The Opera House, Oxford Jct., Iowa

Also known as National Hall, Nowachek Hall & Shedek Hall

Bohemian immigrant Frank Nowachek built an “opera house” in Oxford Junction, Iowa to house the activities he loved:  music, dance, fellowship, and celebration.  While I have taken liberty in assuming Mr. Nowachek’s motivation, I think you will agree that the project was more than a business endeavor once you read about the hall.  This is not a complete history, just a summary of the information that I found from various sources in the Fall of 2002, trying to determine if real opera was performed in the Opera House.  The answer is “probably never”, but true opera aside, the rafters of Nowachek’s opera house must have been permeated with the sounds of music, the smell of beer, and the warmth of a fun-loving, tight-knit community.

Frank Nowachek was born in South Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) near Oxford Jct.‘s sister city on July 30, 1844, son of Martin Nowachek and Mary Kojan (one source says Janichek) who brought their family (four? children) to America in 1859, arriving in New Orleans in the Fall.  They lived in the Iowa City area for six years and went to Oxford Jct. in 1865.  Frank married Katherine Henak (1849-1917) on April 18 or 20, 1868 and had nine children.  He was granted citizenship in the Jones County Courthouse on October 5 of the same year. Typical of Czechs, Frank was musical, an accomplished violinist.  His talent passed to his son Frank. The Oxford Mirror newspaper wrote of the wedding of the younger Frank’s sister in the August 17, 1916 issue:  “At eleven o’clock the bridal party marched in processional order up the aisle of the church to the sweet strains of Mendelson’s wedding march, played by Frank Nowachek on the violin, accompanied by Mrs. C. R. Eaton” (also his sister).  The elder Frank and Nick Mizaur donated the first land for the Mayflower Cemetery just north of O.J.  He died Sept. 20, 1906 and was buried in that cemetery.  The Catholic service was no doubt attended by most of the town.

Some of the many references to the Opera House in the Oxford Mirrors are summarized on the attached pages.  The earliest mention of the hall is in the June 24, 1880 issue, quoting the Anamosa Journal in the Spring or earlier in the Summer:  “Frank Nowachek, a Bohemian, having prospered from the sale of beer and the kissing of billiard balls, is putting up a two story frame building, the upper portion of which will be devoted to the purposes of a town hall.”  The grand ball (grand opening) was held on July 5, 1880, the year O.J. had a population of 329, and they partied till 6 the next morning!  It appears that our subject named his building National Hall.  It was called Nowachek Hall based on the ownership, and Opera House, perhaps a generic term then for entertainment venues, perhaps described by Frank as “National Hall, an opera house”, or perhaps nicknamed opera house by townsfolk.  Nevertheless, the large letters OPERA HOUSE were painted on the front of the hall, at least by the time of the photograph used in Oxford Junction’s  Centennial book of 1971.  The location was the corner of Main Street and Fifth Avenue, where Highway 136 turns, the front of the building facing south.

In August of 1906 Frank offered for sale his house, two lots, the opera house and ice business, possibly because he was ill as he died the following month.  Frank Hudrlik was the manager in 1908.  Mike Shedek owned it by February of 1910 and was probably the Shedek managing it in 1912.  In March of 1914 Frank Shedek “resumed control” of the opera house, painted it that Fall, managing it in March of 1915.  The Oxford Mirror then called the hall the Shedek Opera House.  I did not determine ownership or use after 1915, the year the opera house was marked on a plat of the town, except that the Centennial book claims that C. Petersen bought it from Shedek and describes Desperate’s station as “on the site of the old Petersen Hall”.  Dacil Cubbage built the stone filling station (operated by Emile “Desperate” Koranda after Cubbage) on the site so Cubbage was probably the one who demolished the opera house, probably between 1931 and 1938.  Mac McCreight’s 1958 recollections of O.J. in 1938 make no mention of the Opera House by any of its names. Another researcher can take this study further.

The Centennial book’s photo and description of the Opera House are attached.  There is a better quality photo which will be posted here when located.  Dawn Kurth, director of Wregie Library in O.J. found this listing in The Opera Houses of Iowa by George D. Glenn and Richard L. Poole:  “National Hall, ca. 1883 (1883-1889) seated 300.  Mgr. F. Nowacheck“.  Viola Kouba who was born in Oxford Jct. in 1921 and has never lived very far away recalls that there were many events in the Opera House, that there were small apartments in the rear of the building in the early 30s, and that children gathered on the many steps in front of the hall which was close to the street.  The Oxford Mirrors reveal that the hall was used for dances, plays, concerts, suppers, graduations, lectures, meetings, movies, wedding and anniversary parties, and billiards.  While I found no evidence of bona fide opera performances, I am convinced that Frank Nowachek’s vital Opera House contributed to the cultural richness of the town of Oxford Junction.        Judy Nelson, Oct. 2002