moses’ diary notes that that his father was in the fortunate position that allowed his family to accompany him on long voyages. Life on the sea, however, was never without tragedy. Two of the Moses’ children died while at sea, their first son Lucius and their daughter Kate. The remaining five children were Lucia Gray (1853), Thomas Gibbs (1856), Frank Deming (1858), Illie (1860), and Little Kate (1862).

In 1859, the family left living a life on the sea and headed inland. Lucius sold his interests in the ships and moved west with his family to New Hampshire. He invested in a tannery for a side line and began to carve out his new life on land. It was then that their mother Mary perished after the birth of Little Kate, leaving Lucius to raise four children by alone until he found another wife. Moving once again, the family settled in Sterling, Illinois, where Lucius established Sterling Hide and Leather Shop with a partner. His business was a successful one and eventually he owned sole interest in the company, also running a tannery and harness shop.

1869 view of Sterling, Illinois. Thomas G. Moses was thirteen years old when the town was this size.

When his mother died at the age of five, Thomas Moses recalled, “I remember every detail and incident of her heath. I can see each dear friend of Mother’s grouped about. I crawled upon the bed to kiss her good-bye. One of her last bequests was to give her watch to “Tommy,” which I received after I had passed middle age.”

But it was his mother’s drawing book from 1835 that Moses would treasure the most. Later in life, he lamented, “If she had only lived, what a wonderful Art companion I would have had. I know she would have given me the encouragement I needed to start with.”

He identified the loss of his mother as much more than that of a parent. He agonized over the loss of his first potential art instructor, knowing that his artistic training as child would have given him a leg up in the art world. In 1931 Moses wrote, “I feel that at the age of 75 years the twilight of my life is rapidly approaching, and when the sun goes down all of my ambition to shine in the art world will go with it; closing the career of one who has had many rosy dreams that have proven to be the dreams of a plodder. Had my mother been spared to me, I would have had the proper art training to develop the natural ability which I inherited from her, for she was very artistic in many ways as shown in one of her drawing books when she was only fifteen years of age. I have this book. Without this training, I have been exiled to live and struggle against great odds in my effort to gain a foothold in art. It has been a long fight to get standing as scenic artist, in which field I have won a certain reputation which has carried me into the limelight, of which I am justly proud. However, at the same time, I realize that an early training would have been a great help, and possibly enabled me to reach my goal of landscape painting without the aid of scenic painting.”

At such an early age he lost the only family member who would ever understand his choice to leave his job at the tannery in Sterling and enter the world of art.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 160 – Scattered Pictures of the Smiles We Left Behind

Part 160: Scattered Pictures of the Smiles We Left Behind

In the performing arts we leave a part of our self, or our art, behind after the production closes. Whether visual or verbal, our “scattered pictures” become references for future endeavors. We seek training and inspiration from our predecessors. As I examine the lives of scenic artists, stage carpenters, and others theatre practitioners, I have noticed many share a common thread. There is a desire to leave some sort of legacy behind, whether it is art or technology. It can be material or intangible, but we want something to remain after our earthly adventure ends. For Thomas. G. Moses and others, it meant leaving a written record of their journey.

When I first read Moses’ typed manuscript I was awestruck. For decades, he carefully made daily entries in a diary. He also clipped and pasted newspaper articles in his scrapbook. Moses saved information pertaining not only to his own accomplishments, but also those of his friends. Somewhere along the way, his intention was to publish a book, “Sixty Years Behind the Curtain Line.” In the end it remained an unpublished manuscript simply titled “My Diary.” His writings included poetry, reflections of the time, admiration for his colleagues, frustration with employers, the challenge of family, brushes with fame, devastating events, and everyday affairs. Throughout it all, his passion for art and his wife shone through the text with an unbeatable enthusiasm for life.

In a 1932 letter to his son Pitt, Moses wrote,

“While I hope to enjoy a few more years of painting, the sudden passing of Ellie, Frank and Lucia has forced me to realize that I have only a few more years at the most and when I do pass out, I want to feel that my life has not been wasted, and my work will live on for many years after I am gone.” Amazingly, many of his paintings for both fine art and scenic art remain hanging in Scottish Rite theaters across the country. During the installation of scenery collections, Moses often donated a fine art piece to the Valley, or a local friend. For many years, his work has remained tucked away at various archives, museums, and private residences.

Painting by Thomas G. Moses. His gift to the Pasadena Scottish Rite in 1925. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Detail in landscape painted by Thomas G. Moses and presented to the Pasadena Scottish Rite in 1925. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Painted detail from backdrop painted that was by Thomas Moses for the Winona Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2014.


I believe his legacy really lives in his memoirs, thoughts and plans recorded in small annual diaries that he began to write in 1873.

But why did he start making diary entries that year? I had always wondered. With his busy schedule, why had he took the time to record his thoughts at the end of each day, every day, for sixty years. I discovered the answer while examining a research file on Moses kept by John R. Rothgeb this past fall. It is one of many random and unprocessed documents contained in the Rothgeb Papers at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas, Austin).

Moses’ father, Lucius M.(1822-1891), wrote a letter to his son on March 14, 1873. It accompanied a trunk that was from Sterling, Illinois to Chicago. Lucius was fifty-one years old when he sent the following letter to his seventeen-year-old son “Tommy,” living at #208 Fifth Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.

He wrote, “My Dear Son Tommy,

Mother has fixed up your shirts and packed your trunk. I shall send it in by the 6 o’clock train to-morrow (Saturday morning). I could not possibly get it off to-day as I was very busy this morning. Frank got your old books all mended up and they are in the trunk. I shall pay the expressage on the trunk. I will do all I can to keep you in clothes and when you are really in need let me know. Mother put in some paper for you to write home on also some envelopes. I have bot [sic] you a little diary for you to make memorandums on and it has a cash a/c where you can keep a/c of money received and spent. I would have got a larger one, but mother thought your pockets were too shallow for a large one. You will find $5.00 and some stamps in the Diary.” The letter continues with financial advice and instructions for recording wages and living expenses, ending with “P.S. The diary is in the trunk.” It was signed, “From your affectionate father, L. M. Moses.”


I immediately thought of parents everywhere sending children off on their own adventures. We set them free, hoping that they won’t need help, but wanting to make sure that they know it’s available if needed. During many goodbyes, we offer those final parting words of wisdom, or last minute advice. Whether it is on their first day of college, before their wedding or after we leave this world, there is the hope that we have given them all of the tools to not only survive, but also thrive and enjoy life. Moses’ parents were sending clothing, books, financial advice, some money, and a diary – all of the essentials for a boy on his own in the big city.

Moses continued to write daily in a small diary continuously, even during the last five years of his life. I believe that his diary entries signified an unbreakable connection with his father when he first left home in 1872. Although his father passed in 1891, Moses continued to record his daily activities and income. Last fall, I transcribed Moses’ 1931 diary and am currently working on the years 1929, 1930, 1932 and 1933. These are the only remaining handwritten diaries by Moses. His small diaries depict more of a daily struggle, instead of the romanticized reflection of his 1931 manuscript. His reflections at the age of seventy-five are colored by age and his growing hope to leave some positive mark when he passed from this world. Moses’ diaries are his legacy as much as his fine art or 1924 Fort Scott scenery collection.

Thomas G. Moses Diary from 1931. Private collection. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Thomas G. Moses Diary from 1931. Private collection. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.

Already in 1922 at the age of sixty-four he wrote, “I trust my diary will be of some interest to my relatives and brother scenic artists. I feel sure that my work will be of some interest inasmuch as I was compelled to travel over the United States a great deal from Maine to California, which gave me a great chance to meet big people of the dramatic world in the days of real actors and plays of real merit.”

I first read this statement at the age of nineteen and was determined to make a positive mark on the world too. Maybe not one that was recognized in my lifetime, but some small contribution to a much larger picture that preserved theatrical heritage for future generations to enjoy. Maybe my purpose is to make sure that Moses’ voice remains of interest to his “relatives and brother scenic artists.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 159 – My Comforter.

Part 159: My Comforter

The work of Thomas G. Moses (1856-1934) has been an inspiration to me throughout my career and is the muse for this tale too. For me, his work is a square in a patchwork quilt that covers theatre history atop fraternal sheets. I am weaving together four separate stories. The first of these stories examines the life and times of Moses, a subject near and dear to me since I created an index for his typed manuscript and scrapbook as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota. The second explores the origin of Masonic degree productions by Scottish Rite Masons and theatre practitioners who owned late-nineteenth and early-twentieth scenic studios. The third tale recounts my personal journey as a scenic artist and scholar. The final story concerns the acquisition of the Fort Scott collection and my responsibilities as the one-time Curatorial Director for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.

Painted detail from the scenery collection created by Thomas G. Moses for the Fort Scott Scottish Rite in 1924. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

Here is a lengthy recap for those who have recently joined this online tale concerning my rationale for starting this manuscript. By the summer of 2016, I had supervised the removal and transport of a Scottish Rite scenery acquisition from Fort Scott, Kansas, to a storage facility in Bloomington, Minnesota. There it was to await completion of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center stage where I was too lead a group of individuals to restore the entire collection. Seventeen drops would be ready to display for the opening of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center on June 24, 2016. While on site in Fort Scott, I had also discovered some personal artifacts of Moses, left behind when he painted the scenery in 1924 that included a paint sweater, Masonic cap, paint brush and charcoal sticks.

Paint sweater of Thomas G. Moses left above the stage at the Scottish Rite in Fort Scott, Kansas during 1924. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

By this point in my life I had studied Masonic Theatre since 1989 and restored over 500 historic backdrops in venues across the United States. My doctoral thesis was “Scenic Shifts Upon the Scottish Rite Stage: Designing for Masonic Theatre, 1859-1929” and historical scene painting remained my passion. As the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center’s Curatorial Director, I evaluated the Fort Scott scenery collection for possible purchase and transportation, estimated all of the restoration labor, provided timelines, assembled a crew, and ordered all of the necessary materials. This was just one small project of many that I had led during the planning and construction phase of the entire facility. I guided architects, theatre consultants, and interior designers to create a space that replicated a traditional Masonic center with a theatrical stage, c. 1914-1920.


My role as historical consultant for the entire endeavor began during 2014. This was during the same time that I placed the Winona, Minnesota, Masonic scenery collection into temporary storage to await the fate of their city council. My initial consulting agreement with the CEO of Minnesota Masonic Charities for work on the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center agreement morphed into a permanent staff position by June 1, 2015. Throughout the spring of 2015, the CEO of Minnesota Masonic Charities had repeatedly asked, “What will it take to get you on staff?” For months, he inquired, “How do you envision you future with us once the building opens?” After careful consideration, I closed my restoration business (Bella Scena, LLC), informed my clientele that I was unavailable for any future projects, and threw myself into the planning and construction of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Little did I realize at the time, but the CEO was simply acquiring my services at a 40 percent reduced rate during their final year of construction. I also had no idea that the CEO would use my restoration specifications and hire a completely inexperienced crew to attempt a restoration of the Fort Scott collection after eliminating my position during July 2016 – one month after the building opened to the public. In the end, the Fort Scott scenery collection was irreparably damaged due to inappropriate conservation techniques and the application of hot-melt glue.

I walked away from the entire endeavor a “sadder but wiser” girl, trying to forget everything that had occurred and remain positive. However, I had not expected the systematic erasure of my contributions while working there from 2014 until 2016. My 11’ x 22’ stained glass design was now credited to the stained glass manufacturer. My position as opening exhibit curator was reduced to the role of a simple freelance consultant. The list goes on and on. After throwing myself into the project for two years, abandoning all other work in lieu of this endeavor, it looked like I had accomplished nothing on paper. On paper, the CEO had paid me from a variety of sources and ended up employing me as the Curatorial Director though Minnesota Masonic Eldercare Services and not the actual Heritage Center. This convoluted paper trail of employment made me virtually untraceable when looking at key players in the planning and construction of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Hidden in plain sight and unaware of the endgame, I will never understand what warranted the CEO’s animosity toward me.

Initially, my spirit sank as I watched many in the Minnesota Masonic community, especially those that I had considered friends, look the other way as my position was terminated and my name dragged through the mud. Sadly, ill treatment by a Freemason in a position of power is not uncommon. However, the “turning a blind eye” from a fraternal family that I had helped for over two decades was extremely difficult to take. In the end, this project became a mere steppingstone on my path toward new discoveries in the shared world of fraternal scholarship and theatre history. In desperation for a distraction from my thoughts, I threw myself into theatre research and reached out to past clients. I was determined to make lemonade out of lemons and rapidly returned to the world of scenic art, design, and restoration. My six months of unemployment were a learning opportunity. I finally took the time to study some historical materials and make a few connections.

My husband, Master of Helios Lodge in Cambridge, suggested that I write a book. I refused on the grounds that I simply wanted to move onward, upward and away from Minnesota Freemasonry. I focused on my role as volume editor and contributor for the upcoming Santa Fe Scottish Rite book. It is slated to be published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 2018.  I also took time transcribing the 1931 handwritten diary of Thomas Moses and inspecting his last theatre model – now held at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Finally, I set up a blog (www.drypigment.net) to share bits of technical information and traditions pertaining to historical scene painting techniques that I had discovered and documented over the years. I refused to be a victim of intellectual rape.

It was not until February 2017, while attending my husband’s conducting debut for a Singers in Accord event at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center, that I was forced into action. The prior year, my husband had approached the general director for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center with a proposal to pair musical selections with the scenic art of Thomas Moses. At the time, I was slotted to start the scenery restoration within the next few months and would have half of the collection completely restored by his 2017. Unfortunately, my position was eliminated and his journey became one wrought with frustration. I helplessly watched as the MMHC general director could not guarantee any restored scenery for his concert until the week before the event.

I sat in shock at the concert, seeing the extensive damage to Moses’ painted drops. Worse still were the comments by my friends who believed that I was responsible for this botched restoration. That evening, after the concert, I decided to take action and immediately distance myself from the unsuccessful restoration of the Fort Scott collection at the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. I became obvious that I needed to speak out.

Initially, I attempted to take a positive spin on this tragedy and simply document my involvement with the Fort Scott collection, explaining its significance and providing an historical context. What started out as a modest discussion of the Fort Scott collection evolved after two major events that occurred during March of 2017. First of all, local Masons explained to me that the “official reason” given for my termination was my “lack of skills.” I was then credited, or blamed, for the selection and training of the crew that botched the restoration of the Fort Scott scenery collection. I immediately thought of a line written by the poet Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I refused to go gentle into that good night and decided to share everything online.

And so, I continue my tale.

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 158 – Jack of All Trades Continued

Part 158: Jack of All Trades Continued

From Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, 1893, Vol. 36.

The Chicago Sunday Tribune had a Sunday Supplement titled “Worker’s Magazine: For the Man who Works with Hand or Brain.” On April 9, 1905, L. G. Pick wrote the article, “Stage Carpenter is a Star, Jack of All Trades.” Here is the second, and final, installment for what I posted yesterday:

“The stage carpenter’s work on a production begins a week or two weeks before a play is to be produced. Then he receives what is termed a “property plot” of the coming play. A property plot for certain shows reads more like a catalogue of a house furnishing goods firm than anything connected with the theatrical business. Everything which is needed for a play except the scenery, which is generally carried by the company listed on the “plot.” Each act generally requires altogether different “props.”

From Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, 1893, Vol. 36, page 618.

Here are a few things that were on the “property plot” of a recent play. Four carpet rugs, dark red; one card table, round top, thirty inches, dark oak; two bronze statues; one glass for whiskey sour; fifteen packages, assorted sizes to represent packages of groceries; one late; one tin water pail; four bound books; four clubs for crowd, one “wood crash.” This is about one-tenth of the items required on this plot and this was a small play.

When the stage carpenter gets this plot it is “up to him.” He has to get the things called for and he had to get them without paying anything for them. This is the only one of the puzzles to be solved in connections with staging a play. He must use his judgment and decide what size many of the various articles are to be and other things that go to make them applicable to a particular scene. Having decided this, he must go out and get them – without paying for them. This he does by borrowing from large downtown stores, paying them with passes to the show or occasionally with an advertisement on the program.

Often “props” has troubles that turn his hair gray before his “plot” is filled. For instance, in a play now playing in the city there was called for one étagère, filled with ornamental pieces.”

The stage carpenter who got this plot looked at this line, scratched his head, and took it to the head of the house. “See a furniture man,” said he. A furniture man was sought out and shook his head. “Not hear; never heard of it,” was his reply. Then the advance agent of the show came to town. “What’s an étagère?” was the first question fired at him by the carpenter. “Search me,” he smiled. Then the stage carpenter went to a friend of his who conducts a small antique furniture store and there, he found than an étagère was an old-fashioned “what-not,” and he breathed easier.

Some of the jobs that the stage carpenter is in charge of from Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, 1893, Vol. 36, page 621.

Something much akin to this comes up with each production that is made. Still the stage carpenter manages to smile through it all. When the “props” are all assembled and the old play leaves town and a new one comes to the theater is when the stage carpenter really begins work. The old scenery must be torn down and made ready for shipment, the old props taken off, and the new scenery and props put on.

The work of tearing out an old play and putting on a new one begins generally directly after the Saturday night performance and continues until the new play is put on and ready for the first performance. If one or both of the plays are being produced on a large scale, the time required to make the change is from thirty to thirty-six hours. During this time the stage carpenter must always be on duty, overseeing everything that is under his charge, and under these conditions nearly everything on the stage is under him.

On ordinary days the carpenter generally comes to work at 10 in the morning and works until the evening performance is over. His pay runs from $25 a week for the ordinary carpenter to $35 for the “star.” Thirty dollars is a high average. His work is hard, besides the length of the hours and there is little chance for promotion. A few stage carpenters have risen to positions as stage managers, but they are merely the exception to the rule. There is a season in the summer time when most of the men who fix stage settings for plays are thrown out of work through the closing of their theaters. Then some of them go into other branches of carpenter work and others, having saved some money, live on what they earn during the winter. But when the season opens again they are sure to be found back where the scenes are made unless some uncontrollable circumstance prevents.”

The 1903 pay range of $25 to $35 a week is the current equivalent of $660 to $924.62.

To be continued…

From Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 23, 1911, page 12


Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 157 – Jack of all Trades

Part 157: Jack of All Trades

The Chicago Sunday Tribune had a Sunday Supplement titled “Worker’s Magazine: For the Man who Works with Hand or Brain.” On April 9, 1905, L. G. Pick wrote the article “Stage Carpenter is a Star, Jack of All Trades.” Here is the first installment as it should be read in its entirety:

“It’s fun to be in it after you once get into it, but I wouldn’t advise any young fellow to start into it with a hope of making a career through the work.” This is what a stage carpenter employed at one of the large theatres, a man of twenty years experience in his line, says when questioned in regard to the stage carpenter’s work.

“There are plenty of interesting things to see in and around the back of a stage, plenty of amusing things are always happening, which to a man with a sense of humor are a big manner of compensation, but that just about lets the job out. After a man gets to be a stage carpenter, he seldom goes any further. And no young man should thus limit his ambition.”

Despite the man’s advice, and surely he knows where he talks, it is not probable that there will be any serious diminution in the number of young men who will try to tread the way that leads to the glare of the footlights via a stage carpenter’s position. The glamour of the stage is over even this laborful position, and the “backs” of all the big theaters are full of young men who someday hope they will have the head carpenter’s job. Other’s who have not managed to get work anywhere on the stage are casting longing eyes toward the work. These and the public in general, including particularly the public that sits out in front, have the vaguest sort of notion of what a stage carpenter’s work consists of. None of them appreciate fully what the stage carpenter must know and be.

Stage carpenters work seven days out of the week. In this they are unique. Six days is generally reckoned a full week’s work, but Sunday and Saturday is just the same to men who see that the play is properly staged. They also work on an average thirteen hours a day, and when there is a change of play at the house where they are employed they sometimes have the privilege of being on duty thirty-six hours at a stretch. In this they also differ from most workmen, especially from other tradesmen.

But while the stage carpenter is, strictly speaking, a union tradesman, for the craft is well organized in all the larger cities, he is not to be classed in anyway with the man who builds your house or repairs your sidewalk, or does any of your work of the general house carpenter.

The carpenter is in most cases stage carpenter and property man in one. Occasionally the work is divided between two men, but usually the same man looks after the procuring of the “props” for a production as cares for the arrangement of the scenes of the play. In this double capacity the carpenter is much more than an ordinary workman. He is an artist, essentially an artist, if he is a success in his line. He, best of all men, knows how a scene is going to look after he and his men get through “putting it on,” and he knows best just what to do to make the people out in front believe that they are looking at the briny deep lashing itself to pieces on a rock bound coast, when as a matter of fact they are only seeing some loose canvas heaving under the efforts of three or four supers, and some brown canvas tacked to a frame. He knows how to place the “mountain pass” at the back of the stage so that the escaping hero may safely flee from the pursuing villains to his mountain fastness. No man, possibly with the exception of the star and the stage manager, has so much to do with the failure or success of a play. But the audience, which sits out in front and sees the finished productions, has no inkling of the truth. The carpenter doesn’t get his name on the bills.

But the knowledge of how to stage a play; how to fill a property plot, and actually make, if necessary, the scenes that are to appear on the stage, is not at all the knowledge that the stage carpenter must posses. He must be an all around “peach,” taking the word of a world renowned play producer for it.”

“He must know how to handle men. He always has ten or fifteen men under him. If he is at a big theater, and when the production calls for a large number of “supes” the carpenter – property man – is the man who must handle the “mob,” the “race track crowd,” or the “army.”

Sometimes this makes a hundred men that he had directly under him, and when one considers that “supes” and other stage characters are not of the meekest natures to be found, it will be seen that most men would have their hands full keeping this mob in order and seeing that it gets on the stage in the proper way.

Besides keeping this number of people in hand the stage carpenter must at the same time have his eye on the prop men and their work, see that the setting for each scene are done in proper time and proper manner, and give his attention to a hundred and one details at the same time.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 156 – Glamour of Stage due to Carpenter

Part 156: Glamour of Stage Due to the Carpenter

William P. Davis, another Twin City Scenic Company founder, worked as the primary artist for the Chicago Civic Auditorium before moving to Minneapolis. John Barstow, and later his son William H. Barstow, were two of the Auditorium’s stage carpenters. Bartstow’s last name was occasionally spelled as “Bairstow” in various publications. While researching stage carpenters, I discovered a wonderful article about their work and the contribution of John Barstow when he designed the Auditorium stage.

Image of shifting stagehands scenery on and propping up flats with stage jacks. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine 1893, Vol. 36, No. 5.

On September 28, 1907, the Oregon Daily Journal (Portland, Oregon) published an article in their Sunday Supplement “Among Men who Work with Hand or Brain.” Jonas Howard wrote an article titled, “Boss Jack of All Trades. Glamour of Stage Due to the Carpenter” (page 49):

“The only jack of all trades who has mastered them all is the stage carpenter. What the stage carpenter doesn’t know or can’t find out could be written in a small book. He must be not only a carpenter of the first rank, but a plumber, machinist, painter, blacksmith, sailor, tailor, artist and common laborer as well. In fact, the stage carpenter must be an all around genius or he wouldn’t hold his job five minutes.

Shifting scenery. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine 1893, Vol. 36, No. 5.

Stage carpenters begin their careers as assistants to the property men or scene painters.

The scenic artist at work painting a backdrop. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine 1893, Vol. 36, No. 5.

During the first year of their apprenticeship they do nothing but the rougher jobs around the stage, such as moving scenery, repairing frames and helping the electrician. Later they are allowed to work some of the ropes that are used to manipulate the scenery and gradually work into the positions as fly men. It is not until a stage carpenter can make and repair “trick” stuff that he is called proficient in his business, and as “trick” stuff is as intricate and varied as the tricks themselves it is only the keen witted carpenters that reach the front of their profession.

“Trick” stuff is that part of the stage machinery that is used to bring about various spectacular scenic effects that are so common on the present day stage. Sometimes there is an automobile race to be brought off, and it is up to the stage carpenter to devise a scheme that will make an automobile run a mile or more at top speed in the space of 20 or 30 feet. To do this there must be a set of rollers under the floor to turn the automobile’s wheels. The country through which the race is run must be painted on canvas and wound up on upright rollers so it can whizz by at the rate of 90 miles an hour or so. All of this arrangement must be put together with skill or it would not endure through the performance.

Stage tricks are so numerous that there could be no accounting of them. Nearly every show has some mechanical device to produce its stage effects and the stage carpenter must be enough of a mechanic to be familiar with all of them.

In the Auditorium theatre in Chicago which has one of the largest stages in the world, there is 2,000,000 feet of rope and cables. To handle these and keep them in repair requires the services of a man who knows as much about ropes as a sailor.

In the producing houses more stage carpenters are employed that are used in the theatres where the stage productions are shown after they are once set up. When a play is produced all of its scenery must be made and painted and the work is under the supervision of the stage carpenter. Each piece of scenery must be made so that it can be used in the average theatre throughout the country, for it would not do to make the scenery to fit any one house.

John Barstow, former stage carpenter at the Auditorium, the stage of which he built, has been in the business nearly fifty years. He began his career in Europe, coming to this side shortly after the civil war. Before the Auditorium was built Mr. Barstow was sent to Europe to learn all he could about the stage arrangements of the best theaters and on his return he incorporated all of the best features of these houses in the Auditorium stage. His son, William H. Barstow, is the present stage carpenter at the Auditorium.

Most of downtown theatres in Chicago employ a staff of 10 or 15 stage carpenters, while the Auditorium requires the services of 30 men. Altogether there are 450 stage carpenters in Chicago and most of them belong to the union.

The average pay for the work is $5 for each eight hours [equivalent to $125 in 2017] and in the larger houses the work is done at 9 o’clock in the morning and works until 6 at night, then there is another shift to work in the evening, during the performance. When the play that is showing carries an extra lot of scenery or has a good many “tricks” some of the day men are required to be present during the evening performance. During the grand opera season the stage carpenters at the Auditorium report at 8 o’clock in the morning and do not get away until midnight.

Some of the best stage carpenters work in the cheap theatre. It is in these places that the thrilling melodramas are given and it is plays of this class that tax the ingenuity of the stage carpenter. It is only by a skillful handling of ropes and scenery that an automobile can be made to jump safely across the opening gulf between two blades of a jackknife bridge. A single slip might result in the death or injury of an actor.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 155 – W. K. Brown

Part 155: W. K. Brown

The stage effects that were discovered in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite theatre were just a few common examples in a long history of designing spectacle for the stage. The 1924 version of Pepper’s Ghost for the 30th degree and the volcanic eruption for the 17th degree were relatively tame when compared with the commercial touring shows from the early twentieth century.

Fort Scott Scottish Rite setting for Pepper’s Ghost illusion in the 30th degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.
Fort Scott Scottish Rite setting for Pepper’s Ghost illusion in the 30th degree. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.
The man changing into the skeleton. Pepper’s Ghost illusion for the 30th degree in Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Scottish Rite. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.

Stage carpenters and scenic artists, such as David A. Strong, initially designed scenic spectacles for Masonic degree productions. C. S. King of Sosman & Landis and W. K. Brown of Twin City Scenic repeatedly constructed certain stage effects for Scottish Rite theaters when degree productions initially appeared in the Southern Jurisdiction. They were just two individuals of the hundreds employed by scenic studios throughout the country. Today I look at Brown who was responsible for designing the stage machinery for many Scottish Rite Valleys, including the Minneapolis Scottish Rite where he was a member.

Twenty years after Charles S. King installed the stage machinery at the Grand Opera House in Minneapolis, a newspaper article discussed the venue’s first stage carpenter, William Knox Brown.

William Knox Brown, stage carpenter and Scottish Rite Mason in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Published on January 13, 1901, the article was titled, “Experts Behind the Scenes.” It included a brief synopsis of Brown’s career as a stage carpenter. The main title line was followed by a subheading that stated, “Ability of Men Who Are Not Visible to the Audience is Tested by Such a Production as Hanlon Bros. Le Voyage En Suisse.” A series of illustrations followed, exploring the duties of stagehands, examining “Who They Are and What They Do – Some of Their Peculiar Experiments.” It was the image of stagehands working the lines that initially caught my eye.

Stage hands moving the lines in the 1901 article that described “Le Voyage en Suisse.”
1901 article, “Experts Behind the Scenes” with summary of W. K. Brown’s experience as a stage carpenter.

Brown, Theodore Hays and William P. Davis started the Twin City Scenic Company, initially working out of the Bijou Opera House in Minneapolis. A wonderful history has already been written about the company and was published in the 1987 exhibition catalogue, “The Twin City Scenic Collection: Popular Entertainment 1895-1929.” It was Brown’s connection to touring spectacles and Davis’ history at the Chicago Civic Auditorium that I would like to highlight today as I continue to examine those who engineered stage effects. Theodore Hays was the business manager, Brown was in charge of the stage mechanics, and Davis led the painting at Twin City Scenic. All three had the necessary connections to make their endeavor a success. Brown had worked extensively for the Hanlon Bros. while Davis had functioned as the primary scenic artist at the Chicago Civic Auditorium.

The Star Tribune article noted that the “ruler of this realm behind the footlights” was titled “stage carpenter,” then proceeded to explain all of the different jobs associated with the technical elements of many productions. What really caught me eye was the description of the Bijou stage space in 1901.

Illustration in 1901 article depicting scene change for “Le Voyage en Suisse.”

Here is an excerpt that I found fascinating:

“The stage proper was divided by the old system of grooves, which were used to hold up the scenery into divisions, one, two, three and four, where the stage was extra deep, sometimes five and six. Grooves are a mechanical contrivance in which the scenes slide back and forth. This methods of stage setting is very seldom employed at the present time, the more modern arrangements of setting scenes in a box shape, supporting them with braces and connecting them by lash lines, being more common use. One as styled above is the first space back of the curtain line, and is five or more feet in depth, according to the size of the stage. Spaces two, three and four are equal to the distances from one, towards the rear. There are few theatrical productions that require more extensive stage room than the Hanlon Brother’s greatest spectacle, ‘A Trip to Switzerland.’”

The article noted that Brown was a “mechanic of experience” and “one of the best stage carpenters in the country” with a “thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the art of stage mechanism.” It then went on to describe his experience since first arriving in Minneapolis as a stage carpenter in 1882.

He was in his second year of presiding over the Bijou and credited with “that rare quality of being able to control men without trouble.” Brown started his career in Minneapolis as stage carpenter at the Grand Opera House in 1882. He also worked at the Grand Opera House in St. Paul before eventually transferring to the Bijou and the People’s Theatre. Brown left the area for work at a variety of opera houses by 1887, including Burd’s Opera House in Davenport, Iowa, Harris Theater in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Henrietta Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. He was later hired by the Hanlon Bros. as their master machinist for the production of “Superba.” Brown not only directed the staging of “Superba,” but also was engaged at the Hanlon Bros. for their private stage and workshop in Cohaset, Massachusetts. At this facility, Brown repaired and tested new stage effects and machinery.

The production of “Superba” by the Hanlon Brothers. This is the show where W. K. Brown was the stage carpenter.

I immediately thought of the “Albert, Grover and Burridge Studio” in Chicago where they had a space to light and display the completed scenes. Were the studios in Chicago and Cohaset part of a movement to construct spaces with theatrical stages to design, test and market new products for their clientele.

Chicago studio of “Albert, Grover & Burridge.” The space had a place to stage competed scenes for clients after they were removed from the paint frames.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 154 – An Initiation into the Mysteries of Stage Mechanism

Part 154: An Initiation into the Mysteries of Stage Mechanism
The Sosman & Landis Studio in Chicago employed many notable individuals over the years besides Thomas G. Moses. Two nationally renowned stage machinists, David A. Strong, and Charles S. King, were also employed at the studio during the late nineteenth century. We know very little of King beyond information published in a few newspaper articles. Unfortunately, many newspaper articles can get it wrong, as the authors don’t always understand what they are writing about. Imagine the difficulty in describing the complexities of stage machinery and histories of the stage carpenters.
An article titled “An Old Stager,” provides the most information about King’s past. On October 30, 1889, “The Republican” mentioned that C. S. King “began his career as a stage carpenter and stage machinist in 1859, which he has followed ever since except an interval of three years, which he served in the Union Army during the late war, and another brief period that he was manager of a large company on the road” (page 4).
The article went on to explain that for the last fifteen years, King had been in the employ of Sosman & Landis of Chicago “which of itself is sufficient recommendation of his abilities, and has fitted up some of the finest opera houses in the country as well as in Canada and Mexico.” Well, this contradicts many other newspaper articles and company advertisements that site the opening of Sosman & Landis Studio as 1877, not 1874. However, it is possible that King had been working with Sosman on stage installations since 1874. Sosman’s scenic artist career began in 1872 when he started assisting the Chicago-based artist, T. B. Harris. King and Sosman could have worked on the same projects since that time. This would actually make sense as an ideal group of individuals would be gathered to form a company when Sosman met Landis in 1876. Remember that Landis was primarily a salesman and never really worked as a technician or painter for the studio.
Finally, the author of the “Republican” article wrote, “Mr. King came to Columbus Sept. 11, and commenced on the bare floor of the new theatre to construct the various stage machinery, mount scenery, and everything connected with stage settings, all without drawings or specifications, except those stored in his head from long experience.” I became fascinated with this statement and started to think back to the need for trade secrets. Like those operative masons who formed lodges during the building of the great cathedrals; trade secrets were essential to market your skill and win work over your competitors.
1889 Crump Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. Stage machinery by C. S. King and scenery by Thomas Moses of Sosman & Landis. Walter Doup was the first stage carpenter for the venue.
Crump Theatre drop curtain painted by Thomas G. Moses in 1889.
An early stage setting at the Crump Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. Exact date unknown.
Six years earlier in 1881, King was brought in to install the stage machinery for the Grand Opera House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time, he was thirty years old with seven years of practical experience in the industry. On January 27 of that year, the Minneapolis Tribune published, “Mr. C. S. King, the stage carpenter at the Grand Opera House, was initiated into some of the mysteries of stage mechanism as exemplified in our new temple of amusement. Mr. King who was summoned here from Chicago, is regarded as one of the best stage-carpenters in the country, having had wide experience and possessing perfect knowledge of his progression. He says that our opera house will have the finest stage, the easiest worked, and will be the best appointed theatre west of Chicago, or of many large eastern cities” (page 5).
The Grand Opera in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Stage machinery by C. S. King in 1881. W. K. Brown was the first stage carpenter for the venue.
I thought back to the creation of the Theatrical Mechanics Association in 1866 and their Masonic-like structure, complete with a Grand Master and local lodges. The statement “initiated into some of the mysteries of stage mechanism” would certainly be an initiation ritual for entry into the Theatrical Mechanics Association in 1881. Elaborate initiations were simply a popular practice of the time with most fraternal societies. I bet the stage mechanics ritual was a hoot!
When King worked on the Crump Theatre, he was working with a local individual who would function as the permanent stage carpenter for the venue – Walter Doup. Similarly, when King was working on the stage at the Grand Opera in Minneapolis, the local stage carpenter for the venue would be William Knox Brown, one of the three founders of Twin City Scenic Company. Brown began his stage work in Minneapolis at the Grand Opera House in 1882.
You can only imagine my surprise when I stumbled across an article describing the training and responsibilities of stage carpenters in a 1901 Minneapolis newspaper article entitled “Experts Behind the Scenes.”
To be continued…
Here is a link to the history of the Crump Theatre for more information: www.historiccolumbusindiana.org/jscrump.htm