Charles Goss — the man behind Watertown’s iconic opera house

By Dan Crisler

As downtown Watertown’s iconic Goss Opera House prepares to embark on a new chapter in its 130-year-old life, it might be time to take a look back to its origins.

With information compiled by Codington County Heritage Museum Director Christy Lickei and local historians Jane Miner and Prudy Calvin, the building’s history and namesake traces back to a man named Charles Goss.

His story appears to be a quintessentially American one.

It began thousands of miles away, across the pond. Born March 24, 1833, in Neport Pagnill in England, Goss spent the first 11 years of his life in England before coming to the U.S. with his parents. For the next eight years, he and his parents lived on a farm in New York.

When he was about 21, Goss moved to Sparta, Wis., where he initially worked as a carpenter. He appeared to have put down roots in Sparta, spending nearly 20 years working and operating a livestock farm. Goss further diversified his skills by working as a barber and in the restaurant and ice industries.

If tragedy had not befallen Goss, perhaps he would have spent the remainder of his life in Sparta. Shortly after arriving, in 1856, he married Cordelia Hayward. Together, they had eight children — seven sons and a daughter named Emma.

However, Goss nearly lost his entire family over the following three decades as Cordelia and all of their sons died in Sparta. Emma would also die young at 28 on Nov. 26, 1897, leaving behind a week-old infant.

After losing his wife and sons, Goss married Mary Brown. Together, they would have four children.

In 1879, Goss moved to Watertown and opened a general store. According to a 2010 article written by John Andrews for South Dakota Magazine, Goss appeared to have built his original two-story store on the same site as the opera house on the corner of Maple Street and Kemp Avenue. A pioneer of downtown Watertown, Goss later built four more store buildings. One of those included an upper-story opera house.

Those buildings didn’t last long, as they succumbed to fire in 1888. Where some might have mourned and become discouraged, particularly after losses were estimated at $12,500 with no insurance, Goss saw opportunity.

According to Andrews, Goss built the current opera house bearing his name the following year, although not without pressure from city leaders to instead build a hotel. Before the Goss’ construction, Watertown had two opera houses in or around downtown.

With Goss’ insistence, the current opera house was built. Construction began in June 1888. When it was completed the next year, the building featured offices and 1,500 seats, making it the largest opera house in South Dakota.

Prior to opening, the Public Opinion, aligned with city leaders’ vision for a hotel, was skeptical of Goss building a third opera house. On June 22, 1888, after Goss laid the building’s first brick down, the newspaper wrote, “(Goss) will certainly make a mistake in his hall scheme. Watertown is already well supplied with facilities of this kind. There is a possibility of a hotel proving a paying investment, but another public hall would be a dead load.”

The Public Opinion’s tune quickly changed. By August, its editor declared that when the Goss was completed the building “will be one of the handsomest among our many handsome blocks.”

By November, the editor, who acknowledged his initial skepticism, voiced full-throated support for the nearly completed opera house.

On Nov. 30, 1888, the editor wrote, “The improvements carried forward in Watertown during the year 1888 eclipse in value and extent those of any preceding year in the history of her experience but no one improvement is a great surprise than the mammoth Goss block … Mr. Goss reared this magnificent structure, and as its walls gradually grew higher and higher the beauty of the building unfolded itself as the blossoming flower in the morning sunshine. The block stands today the finest and most metropolitan in the city, a monument to the enterprise of its proprietor. May it be filled with steady and paying tenants.”

A few months later, the building opened without incident, except for a reported mishap when Goss sat in a bucket of tar while working on the building’s roof.

One of the Goss building’s first major attractions was in early December 1889 when the Merchants’ Carnival visited town. Described as a “gorgeous spectacle of dazzling costumes and charming beauty,” the highlight of the carnival was a parade of 60 young women. The women wore dresses that represented local businesses.

In addition to developing downtown Watertown, Goss served on the city council after being elected in approximately 1900. Goss died suddenly in the early morning hours of Jan. 16, 1906, at age 72.