WHAT CHEER — At its peak, What Cheer, in Keokuk County, was a coal mining town of about 5,000.
Today, the town’s population is a little more than 600 people.
Even today, City Clerk Melanie Vermillion said she gets letters from school children across the country writing to inquire about the town’s namesake and how What Cheer came to be.
The town was first called Petersburg, named by Peter Britton, who came to America in 1855 and was one of the area’s first settlers. Britton plotted 14 acres, according to the beginning of a history book being compiled on What Cheer.
A man named Joseph Andrews opened a store in the corner of the mill in the spring of 1864.
“As a number of settlers grew and as they came to the coal banks for fuel, the question of a post office began to be discussed,” a page from the history book reads.
So Andrews began to organize a post office and mail route. It was then time to decide on an official name for the post office and the town.
Andrews knew of an old English greeting, “What cheer.” He decided to name the post office that, and then figured the town and the post office should bear the same name.
Britton “agreed that there should be only one name, but insisted that it should remain ‘Petersburg.’” After convening a “meeting of the citizens,” no decision was reached. But Andrews wanted to call the town What Cheer, and What Cheer it remains.
Today, in addition to its unique name, What Cheer is best known for its Opera House and antique flea market. The Opera House, completed in 1893, was built by the Masonic Lodge when the coal mining town was thriving, according to a brochure on the building’s history.
Patrons took a train from as far away as 40 miles to see performances at the venue.
The Opera House also has served as a community rallying point in the past.
“After 15 years when the Opera House was no longer in use, the Masonic lodge decided to abandon its quarters on the top floor and build a new temple,” according to the brochure.
In fact, a contractor was ready to tear down the building, said Larry Nicholson, a long-standing What Cheer resident and president of the board of the Opera House.
“There was a group of people in our community that got together, rallied to save the Opera House,” Nicholson said. “They paid the contractor $500 not to tear it down.”
That was during What Cheer’s centennial celebration in 1965. Restoration began soon after.
Today, the building can hold more than 500 people combined between the two levels.
The Opera House opened for the season on April 19 with a performance of the What Cheer Winds concert band. Under the direction of conductor Gary Huxford, the band celebrated the 1906 performance of John Philip Sousa’s band in the same location.
The building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. During its more than 100-year history, the venue has seen performances by Hank Williams Jr. and Bob Crosby.
Elsewhere in the community, the What Cheer Flea market opened May 1 on the Keokuk County Fairgrounds and runs through Oct. 4, on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $2 on Saturdays and free on Sundays.