I am going to begin a series of stories from Des Moines past. The focus will be to find quirky stories that have not been heard by most people. The first will be “The Cherry Sisters”.
The Cherry sisters (Effie, Jesse, and Addie) grew in Linn County Iowa on a farm close to Marion. They were devout Christians, and very headstrong in that Iowa farm girl way. In 1893, they dreamed of going to the Worlds Fair in Chicago and needed to raise funds in order to go. They formed the Cherry concert company and started performing in Marion. The girls sang, danced, and read poems for two hours. The first night, the show they put on was considered not that good, but they were encouraged by posting a profit of two hundred fifty dollars. This was quite a bit of money in 1893 and the girls had no other way of earning that much money in such a quick way. The core of the group was the three sisters mentioned above, but two other sisters would also perform with them from time to time as there were five sisters in the family.
After a few more shows the girls decided to take their act on the road and headed to the larger city of Cedar Rapids, hoping to earn an even bigger payday. The reaction to the girls act was unfortunately negative. The audience threw cigarettes, tomatoes, and eggs at the girls in their disgust at the Cherry sisters performance. This was long before the days of just leaving a negative comment in the comment section online or giving a negative Yelp review. I do think this was going a bit too far, but the local newspaper at the time did agree that the sisters act was really bad.
Amazingly this still did not deter the girls or their act. They were not only still making money, but making more than ever. They packed up their bags and decided to hit the road for a tour of American cities. Word spread about the girls and lines would form trying to get tickets. It was said they were so bad that they were good. It also became fashionable to throw vegetables at the girls, and the New York Times dubbed them “The Vegetable girls” . All of this attention was actually very good financially for the girls, and theater mangers began clamoring to get them into their theaters. At their height, the girls were making up to one thousand dollars a week! Even by today’s standards that is a pretty good wage. I will assume that went pretty far in the years around 1900.
In 1901, The Des Moines Leader ran a negative story about the girls. Some of the comments the paper made were: “Effie is an old jade of fifty summers, Jessie a frisky filly of forty, and Addie, the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of thirty-five. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom.” Wow, I can’t imagine the girls sounding like the wailing of damned souls, maybe the paper went a little too far. The girls thought the same thing and sued for libel. During the lawsuit, the girls were brought in to perform to show that the paper was being excessive in their description of their performance. Upon seeing the girls perform, the judge ruled in favor of the paper, and the girls lost the case. This was a landmark case concerning libel and has been used as a reference in many cases since.
In 1903, Jessie (the middle sister) died, and the remaining Cherry sisters retired and returned to Cedar Rapids to live. Effie ran for Mayor in 1923, and 1925 although unsuccessfully, with Addie as her campaign manager. After many years Effie and Jessie had a little bit of a second act. In 1935, they made a few special appearances which were well received. They even had a few movie stars who wanted to see them and were in the audience (Tallulah Bankhead, and Gracie Allen). Due the the sternness of their religious beliefs, none of the girls ever married, although there are a few rumors of fleeting affairs. In 1942 Addie died, then Effie a few months later. The New York Time ran a full column article about the Cherry sisters upon the death of Effie.
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If you would like to read a little more about the sisters, I have included some links.