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
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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
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
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,
The festival hosts the best ragtime musicians in the world coming
together to celebrate the legacy of one of the giants of American