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The Toby Show

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 sent shock waves around the world. Southern women wrote rebuttal novels showing how wonderful slavery was, Germans set up Uncle Tom shops selling soul food, and Lincoln suggested to Harriet Beecher Stowe that she had brought on the Civil War.

Even then, however, Iowans were a bit different from the rest. Their response to Uncle Tom was the Toby Show. Uncle Tom's Cabin had quickly been made into a play after the Civil War, then several plays by acting companies competing with each other, adding parades, songs, extra characters and scenes until Uncle Tom dominated American theater. By 1890, four companies in New York alone were doing Tom plays, and two kennels in the United States made a living raising blood hounds for the scenes of Eliza crossing the ice.

By then, Iowa had become the vaudeville center of the United States, the headquarters of several nationally famous companies. Hard put to compete with the growing popularity of the Tom plays, Iowa fought back. Groups such as The Shafner Players of Mt. Pleasant developed The Toby Show to meet Tom head on. Toby Shows played in tents in towns across America. The shows consisted of a cast of country characters including Toby the Clown, involved in a plot so loose that it was interspersed with serious and comic songs, musical numbers, dance routines, and vaudeville slapstick, sentimental and funny recitals, and even Toby appearing in ads for Cope Soap during the intermissions.

The Toby Show succeeded because it caught something of the American hodge-podge spirit—that mixture of vaudeville, circus, lyceum, Chautauqua, medicine show, and church that so irritates cultured Europeans. It outlasted its competition, the Uncle Tom play. You can still see a genuine Toby Show each August at the Iowa State Fair in a tent behind the machinery exhibit.

If you can't make that, there's always your TV. The Toby Show seemed ready-made for the electronic tent of television. You can still catch it on the tube in reruns, where it's called "Hee Haw." That's Iowa corn they're standing in.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.