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.