In August when I began brainstorming this year’s Christmas play, I wanted to write a story in a modern setting. I’d written historical dramas for the past couple years so I thought I’d switch things up this year.
I tried—tried hard!—to brainstorm a drama set in the 21st century. But nothing worked. I tried imagining a coffee shop, an apartment building, a funeral home, and no setting felt right. I couldn’t seem to conjure up a storyline I liked, no matter what scenario or tried.
So, hesitantly, I turned to the history books. I started researching, looking for some historical era that I hadn’t previously written about. My first thought was the Old West. I began exploring historic towns in Colorado, until I started reading about the village of Fontanelle, Nebraska.
I happened across it by chance. The rather poetic name “Fontanelle” caught my attention in a list of towns founded in the mid-1800s. I decided it couldn’t hurt to learn more about this tiny town in east Nebraska.
Once I began learning the history of Fontanelle, I was hooked. Some pioneers from Illinois settled the town in 1854, and others soon joined them from Ohio, New England, and even Europe. In my research I found an 1860 census of the town—a goldmine of information. It lists every inhabitant’s name, their age and birthplace, their occupation, and even their property value!
I learned that Fontanelle experienced many ups and downs in the early decades after its founding. From severe blizzards to conflicts with the local Pawnees, the townsfolk faced hardships that demanded pluck and perseverance. But despite all this, the town thrived. A university was soon established, there was talk of a railroad being routed through town, and many wanted Fontanelle to become the Nebraska territory capital.
But Fontanelle never turned into the metropolis people expected. It lost the contest to become the territorial capital (by one vote, according to legend). The railroad was routed through the town of Fremont, ten miles south of Fontanelle. And the university lost its main building to a fire and then moved to a more promising location many miles southwest.
Today, Fontanelle is a speck on the map, with only about 30 inhabitants. And it’s been this way for a century. In 1921, historians wrote this summary of the town: “After a wonderfully romantic and somewhat strange history, the once flourishing Village of Fontanelle has dwindled down to a few houses and the few inhabitants trade at a small store and get mail from the little country route. The most of the village platting is now doing good service as excellent farm land, yielding up its annual harvest.”
The more I found out about this place, the more it intrigued me, and I knew I wanted to set this year’s drama in historic Fontanelle. For several reasons, I chose 1899 as the year in which my Christmas story takes place. The town’s population has already peaked and is beginning to dwindle, but the Fontanelle townsfolk still hope that their little community can prosper, in one way or another. That hope is tested in my play, The Fontanelle House.
I’ll soon be sharing more about the storyline and characters of the Christmas drama, but I thought this backstory was important first. The Fontanelle House is deeply grounded in its place and time. I think you’ll get more out of the drama having learned this brief history of Fontanelle, Nebraska.
Be sure to save the dates for our performances of The Fontanelle House! You can attend in person at the Wesleyan Bible Holiness Church in Salem, IL, or you can watch live online at the Kittywham Productions YouTube channel. The performance dates are as follows:
Sunday, December 12, at 4:00pm
Tuesday, December 14, at 6:30pm
Wednesday, December 15, at 6:30pm
Stay tuned to the Kittywham blog and social media accounts for more news about the drama—including peeks into our rehearsal process! Did you catch Monday’s YouTube video featuring (possibly) our most outlandish props ever? Check it out here!