WISCONSIN DELLS, Wisc. — From an old Shakey’s pizza parlor in St. Louis to a dinner barn near Wisconsin Dells, Wisc., Cynthia Dickinson sees God’s hand in a lifetime of music.
Dickinson and husband Virgil of St. Louis spend April through September each year at their farm in Baraboo, Wisc., where they entertain hundreds of guests each year at the Wisconsin Opry (wisconsinopry.com) with their unique blend of country, bluegrass and gospel music. They’ve been opening their doors to the public each Memorial Day since 1979. They serve dinner before each evening performance.
In the past, they generally shut down right after Labor Day. But for a few years, they have remained open for senior adults and tour groups that come to view fall colors, usually through September. Now, they also offer a Christmas show.
“I feel like God had a really big hand in all this,” Dickinson said. Right from the beginning — and gospel music has always been at the heart of each two-hour performance.
Early in the show’s history, she started performing the gospel hit, “One Day at a Time,” which soon became her signature song. “At one point I decided to switch songs,” she explained. “I thought people were probably getting tired of it, but then the complaints started pouring in. People insisted I should keep singing it.”
The song held special meaning for her personally 13 years ago and helped her discover a deeper reason for God’s placing them in Wisconsin — a fight with breast cancer. “I think the song became my preparation for when I had breast cancer, and I think singing that song helped me get through it,” she said.
Then she realized how much, not only the song, but also the couple’s decision to make sure prayer and gospel music were included in each performance meant to their staff. Many of their band members have played with them for a long time, she said. Several have faced difficulties through which Dickinson has been able to minister. One member’s wife died of breast cancer, and one member died of ovarian cancer. Another survived two forms of cancer. One member lost a 5-year-old.
“I feel I’ve been there, especially for the women who’ve faced cancer,” she said.
The spiritual aspects of each performance also touch customers. The Dickinsons always pray before serving dinner. “We’ve never had a complaint…. People have said that the prayer at the meal makes them feel just like being with family,” she said. “People will come up and say how much they appreciate the gospel songs,” Dickinson added. “We quietly project what we feel about family, friends and God. People can see what we feel.
“I believe my gifts include being an organizer and an encourager to people, and you can do that quietly.”
The couple’s connection to Wisconsin Dells began even before they married. Dickinson volunteered for a month at Green Lake Conference Center, a nearby Baptist encampment, after graduating from college. Virgil was invited to play at a restaurant in the Dells in 1969. Already engaged, Cynthia and Virgil married in November that year.
When they were looking for summer jobs in the early 1970s, a friend who had been drafted into the U.S. Army remembered Virgil and offered him a job playing banjo and steel guitar and Cynthia to waitress each evening. They supplemented their income by singing at a children’s venue during the day.
Then they decided to open John Henry’s Sandwich Station. After operating for a few years, they realized there were only a couple of music venues in the area and decided they wanted to try something similar to the Ozark Opry in the Lake of the Ozarks region.
In 1978 they found the Edgewood Summer Theater property for sale, which included a building that seated 300, a house and eight acres. Success was “an instant thing,” Dickinson said. “Country music was really a big thing in those days.”
Two years later, God opened the door to purchase the property’s remaining 72 acres when it became available because Virgil wanted to farm — something he still does. “I believe we were led to this place,” Dickinson said.
In the early years, the Wisconsin Opry was somewhat isolated from restaurants, and soon visitors started asking about food, Dickinson explained. That’s when the family began providing dinner with their evening performances.
And it became a complete family affair as the couple’s three children began learning to play the violin and other instruments. The three — Ken of St. Louis; Liz of Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Stephanie, who just completed a master’s degree in music in Nashville, Tenn. — still spend summers at their Wisconsin home.
The Dickinsons have cut back the number of evening shows they offer. They primarily perform each Saturday and provide a Tuesday matinee and evening performance. They also accommodate tour group schedules.
Last year, they purchased additional property and added an antique and craft mall. This year, they opened a café and handcraft shop.
“It’s been a wonderful life here,” Dickinson said. “I taught physical education for 17 years and never thought I would get to do something like this.”
She credits growing up in a musical family. “Dad played the pipe organ, and every time we got together, Dad would tell us all to bring our instruments,” she said.
The Dickinsons were part of the St. Louis group Potpourri 68, which sang in Shakey’s pizza parlors around the city, including an audition for Regis Philbin. When they are in town, they are active members of Third Baptist Church.
They plan to continue operating the Wisconsin Opry as long as their children are able to join them, Dickinson said. “You meet wonderful people with wonderful stories to tell.”