All Aboard for a Dance Hall Tour
Polkadate March 2019. The writer (yours truly) takes you on a dance hall tour through Central Texas.
One of the many things about living in Central Texas is the adventure of a Road Trip. Sure, other parts of Texas have roads that you can drive around on, but if, say you started in Alpine, Lubbock, or Nacogdoches, the scenery and culture would change very little in an afternoon of driving. However, here in the editor’s neck of the woods the atmosphere is varied and changes in every hour of driving.
Several weeks ago, Erik McCowan put out the word on a guided road trip that would visit dance hall and drinking establishments in Central Texas. The full-sized bus owned by Clark Travel took aboard about half of the explorers at Cavender’s Boot City (a sponsor) parking lot and motored on down U.S. 71, leaving the edge of the Hill Country and following the Colorado River bottom to La Grange where it met up with the rest of the curious explorers.
Erik is the producer, director, camera crew, sound mixer, film editor, and everything else of an award-winning documentary entitled Dance Hall Days. The film’s stars were all approaching, if not passed, the age of 100. These stars were the dance halls of Central Texas, and the supporting cast were the managers and caretakers that keep these symbols of community alive and breathing.
A LITTLE HISTORY
When Central Texas was settled by folks from Central Europe, they brought their customs with them which were infused with the music of their geographic locations. Once in Texas, the Germans and Czechs formed separate enclaves, separated by several miles, their languages, and distinct cultures. Within each enclave a central village emerged, and a community building was constructed for general use. The only real specification seemed to be a dance floor and a stage.
Each culture had its main organization. The Germans' Verein halls catered to the leanings of their culture: gymnastics, target shooting, singing, and exercise. The Czechs fraternal organization, the SPJST, built halls for general meetings of various organizations and public events. In the early 1900s, it is estimated that there were thousands of these halls across Central Texas.
At one time in Fayette County (my neck of the woods), there were over 60 dance halls with music being held at various times every month. Sadly, several factors that include economics (population moves to the city for work), technology (television), personal choices (“need” for air conditioning), and financial obligations (taxes and insurance) caused a dramatic drop in places where people can gather to celebrate life.
After the coolers were stowed within grasp, Tina, the expert driver, navigated the big bus successfully up the U.S. 77 Bluff in La Grange. Erik welcomed the excited crowd and gave a quick overview of the trip. He then turned the mic over to yours truly for the color commentary on the history of the area, the background of dance halls in general, and a little background history on the first stop, Swiss Alp Hall.
The hall is one of the few remaining dance halls that has always been privately owned and operated. The hall owners showed off the renovations to the almost hundred-year-old hall that have successfully transitioned the hall from its basic dance hall condition (no a/c, no heat, questionable restrooms) to a temperature-controlled spiffy space while retaining the ambiance of the dance hall that yours truly has been coming to since 1964. (For you SA veterans, the floor still bounces).
Loading up, the bus wove across the Fayette Blackland Prairie, with a quick look-see at the Ammannsville KJT Hall which is still used frequently for weddings, etc., and the yearly Father’s Day Church Picnic. The bus then headed back down into the Colorado River bottom, to the latest dance hall to be rescued from oblivion. Holman, Texas is a farming community between Weimar and La Grange. The once active little town had the prerequisite church, cotton gin, general stores, and a dance hall.
The Holman Hall has survived by being adjoined to the rear of “Blue” Vacek’s General Store/Beer Joint. The beer joint was sold and became the Holman Valley Steak House. After a long successful run, the restaurant was sold again with the new owners keeping the food quality up high. After the new owners stabilized the business, they set their sites on restoring the hall out back to its former glory.
The hall was a no-frills type, which the owners kept for character and minimum of maintenance. Yours truly had the opportunity to hear a non-amplified string band recently perform and it was as close as a person could get to being there in the 1920s when it opened.
The next stop was the Mullin’s Prairie Store, a restored road house, that has served many purposes down in the river bottom. The oak shrouded exterior beckons a thirsty person into the clean, cool, bright interior. The new owners are installing an outdoor venue with an old cotton trailer functioning as a stage under the live oak canopy.
After bidding goodbye to the river bottom, Erik talked about how the documentary came about. The film was hatched during a conversation between Erik and Steve Dean. Steve commented that someone needs to make a film about the halls to raise their visibility. Erik, who has video background, had a new camera and thought, “Yeah, maybe six months max,” and agreed to do it. Three years later, he was finished. The film does an excellent job of examining the broad expanse of stories and music that these halls have experienced.
This journey of documenting dance halls and the stories they tell led Steve and Erik to meet many extremely nice and dedicated people who manage these halls and keeping them open for the dancing crowd history’s sake. Steve passed away several months after the film was finished but was around long enough to see it win an award as the Best Texas Film at the Hill Country Film Festival; so he left this world knowing his wish was completed by Erik.
Steve followed a personal crusade to bring awareness to the plight of the remaining dance halls. He was instrumental in the founding of Texas Dance Hall Preservation, a non-profit that seeks to fulfill its title by providing assistance through experienced advice and connections to financial opportunities that can assist hall owners.
The bus pulled into Schneider Hall, just south of Columbus on the edge of the Gulf Coast Plains, at the perfect time; the sun was low in the sky and illuminated the strands of Spanish moss as they dangled like icicles around the stately old dance hall nestled under the live oak trees. The third-generation owner greeted us and talked about her grandfather’s hall use over the decades and her desire to keep it open. The no-frills hall has become a favorite for reunions, weddings, and other events that a person might need a dance-floor; Erik spotlighted a wedding at the hall in the film.
Speaking of dance floors, Erik’s group of explorers were all dancers and they hit the floor for a waltz or polka at every stop. At least two couples were making a pilgrimage to dance at as many halls as they can in Texas, and on this tour they got to chalk up a few more on their tally sheet.
The next stop was the awesome architectural palace that is Cat Spring Agricultural Society hall (one cat, one spring). The Cat Spring Agricultural Society was founded in the 1850s to assist German immigrants with surviving in this new world. This 12-sided (roundish) hall was built in 1903 and has one center post supporting the massive roof with wooden rafters of a length that is no longer grown in Texas.
It’s one of those places that you just can’t help but move around staring at the web of lumber that are the rafters. The docents gave a great talk as they are descended from some of the original founders. As we were boarding up, one of the elderly caretakers went to look at the bus and commented to me that she hadn't been on a bus since high school. She was offered a quick tour but declined, however she left us with this parting words of wisdom: “99 bottles of beer is sure fun to sing on the bus.”
DANCE HALL MAGIC
When asked why he does these tours, Erik replied, “Because I just enjoy history, old things, and getting people out into the country and having a good time with them. I like showing them new things and opening their eyes to the residents of these faraway places from the city. These halls are magic and the people that run them are just like us when it all boils down. I just like having fun. And for Steve Dean. I've got to keep doing it for him.
Erik continued, “I take approximately 25-35 people on these tours to experience a little bit of rural Texas. If they buy a beer, a burger, and perhaps a T-shirt at a hall, that's extra money that wasn't there before. In previous tours, we have attended dances, and we pay full price for admission to the dances we attend, so anywhere from $250-$300 is spent just getting into the hall, not counting what each individual person spends while we are there.
"It's a little economic infusion, and I hope that the folks on the tour will return to these places on their own — or with friends — and continue to patronize these halls and establishments. Spending money directly with these halls is the best way to preserve them."
The tour next headed to Bellville and the Huff Brewing Company, who was one of the sponsors of the tour, where we sampled some their tasty beer and got to talk to some with the other explorers since there was no dancing there.
The bus glided off into the darkness heading toward its final stop, Coshatte Hall, outside of Bellville where the David Lewis Band was playing for our (and others) dancing pleasure. The Bellville Chamber of Commerce has been sponsoring dances to promote the dance halls in its area. Coshatte is also an old round hall, founded by an agricultural society, that was filled with the sounds of a steel guitar and boot scooting rhythms that kept our explorers on the floor dancing around the center pole for over an hour.
With reluctance, our intrepid group of explorers boarded the bus for the trip back to all that exists outside of a dance hall. The bus was filled with merriment as more stories and new friendships were sealed.
Erik has announced: “The next tour is March 16, and we are heading to Anhalt Hall to catch Jake Penrod. Along the way, we'll stop at Twin Sisters for a tour and Fischer Hall for a beer and a look at their 9-pin bowling alley. I like to make sure that each tour is just a little different so that no one gets bored. Bus passes are on sale at dancehallroadtrip.com. Other stops will likely be Albert Hall (and ice house!) and maybe Luckenbach. The bus is already filling up; hope you can get a seat. There will be a tour every month to different destinations.
These several hours of strangers coming together, sharing dancing stories, dancing together, and learning about the halls is what the dance hall experience is all about. A visit to a seasoned dance hall is like entering a time capsule; a hall from the 1920s has had at least six generations of families and friends interacting with each other. The wooden dance floor has felt button-up shoes, brogans, round-toe boots, oxfords, sling-back pumps, saddle shoes, loafers, tennis shoes, pointy-toed boots, flip-flops, and bare feet as fashions changed.
In the wooden beams are embedded billions of notes from brass bands, old time (polka), jazz, big band swing, western swing, country crooning, steel guitar and fiddle country, rock-a-billy, rock and roll, and electronic sounds. The outsides of one building has seen wagons, horses, Model Ts, touring cars, roadsters, hot-rods, sleek luxury cars, pickup trucks, and at least one big tour bus, that brought people from all walks of life for one purpose: TO DANCE.