On Dance Halls and Ice Houses
The sun beat down hard on the soil, making the day’s planting all that much harder. As much as he wanted to put it off for a cooler day, he knew he had to get the crops into the ground or his pa would skin him alive. The only thing that kept him going (outside of that threat) was the certain knowledge that he might see her at the dance that night. He wiped the sweat from his brow, put his hat back on and went back to his chores with a renewed spirit.
His work in the hot and dusty field was done near sundown, and he raced to the house to grab some dinner and a bath before heading out to the dance at the hall in town. He was tall and lean for his nineteen years and tanned from all of his outdoor work. In his heart he knew he would be a good catch for any girl, but his mind was never sure of anything except that he was set on one girl, and she seemed to be set on someone else….
Stories like this played out throughout the fertile areas of Central Texas, some still happening today where the farms and ranches are far from the large towns and the only real recreation the young people care about is happening at the local dance hall. Musicians would tour from one to the other, providing a much needed break from the hard work, and helping many a young couple meet and marry. If the walls in any hall could talk they would tell so many tales of these romances, lust, new lives, and sad endings.
Dance halls are an integral part of the Central Texas social scene. Though you will find dance halls in most of Texas they are most prevalent in the Central Texas Hill Country area, and stretch out towards the coastal plains. Just about every settlement had a hall often built as the second permanent structure in the towns and used as a central gathering place. The hard working ranchers and farmers had to have someplace to gather and swap stories while enjoying a cold drink, and the young people needed to have a place to socialize. With the strong German-Czech-Polish heritage of this area, building these lovely structures and having regular dances was only natural. The buildings also served the communities as places to hold receptions, graduation parties, and play games. Some had 9 pin bowling alleys built on, or horseshoe/washer pits.
There are many dance halls that are sadly abandoned or completely lost while others are enjoying a new life as retail buildings or community centers. The gems are the ones that are still in active use as dance halls today with their wooden floors and walls full of stories. The best known active halls are Luckenbach, Gruene Hall, Cheatham Street Warehouse, The Broken Spoke, and Floore’s Country Store, all listed in the sidebar. Here are some of the lesser known that may well be worth a visit:
Anhalt Hall, Spring Branch (Comal County) – Established in 1875, this is a great German dance hall that still has monthly events. Do stop in to enjoy great polka bands with other Texas music performers stopping by.
Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Saloon, Bandera (Bandera County) – A true honky-tonk with live music every night.
Coupland Dance Hall, Coupland (Williamson County) – Built in 1910, it is a very active place with regular performances. See the listings on their website or the regular montly listings.
Cherry Springs Dance Hall, Cherry Springs (Gillespie County) – undergoing renovation, hopefully open again soon. This is one of the most historic dance halls, hosting Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Buck Owens and many others.
Club 21 Dance Hall, Uhland (Hays/Caldwell County line) – Dating back to 1893, this hall has a 9 pin bowling alley adjacent. They do have dancing every Friday and Saturday nights with a $10 cover charge.
Fischer Hall, Fischer (Comal County) A lovely building with lots of history. There are few live events these days, but you can rent the structure out for weddings and parties.
Freiheit’s Country Store, Freiheit (Comal County) Built in 1889, it still hosts live events.
Kendalia Halle, Kendalia (Kendall County) – A lovely gem that hosts dances once a month on Saturdays.
London Dance Hall, London (Kimble County) – Still a very popular spot out in the wilds of Kimble County, they have entertainment every Saturday night.
Nelson City Dance Hall, Welfare (Kendall County) – This quaint Opry House and Dance Hall is frequently used for weddings, though they do have some Saturday night shows.
Hangin’ Tree, Bracken (Bexar County) – Still going strong with regular shows on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Geronimo Trevino does a monthly show here.
There are groups dedicated to preserving these icons along with their stories. You can visit Texas Dance Hall.Org for a complete list of over 400 dance halls and some of their stories.
The Ice Houses were a slightly different story. Back before modern refrigerators and electricity, the farmers and ranchers used blocks of ice to help keep things cool. An ice house was exactly that – a place where these denizens could get their ice. As the years went by, many of the shops started carrying essentials like bread and milk, and before long some turned into convenience stores. The 7-11 chain is probably the most notable former ice house that evolved into a huge corporation. They do still sell ice.
Because ice was needed by just about everyone, these shops also became gathering places. Enterprising shop owners added on large rooms for gatherings, and these became a solid part of the Texas cultural scene.
I do hope you enjoyed this city girl’s new appreciation for these historic buildings. We didn’t have such places where I grew up, and I think we missed something special. Next time you are in one of the old dance halls, see if you can hear the whispers of the voices in the walls! If you want a much more in-depth accounting of these historic gems, I can highly recommend Geronimo Trevino III’s book, Dance Halls and Last Calls.