Before the Civil War distracted everyone, it was widely noted that Elkton needed a large public hall, a place to hold public and social events. So in 1863 the Odd Fellows Lodge developed a plan to provide the town with such a convenience. The entire community had an interest in such a structure, which could be supported by renting commercial and retail space, the group remarked.
The specifications called for a brick, three story structure with basement. On the lower level there would be offices for the Mutual Insurance Company of Cecil County and the Post Office. The first floor was to be rented to merchants. On the 2nd floor there was a large public hall, an auditorium, and the third floor would be reserved for the lodge. This would be the most commodious hall beyond the limits of Baltimore, the Cecil Democrat proudly reported.
Construction started in 1863, but stalled after the foundation and cellar were dug. However, once the distraction of the Civil War was removed, the work kicked off again in 1867. The contract for the brick work went to Mr. Flinn of Wilmington and P. C. Strickland of Elkton was the successful bidder for the carpentry work.
Workmen started clearing the foundation, in preparation for the setting of stone and the laying of brick. By summer, this section of North Street was “busy with activity rarely witnessed” in the “quiet town,” the Cecil Democrat observed. A number of workmen were hammering, digging, hauling and doing everything necessary for erection of the large building.
The laying of the cornerstone took place at the Odd Fellows’ Hall in August 1867. Members of Cecil Lodge No. 62, I.O.O.F. hosted a grand ceremony, placing various lodge records, along with newspapers and coins of the day in the tin-box, which was sealed in the cavity of the stone.
By September this important symbol of “art and evidence of enterprise” was assuming the form of a building. Its walls were towering upward in a commanding height and were still rising, the Democrat told readers.
The “New Hall” was nearly complete as the holidays approached and W. C. Rambo rushed to finish the installation of two large furnaces. The community held a Christmas Fair in the new structure, which had cost about $23,000 to complete
The building proved too costly for the fraternal group, and by May of 1869 the Odd Fellows negotiated with Cecil County to purchase it as a courthouse. The Cecil Whig remarked that the editor regretted that the sale had to occur, but still it was a prudent measure for the county to secure a court-house at a very low price, $30,000 on easy terms. The terms were so convenient, as the county only had to pay $5,000 down and the residue as its pleasure.
Soon the building became more commonly known as the Opera House. On the second floor, Charles G. Wells installed his soundless moving picture equipment in 1908, Rodney Frazer wrote in Parts of Elkton as I Remember it in 1918. On the stage of the second floor auditorium many visiting performers and local students played to audiences. “But the movies from 1908 on packed the house night after night even though the reels often broke and darkness was broken by catcalls, whistles, and stamping feet,” Frazer wrote.
In the later years, various offices occupied the grand downtown structure, which the Maryland Historical Trust said “is one of the most vigorous Victorian structures in Elkton . . . . It provides evidence of the growth that Elkton experienced nearly a century after its founding.” Today it is known as the Clayton Building.