Following is an article
that appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of The Kentucky Explorer.
Readers are welcome to submit articles.
The Showboat Was A Welcomed Sight For The
Folks In Mercer Co.
A Distant Sound Of The Calliope
Alerted The Locals
That Entertainment Was Forthcoming
By Anna Armstrong - 2014
During the early 1900s, at various landings along the Kentucky
River in Mercer County, "here comes the sho-o-owboat"
and the distant sound of a calliope alerted the locals that a
welcome respite from the drudgery of the daily life of
these isolated people was approaching, featuring a medley of
melodrama and vaudeville for their entertainment. When the showboats
turned off the Ohio River to go up the Kentucky River, they passed
the Twin Chimneys, Brooklyn, Gilbert's Creek, and the Dix River.
They spent two weeks each year on the Kentucky River.
Although I just have photos of the showboat at Oregon Landing,
Mundy's Landing, Brooklyn, and High Bridge were most likely other
stops for The Princess, as it made its way past Mercer County's
small river communities. If there is anyone in Mercer County
who actually remembers the showboats or went to a performance
on one, I would love to talk to you. But since the showboat heyday
in this area was in the early 1900s, up until about the late
1920s or early 1930s, it is doubtful if anyone with these memories
is still alive.
The Princess showboat is shown tied up at the Oregon Landing
in Mercer County, Kentucky. To the left of The Princess is a
small paddlewheel steamboat named The Florence which pushed The
Princess everywhere, as she had no power of her own. To the right
of The Princess one can see the Oregon Landing ferry. This photo
was probably taken ca. 1920s.
The showboat was a part of the history of the inland waterways,
an example of early Americana, and also an example of daring
early American enterprise. The earliest recorded season for a
showboat was ca. 1831. Except for a pause during the Civil War,
showboats traveled the rivers for over 100 years as an important
part of our cultural heritage. They reached their zenith a little
after the turn of the century. They came into existence to meet
the early settler's demand for formal entertainment and they
disappeared when the need was gone. When the Showboat Age began
to wane, the giants were the first to go. Between 1916 and 1919,
seven of the grand old floating theaters were lost. A combination
of high operational costs and natural disasters of wind, ice,
and fire did the big boats in.
In the 1920s a few smaller boats were still being built, but
they plied the rivers of the hinterland, catering to rural populations.
Toward the end of the 1920s, progress in the form of automobiles
and paved roads gave mobility to the heretofore captive audiences
of the showboats and their monopoly on this type of entertainment
waned. Radio entered the scene, nickelodeons, and movie houses
sprang up, and the way people entertained themselves changed
forever. As the 1930s approached, even the small boats were struggling.
A few operated into the early 1940s, but one by one they disappeared. Today,
one might still find showboats in some big cities, but they are
permanently tied to the dock.
The showboats all had a calliope on the top deck which
would be played to announce their arrival at the next landing.
Its unique sound would echo all up and down the river and the
palisades. Excitement filled the air when the sound of the calliope
The early showboat was a floating theatre. This photo shows
a packed auditorium aboard one of the showboats owned by the
Bryants. The audience usually preferred old-fashioned melodramas
with plenty of tears and laughter.
The definition of a showboat is that it was a theater built on
a flat-bottomed barge for the singular purpose of carrying entertainment
to river-bottom farmers along the water-bordered frontier. The
showboat had no power of its own, but was pushed by a steamboat
tied to its stern. It carried no paying passengers or freight.
Only the family members who owned and/or operated the boat, the
cast, and the crew lived on the showboat during its operating
season. The larger towns inland had their theaters and music
halls. But the normal entertainment of these isolated farm people
along the river might be a barn raising, quilting bee, or corn
husking. The arrival of the showboat was an occasion for an undeclared
The Princess, which had no engine of its own, was pushed by The
Florence, a small paddlewheel steamboat. The Princess was a little
floating theater that seated 140 people. Tickets sold for 15¢,
20¢, or 35¢, depending on the customer's age and seating
choice. Both The Princess and The Florence were built in 1907
by Sam Bryant and his son, Bill, and were the first of numerous
showboats owned and operated by "The Four Bryants,"
as they were known, Sam and his wife, Violet, and their children,
Bill and Florence. Business was good and The Princess toured
for approximately 10 years until the Bryant family felt the need
of a larger boat. In 1916 they sold The Princess and built
Bryant's New Showboat and bought the steamboat Valley Belle to
Betty Bryant grew up on her parents' boats on the Ohio
and Kentucky Rivers. This multi-talented lady is shown performing,
ca. 1920s, the song "The Bird on Nellie's Hat." She
entertained aboard the Bryant showboats for many years.
Betty Bryant, Bill Bryant's daughter, grew up on her parent's
boats plying the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. In her book, Here
Comes the Showboat, she remembers being in the pilot house with
her father "lost in the scenery of the willow-lined shores,
sleepy little towns with friendly people, steamboats puffing
past, and here and there a shanty boat tied up to a sycamore
On the Bryant showboats, there was no gambling, drinking,
or smoking allowed and women or men friends could not be entertained
on board. The actors were usually required to be multi-talented,
being able to play an instrument and also perform a vaudeville
routine. Audiences preferred old-fashioned melodramas with plenty
of tears and laughter. If the show lasted less than two hours,
they felt cheated. The plays had to be scrupulously clean and
should deliver a message such as the evils of drink or the disgrace
The season for showboats started in April and ended in November.
The boats were tied up for the winter at protected landings with
only a watchman left on board. The actors, crew, and family scattered
to various places to work until spring. The life of these showboat
actors was "the life of Riley" compared to their life
on shore. On the boat they awakened to a different town each
day and all their wants and needs were contained on the boat.
In comparison, an actor on the road would have to travel in uncomfortable
trains or horse-drawn wagons, carting along their luggage and
various props and scenery. Actors worked for $15 per week on
the boats, and with no place to spend their wages while on the
river, they had a nice sum saved at the end of the season. Their
schedule was light, doing only one performance per night, never
on Sunday, and no matinees. There would be a week's rehearsal
in the spring and summer and the rest of the time was their own.
These small boats operated with just a pilot, a fireman,
a deckhand, a cabin boy, and a cook. The cooking was done on
a cast-iron stove and the dishes were washed in river water heated
on the stove. Meals were served family style and were healthy
and plentiful. Fresh vegetables and meat were bought at local
stores wherever they tied up, and fish could always be caught
in the river. Hot bread was baked daily and strong coffee was
always on the stove.
The Bryants tied up for the last time to winter inland
at the end of their 1930 season. For the next 11 years, Bill
Bryant and Company spent their winters in city theaters playing
to sold out crowds and their summers in the entertainment halls
in Cincinnati where they were considered an "institution."
In 1943 Bill Bryant sold their last showboat to a freight terminal
company in West Virginia, where it eventually sank to the bottom
of the Ohio River during a flood.
Background information on showboat history for this article
came from reading the book Here Comes the Showboat by Betty
Bryant (University of Kentucky Press 1994). The photographs of
the Princess are part of the Armstrong Archives of historic photos
of Harrodsburg and Mercer County. One of those pictures was discovered
in the Davis Gritton photo collection as a result of an
oral history being done by the author and Jim Gash with his son,
Marshall Gritton of Salvisa, for the Harrodsburg/Mercer County
Oral History Committee.
Anna Armstrong, 506 E. Lexington Street, Harrodsburg, KY 40330;
firstname.lastname@example.org, shares this article with our readers.