Menomonie, Wisconsin History/mcmahong4680
The Mabel Tainter Theatre is an iconic building located along Main Street in Menomonie, Wisconsin, built in 1886. It was designed by famous architect, Harvey Ellis. The theatre was funded by the Andrew Tainter family after the tragic death of their daughter Mabel Tainter in 1886, at the young age of 19. The entire Tainter family consisted of Andrew, Bertha, Mabel, Louis, Ruth, Irene, and Fanny Tainter. Andrew Tainter was a partner with the Knapp, Stout, & Co., Company, and a significant figure in the founding of Menomonie along with James H. Stout. The theatre has been named one of the most beautiful theatres in the United States and has brought thousands of theatre enthusiasts to the small town. Since being built, the theatre has been used as a memorial, theatre, worship site, and a library.
Andrew Tainter was born on July 6, 1823, in Salina, New York. His family lived in Salina for nine years until they moved to Prairie de Chien, Wisconsin, in 1828. Andrew's father, Ezekial, was a logger and therefore, had to travel a lot for work. When Ezekial found an abundance of work in Wisconsin, the family moved there to be closer together. When in Wisconsin, the family worked at Fort Crawford on many little jobs. Andrew only had three years of schooling before he dropped out to work for his father in the family businesses. He worked for his father until he was 21 years old. After that, he went to Chippewa Falls to cut hay in the summer and fall months of 1845. He would return to Prairie du Chien during the winter months, but went back to Chippewa Falls to work for Ben Bunston, cutting down trees and working in his mill. In 1846, Andrew came to Menomonie and worked with Blois Hurd in a little mill in Irvine Creek. Tainter and Hurd occasionally worked with the Knapp and Wilson firm. Tainter would log woods about 20 miles north of Menomonie through the winter of 1847-48. Eventually, “Knapp and Wilson bought some of Tainter’s timber in preparation for a dam they planned on the Red Cedar at the location of their mill.” It was the beginning of a great partnership for Andrew Tainter. Tainter ended ties with Hurd soon after and began cutting down three times as many trees than what he was contracted to do for Wilson during that winter. Since Tainter had cut down so many trees, Knapp and Wilson had no other way to repay him but bring Tainter into the partnership. While logging, Andrew met his first wife, Mary Poskin Goose, an Ojibwa girl. Andrew built a house for his new family in Menomonie. He and Mary had five children: Julia, William, Charlotte, Thomas, and Elizabeth. However, after nine years of marriage, they parted ways due to family differences. Andrew had taken custody of all five children and moved to Read’s Landing in Menomonie. Mary moved back onto the Ojibwa reservation in Lac Courte Oreilles.
Andrew continued to work hard in the lumber business while attempting to manage five kids. At one point, he hired Bertha Lucas Lesure to watch and tutor the kids. In 1861, Andrew and Bertha wed. Unfortunately, that same year, two of Andrew’s children with Mary died, Julia and William. Andrew and Bertha Tainter had five children together; their names were Louis, Ruth, Mabel, Irene, and Fanny. Sadly, however, Irene died as an infant and Ruth died at the age of eight. Then, tragically, Mabel died at the age of 19.
Tainter also had a love of learning and books. He encouraged people to get an education. When the theatre was built and became a library, Tainter donated 3,000 of his own books so everyone had the chance to read and learn. Tainter had become a huge influence on Menomonie. Seven years before he died, Tainter "owned or had controlling shares in 20 businesses and about 40 buildings in Menomonie alone.” Andrew Tainter died on October 18, 1899.
Mabel Tainter's Death
Mabel Tainter was born on December 6, 1866, to Andrew and Bertha Tainter. Mabel Tainter was the middle child of Andrew and Bertha. When Mabel died at the age of 19 with no warning, many people began to wonder what happened to her. Her death certificate states that she died of “cancer of the side," however, rumor is that Mabel actually died of a botched abortion that her parents suggested she get. It was a questionable death in that her death certificate was oddly vague for that point of time and wasn’t released until months after her death. This is possibly because Andrew Tainter had to convince a different, unknown doctor, to write something false on Mabel’s death certificate and it took time to do so. Another thing was that Mabel was known to hang around with lower class men and there was one in particular that she was in love with. He had run off and was never seen again after the news of them got out. Soon after he had left, Mabel was dead. The last reason to believe Mabel died of an abortion is that Andrew and Bertha built the magnificent Mabel Tainter Theatre in honor of her. They most likely did this out of guilt for encouraging Mabel to get the abortion in the first place. None of the other Tainter children received such an extravagant tribute, either.
Mabel Tainter Theatre
“The building was constructed during the grand Victorian era.” Therefore, it was extravagant and the Tainter’s spared no expense to build it. When the theatre was being constructed, immigrants were coming to Wisconsin because of the huge lumber industry. Andrew Tainter promised hundreds of immigrants better lives if they would work for him to construct the theatre. The majority of them had no experience in construction. Tainter was able to do this because the men that did have experience in the fields were the best in the world and were able to teach the immigrants. The theatre was built out of rock from the Dunnville quarry, with each rock weighing two to six tons. The Tainter’s also imported Scottish stone masons. The theatre was built within 16 months which is impeccable for even the modern construction time. “The interior of the building contains hand stenciled walls and ceilings, marble staircase and floors, leaded stained glass windows, walnut and oak woodwork, brass fixtures, and four fireplaces, each built with a different stone or technique." There are 251 seats within the theatre. The seats, at that time, were only seen on the west coast and the Tainters shipped them to Menomonie. The original seats are still in the theatre. The seat cushions did have to be renovated because people are larger today and can't fit in the original seats anymore. The original Steere & Turner tracker pipe organ is still present in the theatre. It has a total of 1597 pipes and 28 stops, each pipe ranging from two inches to 16 feet. It was originally powered by water but since then it has been converted to electric. Another major aspect of the theatre are the light bulbs. Throughout the theatre, Tainter had placed some of Thomas Edison's first light bulbs. It was only four years after Edison invented the light bulb that Andrew had placed them in the lumber factory and theatre. In fact, the theatre still has ten of the original light bulbs and seven of them still work.
In 1890, the theatre was rededicated to be a multipurpose building and renamed the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts. It served as a Unitarian church, a library, and a theatre. The library was a huge deal for that time because in order to read a book, people had to pay to get into the library. However, in the Mabel Tainter Center, people could come read for free. The Tainter’s goal was to make the theatre and library a welcoming place for everyone. The books were provided by Andrew Tainter. The Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts was the first free public library and was used until a new library was built.
Along with being a public library, the Mabel Tainter Center is a Unitarian church. Bertha Tainter was very intrigued in the Unitarian church, so in 1888, the Tainter’s invited preacher Henry Doty Maxson to be the first preacher of the Menomonie Unitarians. He was constantly busy and didn’t have much down time because he had a similar position in Eau Claire as well. Maxson, unfortunately, died at the young age of 40. The Menomonie Unitarians hold church services every Sunday at ten o’clock at the center to uphold the vision of the Tainter family.
The theatre has been the home for the University of Wisconsin Stout’s theatre program since 1929. The first show that UW-Stout did with the Mabel Tainter Center was “The Family Upstairs” by Harry Delf. Throughout the years, UW-Stout has done one to two plays a year, including such classics as “Romeo and Juliet” to modern day “Chicago.” Their most recent production was Antigone, which played November 11 through November 14 of 2015. There are more productions planned for the future, as well.
- About Historic Menomonie Theater - Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2015, from http://www.mabeltainter.org/about_us.phtml
- Our Story, Vol II - Tainter - a legendary figure. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2015, from http://www.usgennet.org/usa/wi/county/eauclaire/history/ourstory/vol2/tainter.html
- Mabel S. Tainter (1866 - 1886) - Find A Grave Memorial. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=119661477
- Reeg Steidinger, J (Docent). (2015). [Interview]. Retrieved November 9, 2015 from: Mabel Tainter Center Tour
- DCHS: Mabel Tainter Memorial. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.dunnhistory.org/history/exmtm.html
- Unitarians return home - Mabel Tainter is church site for Unitarian Society : Dunn County News. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2015, from http://chippewa.com/dunnconnect/variety/religion/unitarians-return-home---mabel-tainter-is-church-site/article_e11e92f5-a7c9-56b4-b63e-b4efaced6343.html
- Previous Productions. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2015, from http://www.uwstout.edu/performingarts/productions.cfm