“…Stewart brothers of Fairfield, Iowa, who in 1926
formed the Universal Producing Company to assist amateurs
in staging plays….flappers in the 1920s, the Depression in
the 1930s….By 1934 Universal was booked to produce more
than 3,000 performances, about ten shows a weeknight across
the nation, employed 225 coaches and a swarm of salesmen,
and billed itself as the largest producer of amateur theatricals
in the world. Between 1928 and 1934 more than 1,000,000 amateur
actors appeared in casts of its productions, which played to
more than 6,000,000 people.”
—The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self-Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750-1990 by Joseph F. Kett, Stanford University Press, 1994, page 338.
“…Stewart brothers of Fairfield, Iowa, who in 1926
Louis Thoma (1861-1940)
Pharmacist, Proprietor and Manager of the Grand Opera House, Fairfield, Iowa.
A man who built several landmark buildings around the square, one of which still carries his name atop all its original splendor; a man whose stately Italianate brick house still stands well-preserved at the northeast corner of Washington and B Streets; a man who was a respected druggist, paint and wallpaper dealer, and the last owner of the Grand Opera House – in short, a man who was a prominent member of Fairfield’s turn-of-the-century notables, was Louis Thoma.
Louis was born in Atchinson, Kansas to German immigrants David and Theresa (Irrer) Thoma on April 23, 1861, while his father was fighting in the Third Kansas Cavalry in the Civil War. After the war David moved his family to Fairfield, and though he was primarily a stonecutter, in 1867 he purchased Henry Semon’s property at 54 West Burlington and briefly opened a grocery store where Goddard & Pratt had formerly kept a meat market. This property was purchased by fellow-grocer and fellow-German Gustave A. Unkrich in 1869.
David’s son Louis attended the local schools; at sixteen he went to work at the drugstore of Drs. Rollin H. Hufford & Augustus C. D. Bradshaw, and on March 1, 1882, when not yet twenty-one, he became their partner in the new firm of Hufford, Bradshaw & Thoma. For five years the trio sold drugs and sodas in Dr. Hufford’s building at 52 East Burlington. Select here for a picture of the Hufford Building in 1876. (Dr. Hufford had come from Washington, Pennsylvania to Fairfield, where he married Bernhart Henn’s daughter Mary Josephine.)
On September 24, 1884, Louis married Antoinette Petzinger of Des Moines County, Iowa; over the next five years they had three sons: Roscoe Petzinger, Leo David, and Clifford Irrer Thoma, all born in Fairfield.
Augustus C. D. Bradshaw and Louis Thoma left Dr. Hufford’s firm in 1887, when they went into business for themselves and built the Bradshaw & Thoma building at 58 South Main. Select here for a picture of their new building in 1888.
Here Bradshaw & Thoma sold drugs, medicines, books, stationery, perfumery, toilet and fancy articles, paints, oils, and wallpaper for about ten years. The partners leased their drugstore at 58 South Main to John D. McDowell in 1897, to A. C. D. Bradshaw and Fred W. Jericho by 1904, and to F. W. Jericho and Percy J. Easton by 1910. The Benteco Kash Store sold groceries here in 1922, followed by the F. W. Woolworth Co. from 1925 to 1940.
In 1893 Louis built the Thoma Building, still standing in all its Victorian exuberance at 104-106 W. Burlington. The east half of the lot had been vacant, while the west half had been the site of the notorious Green Shade saloon. After first leasing the building to a grocer and a restaurateur, from around 1905 Louis occupied it with his son Clifford as Thoma & Son, selling wholesale paint, glass, and wallpaper at No. 104 and keeping their pharmacy in No. 106. Here is a picture of the Thoma Building, ca. 1906.
Dr. Bradshaw and Louis Thoma bought the five-year-old Fairfield Opera House in 1895; Louis bought Dr. Bradshaw’s half in 1902, when he also bought out Dr. Bradshaw’s share of the drugstore at 58 South Main, and a harness shop at 107-111 West Burlington which the pair had purchased the previous year. Louis Thoma called the Opera House “the goose that laid the golden egg,” as it helped pay for the Harvard educations of his sons Roscoe and Leo, both of whom became lawyers after graduating in 1910 — the year after the Opera House burned down in an electrical fire. Louis reportedly said the only thing he saved from the fire was the key to the front door. Select here for a picture of the Grand Opera House.
In 1910 Louis and his son Clifford Thoma bought Dr. Hufford’s old building at 52 East Burlington, which was then being leased as a drugstore to Leland Stanford Bradshaw, A. C. D. Bradshaw’s son. After they graduated from Harvard, Leo and Roscoe Thoma had their first law-offices upstairs in this building. By 1917 L. S. Bradshaw had joined the firm of Thoma & Son at 104-106 W. Burlington, selling paint, glass, and wallpaper, and Gaumer Brothers (G.W., O. Cleveland, and Harvey E.) were offering drugs, jewelry, paint, glass and wallpaper here at 52 East Burlington. When Gaumer Brothers moved to West Broadway by the early 1920s, Oliver & Anderson sold paints here, followed by Brown’s Meat Market from the later 1920s into the 1940s.
Louis died in Fairfield on the last day of November 1940, following his wife Antoinette, who had predeceased him in 1924 at their home on South B. Street.