Patrick West (A thesis for graduate history at Central Michigan University, 1976)
In the study of history, one of the most interesting
questions to investigate is, "How did it happen?" In this
paper the writer will consider the unique subject of how Colon, Michigan came to be known by magicians and
laymen alike as the "Magic Capital of the World".
The task of determining how any situation or
event happens, necessarily involves an investigation of the
past occurrences leading to the particular event chosen for study. In this case, these past events comprise
the history of a small southwestern Michigan community located in St. Joseph County. Specifically, the
study will concentrate on the years of 1926 through 1975, and on one aspect of the communityís history,
namely; the development of the magic business.
A topic such as this leads one to the
investigation of the public lives of the individuals directly
responsible for the establishment and operation of the unique business of manufacturing magical effects
for magicians. An historical account will also be given of the development of the Abbott Magic Get-Together,
an annual convention for magicians from around the world which is staged in Colon. There will be a discussion
of the legitimacy of the claim that Colon is the "Magic Capital of the World".
Throughout the investigation, an attempt
has been made by the writer to be objective in relating the
true and factual story of the magic business in Colon. Before examining the arrival of Colonís first
magician, it is prudent to look at the physical features of the area, the founding of the community, and
its early history. In order to do this, one must begin with the year 1829.
In that year, 1829, Roswell Shellhous
traveled from Ohio to the newly organized St. Joseph
County where he built a two-room log cabin on the Nottawa prairie. His cabin was used as a hotel by
land-lookers who came into the county to observe what was described as: "...the best county in the state ....
The soil is exceedingly fertile, and consists principally of oak openings and prairies with innumerable
Roswell Shelhous moved on to Illinois,
but he had encouraged his brother Lorancie to come to the area. Lorancie Shellhous arrived
at the present-day location of Colon in 1830, and bought
the land on Swan Creek which later became the mill site. Lorancie went back to Ohio after
purchasing the land and returned with his family and two other brothers (George and Martin) in May of
1831. That spring he built a cabin at the mill site and, after making his own plow, planted six acres
of prairie" ... growing vegetables, melons, and broom corn". In the fall of 1831, Charles Palmer
arrived and purchased 300 acres east of Swan Creek. Palmer, his wife and six children lived out
the winter of 1831-32 with Lorancie and his wife and their five children. The following spring,
Palmer built his own cabin, alleviating what must have been, at the least, a tense situation for
the two families.
Colonís first industry began that spring
when Shellhous constructed a saw mill at the dam
where Palmer Lake flows into Swan Creek. Shellhousís mill produced 1,200 feet
of lumber before the dam was washed out that year. Lorancie sold his mill site to his brother Martin, in
order to finance the building of a new dam.
After surviving a severe attack of
the "fever and ague", the tiny settlement progressed toward becoming
a village. In 1832 George Shellhous and a man known as Indian Trader Hatch survey
that plat of land that was later to become the village which lies between Palmer Lake and Sturgeon
Lake. It was then that the name for the new village was decided upon. Lorancie Shellhous turned
randomly in a dictionary to the word "colon" and remarked, "We will call it Colon, for the lake and river
correspond in their relations exactly to the position of the colon."
Colon grew and developed much in
the usual fashion of many rural Michigan communities, progressing in
population, agriculture and industries through the second half of the 19th century. By 1839, Colon had a
post office which received mail once a week. In 1837, Colon could boast of a log school house, 24 feet
square. A frame school had been erected by 1847. The villagers were very conscious of their duty to
provide higher education for their children. Following a common practice of the day, they sold stock to local
citizens and established a seminary. The school was organized in 1858 and operated until 1867 when the
brick structure housing the school was rented to the school board.
Businesses in Colon also grew in number
during the years of 1830 through 1900. The E. Hill
and Sons bank was established in 1870. By 1889 colon had a flour mill, a tannery, a canning factory, a
machine shop for repairing windmills, a daily stage run to Leonidas, and "two good hotels" with telephone
connections through Michigan Bell Telephone Company. The village was linked to the major cities of
Michigan, Indiana and Illinois by rail through the Air Line division of the Michigan Central Railroad which
had been completed to Colon from Jackson on July 3, 1871.
The medical needs of the community were
being met in the early 1860s by the communityís own doctor and
druggist. The social and spiritual aspects of community life were served by a Masonic Lodge and four
churches; the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Universalist. The trappings of civilization had come
Colon developed into a vigorous agricultural community
in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1876
agricultural products shipped from Colon on the Michigan Central Railroad were listed as follows: 745
barrels of flour, 26 cars of hogs, six cars of sheep, five cars of cattle, 46,450 bushels of grain. The first
decade of the 20th century found Colon a well-developed village and the community was incorporated
as such. Another industry had come to town ... a knitting factory which in the year 1903 produced 58,457
dozen pairs of knit gloves and mittens. Social life in the community was further augmented during the
first and second decades of the 20th century by road show companies performing at the Hill Opera House
which had a seating capacity of 800. Further entertainment was provided in the early 20ís when the people
were treated to silent movies at the Dreamland Theater. Educational opportunities were increased by the
construction of a library and a new high school. A fire department was established in 1904 following a fire
which destroyed two major buildings. In short, Colon developed in much the same way as other farming
communities in Michigan. Colonís history, however, was to take a unique turn in the summer of 1926
when a man by the name of Harry Blackstone visited Colon.
This is Harry Blackstone.† His second wife is at the top†center,
just in back of him.† She is the mother of Harry Blackstone Jr.
Sally Banks (Della Coppin), wife of Ted, is at the lower left.
Harry Blackstone was one of the
more prominent stage magicians of the 1920ís and 30ís.
Harry Bouton (Blackstone was his stage name) was born in Chicago, the son of a hat
maker. He and his brother Peter began their stage careers doing comedy magic. Gradually, the art evolved
into a full evening show of illusions with Harry doing the performing and Peter working behind the scenes
building the illusions. Blackstoneís show grew in size and by 1927 a crew of a dozen people
worked and traveled with Blackstone.
During the off-seasons of the early 20ís, Blackstone and his troop traveled to West Lake near
Kalamazoo to refit old equipment, build new effects, and relax. The company grew too large for the
accommodations at West Lake and Blackstone looked elsewhere for a summer place. In
the summer of 1926, his wife, Inez, drove her car south (by chance) from Kalamazoo through Leonidas
and into Colon. At the western edge of the village she noticed Angel Island in Sturgeon Lake.
Upon investigation, she found that the island was for sale, and she placed a down payment on the
property. Harry found that the island was ideally suited for his purposes. There was a frame house
and a large barn where the stage equipment could be stored and many animals which were used in
the show could be kept. The barn would also serve as a worship. There were several cottages
which could be used to house the crew. Blackstone purchased the island that summer and from
then until 1949 Blackstone called Colon his home. Blackstone moved to
California (for health reasons) in 1949. However, he always claimed that he would rather live in
Colon than anywhere else in the world.
Colonís romance with magic began that summer of 1926. Blackstone gave many of the
townspeople their first taste of magic at a local citizensí club lawn party that first summer. The impression
Blackstone made on the people that afternoon was very favorable. The local newspaper
reported that his performance at the lawn party was the surprise of the afternoon and referred to him
as the worldís greatest magician. The townspeople enjoyed having a celebrity in their midst. Blackstone Island, as it was renamed, formed a fairy-tale setting in those days. There
was only one dirt road of access which crossed a small land bridge between the village and the island.
There were row boats for fishing Sturgeon Lake and the St. Joseph River which flowed through the
north end of the lake. It was like having one big family for the members of the troop.
A typical day on the island began at about 7:30 a.m., with lazy smoke circling out of the chimney
from the kitchen cook stove in the main house signaling that it was time for the entire crew,
sometimes as many as 22 people, to come for breakfast. Afterwards, each person would go about
his assigned duties.
The stock boyís duties included looking after the livestock which included a camel, a horse,
and many smaller animals and fowl such as: ducks, geese, doves, and, of course, rabbits. Those
involved with the actual presentations of the show had to rehearse, particularly the new tricks.
Set designers and stage hands were busy building and designing stage equipment and painting
the backdrops, curtains, and other stage scenery. Everyone put in a full dayís work.
Another large meal would be served at the main house in the evening. On many occasions,
the generous Blackstone would add to the numerous table guests by inviting friends
from the village to dinner. Frequently, other magicians came to the island to visit the well-known
magician and, they too became members of the household for the duration of their visits. Colonís
summers were from this time on transformed by the many unusual and exciting happenings
related to magic.
Such was the spring and the summer of 1927, which found Blackstone at home in Colon
after closing his road show in South Bend, Indiana for the season. The month of May was a busy
one for the crew, taking care of the "carloads" of equipment. It should be mentioned here that
the show traveled by rail; Blackstone rented an entire Pullman car for his troupe and a
box car for the equipment. Extra space for magical equipment was gained by using the passengersí
luggage space in the baggage car. Each member of the show was allowed to take only carry-on luggage.
That May the crew was especially preparing new illusions to be presented by Blackstone
at the second annual convention at the International Brotherhood of Magicians, of which he was
vice-president. It was at this convention in Kenton, Ohio that Blackstone renewed an
acquaintanceship with an Australian magician, Percy Abbott. Blackstone invited
Abbott to returned to Colon with him to enjoy some fishing and the relaxing environment
of the small town. The local citizens were so preoccupied and awed by Blackstoneís underwater
escape in Sturgeon Lake, that the man who would be most responsible for making Colon the "Magic
Capital of the World" went unnoticed. The local newspaper stated that a crowd of nearly 2,000 was on
hand for the feat, which created a traffic jam on the island. Blackstone was bound up in rope by " ...local
and well-known people who were sure they could bind Harry so that he could not loosen the shackles ..."
He was then placed in a box and the lid nailed shut. The box was lowered into Sturgeon Lake and a short
time later Blackstone appeared on the dock. Publicity for the event was well done
and "Two moving picture operators were on hand to film the feat ..." Blackstone certainly was
the "worldís greatest magician" as far as the people of Colon were concerned.
When Percy Abbott arrived in Colon that summer, he intended to relax, visit with
Blackstone, do a little fishing, and then resume his tour of the United States. Instead,
he stayed a life-time in Colon. He married a local girl, raised four children, and founded what was
to become the largest magic manufacturing company in the world. Over the course of the next
30 years, Abbott was to become a name known the world over by magicians. Though
Percy Abbott never took the place of Harry Blackstone in the hearts of his
fellow "Colonites", he did as much or more to put Colon "on the map".
At this point, it is proper to include a little background material on Percy Abbott.
Abbott was a native Australian, came from humble origins. He lost his parents early in
life and was raised by a strict aunt. Percy struck out to make his own way while still in his early
teens, doing odd jobs in Sydney. It was in Sydney where Percy became interested in magic and
opened a magic shop called the Abbott Magic Novelty Company. Throughout the
early 20ís , he toured the Orient, playing many small theaters and sometimes earning only
enough for passage to the next island. He returned to Sydney and his shop periodically, when
bookings and/or income failed. It was such a tour that brought him to the United States, where
he enjoyed moderate success. His passport listed England as his destination, but he was not to
arrive there until 32 years later.
A few days after his arrival at Blackstone Island, Percy met Gladys Goodrich, a local
girl, and decided to make Colon his home. During the year 1927, Colonís first magic business
was "established and arranged" between Abbott and Blackstone. The
Blackstone Magic Company, as it was called, was dissolved after only 18 months and
the men never met publicly or privately for the rest of their lives. The great Blackstone never
appeared at a Get-Together until after Abbottís death. In his biography, Percy preferred
to "...skip over this particular era ..." because it held unpleasant memories which were not good
for him nor would they be good for the reader.
Actually, there was no real scandal
behind the split. It was more of a misunderstanding which,
because of the personalities of the two men, became an irreproachable breach. While on the
road, Blackstone "traded" an amount of merchandise from the magic shop to a magician
for an illusion. (An illusion differs from a trick in the size of the presentation, and might be referred
to as a big trick.) The magician promptly sent to the Blackstone Magic Company the
illusion and a list of merchandise promised to him by Blackstone. Percy sent the
merchandise and assumed that the illusion then belonged to the company. Later, Percy sold
the illusion to another magician. Blackstone finished his tour and returned to Colon,
only to find that "his" illusion had been sold. The situation simmered for a short time and then
a verbal storm erupted when the two men met in a local store. Percy closed up the shop and
that was the end of Colonís first magic company.
The history of the magic manufacturing business in
Colon from this point on coincides with
the life of Percy Abbott, rather than Harry Blackstone. While Blackstone
brought fame to his name as a great magician, "Abbott built a magic manufacturing company
which has become world famous for its quality-built magical effects.
Following the closing of the magic shop, it was back to the road shows for Abbott.
He accepted a job working with Jean Huggard in the spring of 1929. Huggard produced
a show which had been playing at Coney Island, New York successfully for years. 1929 was the
year of the stock market crash and people had no money to spend on Coney Island or magic
shows. After trading an illusion for a spare tire, Percy returned to Colon. Abbott married Gladys Goodrich
and they began playing schools and auditoriums. They
continued this for the next five years, earning a reliable income in a time of financial disaster.
The couple added to their school dates with theater bookings and two summer sessions with a
carnival. In February 1934, Abbottís first child was born. This brought a halt to road shows
for the couple. Percy felt it was not a good idea to raise children "en route" and the couple
settled permanently in Colon.
A rare photo†of Harry Blackstone and Percy Abbott together!† It would
have been taken prior to 1929.
From left to right is Ted Banks, Arthur Derway, Harry Blackstone, Frank†
Luckner, and Percy Abbott.† They are dressed in shirts from the "Lamb
Knit" company of Colon.
In January of 1934, Abbott
opened his second magic company in Colon and named it after
the shop he had owned in Sydney, Australia. The Abbott Magic Company was located
above the A&- Grocery. Percy went to the local printer on credit. In order to supplement the
income of the business during its infancy, Percy continued to play shows at local schools
and nearby theaters.
In March of 1934, a young magician from Eaton, Ohio
came to Colon to see Abbott about
enlarging his act. Recil Bordner was that magician and had received one of Percyís
catalogues in the mail. The two men had met before in 1931 in Montpelier, Ohio. Percy had been
working with the Skippy LaMore Show, a road company that did three-act plays. He did
magic tricks during intermission. Bordner was the son of a
thrifty Ohio farmer. Farming, however, did not appeal to the
young man and he decided to become a "mindreader" in order to earn enough money to go south
for the winter. With a cousin as a partner and a home-built radio set, Bordner performed
his first and last mind-reading act in Hicksville, Ohio. It was his last mind-reading act because
people asked question which could not be answered. The questions pertaining to the stock market
were particularly hard. In one incident, a woman followed Bordner back stage, demanding an
answer to her question concerning stocks. This experience convinced Recil that it would be
safer to become a magician. He has seen a hand bill that a magician by the name of Abbott would
be appearing in Montpelier and decided to attend, hoping to pick up a few pointers from a professional.
Following the performance, Recil
went back stage to meet the magician and ask questions.
Abbot recognized an economic opportunity and promptly sold the amateur magician
three lessons in magic for ten dollars.... quite a sizable amount, considering the fact that the
country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Bordner received lesson number
one that night along with a small trick. Lesson number two was given the following week at
the same theater in Montpelier when the road show returned on its circuit. That night the
attendance was so low that the theater manager canceled the companyís engagement for the
rest of the season. Bordner had to travel to Colon in order receive the third lesson. This was
Recilís first visit to Colon, where, two years later he was to become a partner in a magic
business destined to be the largest in the world. Bordner spent 1932 and 1933
doing small magic in Ohio and Indiana. He enjoyed
enough success to make him consider enlarging his act to include illusions. He thought this
would enable him to book carnivals and county fairs. With this in mind, Bordner
traveled again to Colon in March of 1934 to see Percy Abbott.
Abbot was in debt to the local printer
for printing the 20-page catalogue of tricks and again
recognized an economic opportunity in Recil Bordner. He convinced
Bordner that if he wanted to invest in magic, it would be wiser to buy into the business of
manufacturing magic, specifically, the Abbott Magic Novelty Company. Bordner borrowed $1,000
from his father and bought half interest in the company, and a partnership was formed which
lasted until 1959.
The new business remained above
the grocery store until Labor Day of 1934, when the
partners leased a building which had been a carriage factory from Atty. Jay Peters.
The two-story frame building was well suited for the new business with the first floor serving
as an office and workshop while the second floor was converted into "...a beautiful little theater
with proper setting for performing the new magic ...." which the firm was to build. During working
hours, the second floor was also used as a paint shop. The partners painted the building black. Recil
used a stencil which he had cut for an illusion and painted white skeletons on the structure. The
present-day factory is painted in the same eerie fashion.