For variety, try Nell's Hall, but watch out for the Mrs.

Sandy Vasko

    Gathering places for events, especially entertainment oriented can be hard to find in a small town. Not so in the 19th century, when folks with an eye to make money built “halls” to accommodate all kinds of gatherings.
    We have written about Music Hall in Braidwood, but there was another public hall built earlier. High class it wasn't; but the variety of events that took place there couldn't be beat. And apparently neither could Mrs. Nell.
    Our first look at Nell's Hall is from the April 26, 1873, Wilmington Advocate. “Braidwood boasts of another public hall. It was erected recently by Mr. John Nell, late of this city, and is a credit to the infant city in which it is located. Mr. John Ward did the finishing, and it is an advertisement of itself. The plaster, centre-pieces, moldings, mitered joints, etc. show Mr. Ward's work to be first class in every respect.”
    Nell must have invested quite a chunk of change into the building, it was evidently highly decorated which meant money was not object.
    How he meant to make money on the building is unknown, and was to him as well because six months later he had the place up for sale. “For sale - Nell's new building and hall. This choice property, with or without the fixtures, in the very business center of Braidwood is offered for sale on reasonable terms. The building is new and well finished. Title perfect. For particulars apply to John Nell; Box 312, Braidwood, IL or at this office.”
    There is no evidence that he was successful in selling the building, and our next look at it comes in February of 1874. A troupe of amateur actors from Morris had selected Nell's Hall to give a play, and hopefully make some money, or at least have a good time. They were disappointed in both.
    “On Wednesday night, the editor of the Advocate was detained in the Will County seat of war, Braidwood. An amateur dramatic troupe from Morris was holding forth at Nell's Hall, and attracted by the sound of uproarious applause, our reporter presented himself at the box office and was promptly “showed up.”  The troupe numbered 12 or 14 persons; they were strangers and bidding defiance to railroad companies, had come to Braidwood in horse carriages.
    While 'twould be unkind to criticize harshly, it is due the truth to say that the actors lacked natural coolness, and spoke as if reading, reminding one of our school exhibition. The ladies, fair and four in number, did better; sang and acted with much power, laughed less, talked faster.
    After the play, the sheet was drawn across the stage; and now “on with the dance” was the cry. An orchestra was summoned and soon appeared in the person of a foreigner with a huge accordion under his west wing; he required 75 cents before the dance should proceed; the hall was filled with tobacco smoke and disappointment, and the dancers were becoming desperate. The performers too were vexed; 16 miles from home and that 16 miles through mud at midnight. At this juncture, John Nell announced that there would be no dance and requested that the hall be cleared.”
    The following year Nell's Hall was the site of the newest fad spreading across the country, pedestrianism, or walking around in a circle a really long time.
    We read, “Dan Carr, a pedestrian of some repute, commenced at 7 a.m. on Wednesday last in Nell's Hall, to undertake a walk of 100 miles in 100 consecutive hours, without rest or sleep, and keeping in motion during the whole period. He finished the undertaking - he and his friends claim, successfully - on Monday last at 7 p.m.
    “On the other hand, there are many who assert that the whole affair was a fraud, gotten up for the purpose of taking in a goodly number of quarter dollars as admission fees, and that he slept every night as comfortable as ordinary mortals generally do.”
    And on July 9, 1875 we read, “If you can appreciate a high-toned entertainment done in black, don't fail to see Dixon's Minstrels at Nell's hall, Braidwood, next Thursday night.”
    In 1879, we find a Communist Party rally being held at Nell's. “The Socialistic party held a meeting at Nell's Hall on Sunday last, and were addressed by General Davoust, one of the leaders in the Paris commune of '71, and who escaped from that city in a balloon.”  
    The communists were not well received, and failed to recruit any followers, however, the following year the Irish movement combined with the miners' movement made Nell's the center of a different kind of revolution.
    Nell's Hall then fades from the newspapers. It might have been sold and changed names. But the Nell name doesn't disappear.
    In 1882 we read, “John Freer brought suit against Mrs. John Nell on yesterday for assault. The matter will be aired before Justice Crichton's court, and until then we forbear further remarks.”
    Apparently, Mrs. Nell could give as good as she got because this story ends like this, “John Freer had Mrs. Nell fined $3 and costs in Crichton's court for assault, and she in turn has entered suit against Mr. Freer for slander, alleging that he called her a prostitute, etc.” You go girl!