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The House That Tom Built

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The exact location of the house that Jack built has never been found, but the house that Tom built has been sitting square in the middle of DeWitt, Iowa, since 1878.

DeWitt had gotten along perfectly well without an opera house for years, ever since its founding as a ferry landing on the Wapsipinicon River in 1841. It had originally been called Vandenburg but changed its name to DeWitt in 1842 after another new settlement to the east along the Mississippi River changed its name from New York to Clinton. If Clinton was going to cash in on a famous New York governor's last name, DeWitt would do the same with his first name.

It was a move DeWitt soon regretted, for the two neighboring towns soon became rivals—a rivalry which Clinton won by becoming a major river port on the Upper Mississippi. By 1869, Clinton had made a successful effort to steal the county seat away from DeWitt. After a brief skirmish in which DeWitt loyalists prevented Clinton from carrying off the courthouse bell by burying it in a grave at the cemetery, DeWitt gave up the battle, but already, new ideas were brewing.

By the 1870s, a community without a theater in which to put on the play version of Uncle Tom's Cabin was no town at all. Uncle Tom had taken the American public by storm ever since its publication in 1852, but the play versions—there were several—created a feeding frenzy. Acting troupes across the country made a living doing nothing but Uncle Tom plays. The arrival of an Uncle Tom show was cause for parades and fireworks.

Let Clinton have the courthouse. DeWitt would build an opera house for Uncle Tom. The DeWitt Opera House project received added support from the publisher of the local paper, who was interested in an auditorium large enough for Temperance lectures. Four hundred townspeople bought $10 shares.

As times changed, the DeWitt Opera House became the Majestic Theater. Today, few people realize that this once-grand building owes its existence to a woman crossing the ice, to a patient, deeply religious slave in the clutches of mean Simon Legree, to the death of little Eva, and to a girl named Topsy who "'spect she just growed."

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