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Saving the opera house helped DeWitt build a future for its community

When residents of Dewitt raised funds to update the old opera house, the momentum led to forming LincolnWay Community Foundation.

DEWITT, Iowa — Every good story, be it on the stage or the screen, has to start somewhere. And in this case, we're going back 145 years to the grand opening of the DeWitt Operahouse Theatre

What began as an entertainment space in the heart of DeWitt grew into a community foundation that's now changing lives all over the county. 

But that's getting ahead in the story. 

For years, the grand old opera house was a source of entertainment and community. Originally built in 1878, traveling troupes of actors graced its stage for decades. Then, with the introduction of motion pictures, it became a cinematic theatre. 

From 1933 until 1964, the opera house would print programs to telegraph who and what would be playing on its screen. Those same programs now live at the Central Community Historical Society under the watch of President Ann Soenksen and her team. 

"It's amazing how far we've come over the years," Soenksen said. "It just makes your community more welcome." 

For nearly a century, the opera house remained as one of the centers of DeWitt's growth. 

But by the 1970s the old building had fallen into disrepair. So much so, it was to be sold and shut down. The curtain seemed to be closing... at least on the first act. 

That's when a group of dedicated citizens decided to step up and save the old opera house. 

"We were just interested in not having it close," said John Peavey, one of the leaders of the movement. He remembers going to the theatre as a young boy, watching films for 25 cents a ticket. "It was too much a part of the community. Kids like me went there when they were little. Plus, it's a nice feature for any town to have a theatre. It'd be a big void in the main street if it was gone!" 

And Peavey wasn't alone in his crusade to save the opera house. 

"We hosted pancake breakfasts, hamburger nights at Maid Rite, anything to raise funds," laughed Pat Henricksen. "I don't think anybody ever gave over $250!" 

After only five days of door-knocking and fundraising, the group had raised roughly $25,000 -- enough to buy and save the structure. 

Together, they gutted and refurbished the building then re-opened it to the public. It still stands today as a downtown event center and theatre. 

"It pulled the community together," Peavey said. "If you set your mind to something, you can actually do it. It was kind of the beginning of a can-do attitude for DeWitt. There hasn't been much that we put our mind to that we haven't been able to do." 

Today, the one-screen structure has all the amenities of a modern movie theatre, but without the modern prices. Tickets remain just $5 each and popcorn and pop won't cost you much either. It's all on purpose, Henricksen says, to make the theatre accessible for the town and its families. 

A seemingly-happy ending, but not where our story wraps up quite yet. 

"They looked at each other and looked around and said, 'Well, what else can we do,'" laughed Amanda Willimack. 

"The idea was that we're not going to go through this again," Peavey recalled. "We wanted something that's always there to receive money or to give it away. So that's when the idea of a community foundation was started." 

Thus, the LincolnWay Community Foundation was born, forever changing the future of Clinton County.  

Today, LincolnWay serves 12 different communities throughout the county. From bike helmet drives to veterans memorials, co-sponsoring DeWitt's new library and nursing home, to helping fund new buildings at DeWitt's middle and high school, LincolnWay is dedicated to making Clinton County a better place. 

"We've given out over $10 million worth of money back into the communities," Willimack said. 

Once a committee member herself, Willimack now serves as LincolnWay's executive director. 

"We've also been working on our forever LincolnWay campaign. It's an endowment that we're working on getting funded to be able to give grants back to the community today, tomorrow and forever," Willimack said. "It's an honor to be part of, honestly." 

Henricksen agreed, noting, "It took all of us working together to build this." 

And if you ask Peavey? Well, he'll say it's just a dream come true. 

"I guess it goes back to the idea, if you put your mind to something, you can do it," he smiled. "Dreams come true!" 

After all, what started as a dream to save the opera house, now lives on as something much bigger, thanks to the hard work of the DeWitt community. And isn't that the happiest ending of all. 

Watch more DeWitt Hometown Tour stories on News 8's YouTube channel

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