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Travel back in time to 'Yesterday's Kankakee'

By Beverly Overmyer
Times Correspondent
March 16, 2004

When the red velvet curtain goes up at the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso at 2 p.m. April 4, the audience will be transported back to the time when the glaciers carved out the Kankakee Valley. The curtain comes down an hour later with a dramatization of World War I's impact on the Kouts community.

"Yesterday's Kankakee -- Past Times and Pleasures through Story, Song and Dance" is a stage play sponsored by the Kankakee Valley Historical Society with the Kankakee Valley Community Theater as a fundraiser to restore the Collier Lodge on the river at Baum's Bridge, Kouts.

The play will also be presented on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Kankakee Valley High School. The play is partially funded by a grant from the Prairie Arts Council. Inspired by the recently published book, "The Diary of Kankakee River Guide - George Wilcox," the original script was written by Jill Steiner, English teacher at Kankakee Valley High School. The play is directed by Mark Ladd, also a faculty member at the high school.

After a PowerPoint presentation by college professor and author Dr. Ken Schoon, showing how the geology ties into local history and Shirley Anderson's dramatization of the lives and trials of the Indians, the cast presents scenes that show how events along the Kankakee influenced the lives of the local residents.

The actors, ranging from teens to seniors, combine their talents to tell the story of the area through a series of vignettes. Actors portray local citizens from a Civil War volunteer to world-famous Civil War General, statesman and author Lew Wallace.

Reading from the 1917 diary, Ed Krieser will introduce each scene sitting at George Wilcox's antique desk dressed in the guide's characteristic wool cap.

Last summer, Sarah Miller, a life-long resident of the Baum's Bridge area and owner of Wilcox's house, gave the river guide's diary to John Hodson, President of the Society. When Hodson shared the diary at the group's board meeting, it was decided that the diary should not only be transcribed and published, but also transformed into a stage play to present the little-known social history of the area to a wider audience.

Hodson poured over old newspaper microfilms in the library to discover the details of the events noted in Wilcox's diary, including the Hebron tornado of 1917. Other events were discovered in Fay Folson Nichols' book, "The Kankakee -- Chronicle of an Indiana River and its Fabled Marshes."

Mary Hodson found a description of a 1888 celebration at the Pittsburgh gun club when the area was known world-wide by the rich and famous as the Everglades of the North. The Grand Kankakee Marsh was unsurpassed for hunting, fishing and trapping. In her research, Hodson found that the women served their local specialties and a sponge cake, a new recipe from the 1887 White House Cookbook at the party. The cake recipe will be used to make refreshments for the audience after the performances.

Ticket prices are $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 8 or older and senior citizens ages 65 or older. Children ages 7 and younger are admitted free.

All tickets are general admission. For ticket information, call (219) 766-2302 or (219) 464-1947.Tickets also available at Kouts Town Hall.