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The Grand Orphean Stars


Washburn, North Dakota is located in McClean County on the Missouri River. It was founded in 1882, and the following year it was designated as the county seat. It was named in honor of General W.D. Washburn.

There was not much excitement to be had in Washburn during the 1880s. But every now and then something happened to break the monotony of life on the frontier. On this date in 1901, the Washburn Leader reported on an exciting event that had taken place the two previous nights. The Grand Orphean Stars, a comedy troupe, arrived in a houseboat and tied up at the Washburn landing. They played two shows on Thursday and Friday.

The troupe had played several nights in Williston to rave reviews. The citizens of Washburn were excited about the unexpected change in the daily routine. A warehouse near the river landing was altered to serve as an impromptu theater. Residents of Washburn and the surrounding area flocked to the makeshift playhouse until it was overflowing with spectators.

Mable Maitland was the first act. She was billed as the Human Corkscrew and was an accomplished contortionist. Clara Evans joined Mable for a dance routine. The newspaper reported that they were “quite clever” and very entertaining. But the best of the show apparently came first, and it quickly went downhill. The voices of the singers were less than appealing, having lost their sweetness. The jokes of the comedians were rusty and well-worn. The final act was supposed to resemble a country schoolhouse, but audience members in the back who did not hear the announcement had little idea of what was happening. It closely resembled a children’s play and was called “very preposterous.”

Only one or two specialty acts were thought to be of quality. But in spite of the shortcomings, the newspaper said the show could pass as “fair entertainment.”

There was almost always a musician or two in any community, with people gathering for dances and socials. But formal entertainment of any type was rare on the frontier. So even if it was only “fair” entertainment, it was apparently most welcome.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Washburn Leader. “The Show.” 1 June, 1901.