Jessie Colton

Apr 13, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In the Western Cemetery in Orion, Illinois, just south of here, there is a tombstone with the names of Jessie Colton and Bert Richardson.

"Thereby hangs a tale."

Orion is a farm community set in the rolling prairie hills of Henry County, not a likely locale for a theatrical troupe. It became so by accident. Bert Richardson was the son of the village blacksmith. He was known for his odd ability to be able to play a tune on the piano immediately after he heard it hummed or whistled. One day in 1890, a traveling show in Orion lost its pianist suddenly. Bert filled in and was hired to go on the road. It was here he met Jessie Colton, an accomplished Broadway actress. In 1895, Bert became her third husband. They returned to Orion in 1900 and set up a traveling tent troupe known at the Jessie Colton Show.

The show was a family business, with Jessie's children from her earlier marriages singing and playing. Bert and Jessie's two children soon joined the show, playing children's parts. Eventually there were nine Coltons touring with the show.

For thirty years, the Jessie Colton Show toured Illinois and Iowa towns, offering a repertoire of six plays a week, including "East Lynne," Pygmalion," "The Rail Splitter," "Little Lord Fauntleroy," and their best known, "Rip Van Winkle."

The Jessie Colton Show succumbed to radio, movies, and the Depression in the early 1930s. Jessie and Bert were persuaded to one last farewell performance of "Rip Van Winkle" in the Orion Opera House in 1935. Four generations of Coltons, and local citizens took part. People came from towns around Illinois for this bittersweet event.

But it was not the last performance. Bert Richardson died on February 8, 1937. It was fitting that the opera house in Orion be the setting for his funeral. Businesses in Orion closed; all the seats were filled for this last act.

Orion returned to its farm chores. Jesse Colton died in 1940 at the age of 73. Alongside their names on the tombstone is an epitaph which tells the whole story: "Life's Drama Has Ended; The Curtain Has Fallen."

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