Opera House

A recent photo of the Steinauer Opera House and Bank, probably taken from the stage, shows the tin-ceilinged auditorium.

Very few Nebraska businesses can claim to have family ties for over 125 years and probably only one is located in an extant opera house. The Steinauer Bank and opera house building located in the village of Steinauer near Pawnee City is just that combination.

In 1854, with the creation of the Nebraska territory, Pawnee County had virtually no settlers and was thus considered merely part of neighboring Richardson County for judicial, electoral and economic purposes. Pawnee was officially surveyed in 1855 and 1856 then calved from Richardson making settlement easier. On a second ballot, held in November of 1856, Pawnee City was elected county seat over Table Rock by 16 votes.

In 1856, when most area settlers still were “compelled to go to Missouri” for provisions, brothers Anton, Nicholas and Joseph Steinauer, just immigrated from Switzerland, were encouraged to cross from Kansas to Nebraska to avoid the slavery wars brewing in the southern state. Thus, the three pre-empted land near Pawnee City on Turkey Creek, just before the Turkey Creek post office was moved to adjacent Johnson County. That Dec. 1, as they began to build a log cabin, rain started, coming from the southwest but when the wind changed to the northwest, the rain became the “heaviest snow-storm ever seen in Nebraska" according to Nicholas Steinauer.

In January of 1863 the Linton (Linden) post office was created in their cabin with Joseph named postmaster. Nicholas donated the land for a German Evangelical Church in 1871 amidst rumors that hinted a railroad was considering building nearby. The log cabin was replaced with a frame building erected by Joseph and the post office name changed to Steinauer in August of 1874. The rumored railroad, alas, did not materialize.

The Chicago, Kansas & Nebraska Railroad, which became the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, however, did arrive in 1886 leading the village of Steinauer’s being platted on land belonging to the Steinauer family and in September of the following year the first train actually pulled in to the new depot. The first bank organized on June 28, 1888 and opened in the post office building, which was also home to a print shop/newspaper.

It was also in 1888 that Joseph Steinauer built a new, two-story, brick, 25-by-27 foot, flat-roofed structure on the southeast corner of 3rd and Main or 215 Main St. Access to the upper floor, which was an opera house, was from the northeast corner of the building. The auditorium itself was 21 by 50 feet and featured a pressed tin ceiling and wooden wainscoting. The stage, two feet above the floor, housed a 10-foot deep stage which opened through a 12-foot wide, 11-foot tall proscenium which held a rolled curtain depicting a village scene. Although the opera house was small, it signified that Steinauer was now a true city.

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The bank moved from the frame post office into the brick structure in 1894 and received its state charter, with John Steinauer as cashier, in 1898. The census of 1910 gave the city of Steinauer its peak population of 248 and showed that among its businesses were two grocery stores, a newspaper, hotel, saloon, two hardware stores and two restaurants. By 1917 no record had been kept of the entertainments in the opera house, but it was then its popularity began to wane as the ease of venturing to neighboring cities for movies and other entertainment took their toll. Another blow came as the railroad ended service in 1966, 1967 or possibly 1972, with each year noted as the terminal date.

The bank was purchased in 1980 by Charles and Robert Jasa though some ownership and or employees were still descended from the Steinauer family. Only one bank robbery seems to have been experienced, that in 2006 when confessed murderer Patrick W. Schroder held up the bank yielding only $3,328.

The bank/opera house building was elected to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and, though remodeled in 1997, it retains original doors, vault and curved counters and in 2019 the Steinauer family was still represented with Joseph’s great, great granddaughter as a vice president.

The 2010 census gives Steinauer a population of 75 and the pesky question of exactly how the town’s name should be pronounced persists. Paul Fell, a customer when he taught at Peru State College, said if you asked 100 locals, 50 would say it was “Stein-our,” while the other 50 would insist it was “Steener.” This bears further enquiry. Before you visit the village be sure to Google the Steinauer walking tour complete with Q-codes for your smart phone.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com


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