Articles & Stories

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 was heard.

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 holiday.
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 push it.

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 tree."
 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 of slavery.
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; annaarmstrong@bellsouth.net, shares this article with our readers.