Thursday, January 31, 2013
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Atlanta's Murphy Hall, a building that shaped a community

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[January 31, 2013]  ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Palms Grill Café presented the latest in a dinner and lecture series on Jan. 18. Local businessman and community booster Bill Thomas was the featured speaker to a packed audience of at least 50 people in the back room of the Palms.

The subject of Thomas' lecture was a historic building in Atlanta known as Murphy Hall. With the help of a PowerPoint presentation, Thomas gave a decade-by-decade look at the changing uses of Murphy Hall in the Atlanta community. He was assisted by Bloomington artist and instrument builder Dale Evans.

Murphy Hall was a huge wooden structure, 90 by 40 feet, at the corner of First and Elm streets in Atlanta. It was built in 1878 as a temperance hall, the only one in Illinois. It was so large that it could hold 800, about half of the population of Atlanta. The temperance movement was gaining traction in that era. But who was Murphy?

Years earlier, a young man in New England went on an alcohol-induced bender and ended up in the local pokey. When he dried out, he swore that if he could get help, he would tread the straight and narrow. A local clergyman in the New England town took him in and helped him keep his resolution to abstain for all time. The young man was Francis Murphy, and he went on to become a nationally known figure in the 19th-century temperance movement in the United States. The citizens of Atlanta named their new temperance hall in honor of Francis Murphy. Historical records indicate that Murphy made it to Atlanta once in his nationwide drive to ban alcohol.

Temperance was a popular program in Atlanta. The Atlanta Argus, the town's newspaper at the time, reported that 1,400 residents signed temperance pledges, which amounted to almost the entire population of Atlanta.

To prove one was on board after making a vow of abstinence in Murphy Hall, citizens were given a blue ribbon to wear on their lapel. It was such a popular badge that teenagers tried to obtain multiple ribbons, sort of a badge of honor.

During his presentation at the Palms, Thomas led the crowd in a rousing rendition of "God Bless the Little Badge of Blue," an anthem of the temperance movement.

As Murphy Hall became a more popular meeting place in town, all the local churches started combined Sunday evening services there.

One of the attendees at the dinner lecture brought a wooden chair with the logo "Murphy Hall" emblazoned on the back. The few photos that exist from the interior of the hall show exactly this type of chair. To date, it seems to be the only one found that is an authentic relic from the hall.

As the decades passed, the uses of Murphy Hall changed. It became a gathering point for entertainment in Atlanta. Traveling shows would come to town on the train, stay at the Blue Goose Hotel and then walk the few blocks north to the hall for their presentation.

One of the first shows, in 1880, was given by Capt. Adam Bogardus of Elkhart. Bogardus had attained international fame as a crack shot, performing amazing feats with a rifle. He was often accompanied by four of his sons, who were part of the act.

In the 1890s, a huge Civil War reunion took place in Murphy Hall, bringing together former area soldiers who had fought in the war.

Murphy Hall continued to move away from its focus on temperance and more to an entertainment venue for the residents of Atlanta.

The 20th century brought new forms of entertainment, and some of these made their way to Atlanta. Hailing from Sedalia, Mo., Scott Joplin ushered in an entirely new genre of music, ragtime. Joplin was a musical genius whose music swept the country. One of his works was a ragtime opera entitled "A Guest of Honor."

Joplin's opera company made it to Springfield, Ill., where history records the fourth staging of the opera occurred. Tragically, the opera company was robbed in the state capital by one of its members, and history records that "A Guest of Honor" was performed for the last time in Springfield.

But wait. What is one to make of an article in the Atlanta Argus describing a performance of the opera at Murphy Hall?

Joplin biographers make no mention of the opera company making it to a small town in Logan County for the fifth and final performance. No record exists of the opera, and yet one of the giants of early 20th-century music performed the final staging of it at Murphy Hall in Atlanta.

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During the recent gathering at the Palms, Thomas called upon Dale Evans to take the stage. Evans performed a rag he transcribed on his handcrafted dulcimer, a beautiful instrument.

Evans spent several years building dulcimers for many central Illinois traditional musicians. He constructed several types, all of beautifully polished wood. His dulcimers are works of art and much in demand by serious musicians.

One of the popular entertainment forms of the early 20th century was vaudeville. Murphy Hall played host to many groups passing through central Illinois. One group, the Cairn Brothers of Decatur, had a huge impact on Atlanta. After performing at Murphy Hall, the brothers left town minus one of their musicians, who was taken with the town. His name was Bob Adams, and he went on to open the Palms Grill Café in Atlanta on Route 66. His community spirit is still remembered with great fondness in Atlanta.

Vaudeville produced a great number of popular songs. Evans once again took the stage to perform one of them. He pulled what looked like a banjo from his music case, but it was actually a ukulele. When he started strumming and then singing "Ain't She Sweet," the entire room broke into spontaneous song. It was a joyous moment.

With competing entertainment options in the 1920s, the old hall saw a decrease in use. One of the more infamous uses was as a meeting place for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1920s.

Several local plays with high school students and community members were produced at the hall in the late 1920s.

Thomas showed two rare photos of the interior of Murphy Hall during local productions of "Aunt Lucia" and "Miss Cherry Blossom." People in the audience pointed to the photos and identified relatives and family friends from 80 years ago. Generations of families continue to live in town, all with unique family stories to tell.

Murphy Hall hung on into the 1930s and 1940s with basketball games, political conventions and as a skating rink. It could not compete with the new forms of entertainment, the radio and the seven movie houses that existed at one time in Atlanta. The final days of Murphy Hall were as a warehouse. The building was sold and demolished in 1947.

Murphy Hall was just like any other building -- wood, nails and glass -- and yet it became an iconic place in the history of Atlanta, a building that provided so much to the community. It was a gathering place for the people of Atlanta and at one time brought the world to Atlanta. It earned a special place in the history of a small town in Logan County.

The next Palms Grill Café dinner and lecture will be on Feb. 16. Reservations are a must. Stop by the Palms or call 217-648-2233 to make reservations. The speaker will be Bonnie McDonald of Landmarks Illinois, the organization that was an early contributor to restoration of the Downey Building in Atlanta, which houses the Palms Grill and the Atlanta Museum.


Palms Grill lecture series:

For information on the annual Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Mo., visit The festival hosts the best ragtime musicians in the world coming together to celebrate the legacy of one of the giants of American music.


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