Lone-Star Legends: Texas’ Historic Dance Halls
By Tiffany Owens
Paying a visit to most of Texas’ more than 100 historic dance halls typically requires a bit of navigational prowess: winding your way via two-lane highways or farm-to-market (FM) roads, often passing one-stoplight towns, BBQ stands and vast fields of wildflowers grazed by long-horned steer. The drive is scenic, for sure, but the best part of the experience comes later, when you find yourself standing inside one of these century-old “hardwood havens” with their boot-worn floors, hand-carved rafters, ancient wiring and chicken-wire windows. The effect is like instantly traveling back to a simpler time, a piece of history that is still very much alive.
The disappearing Texas
In 2008, several of these beloved halls found themselves at the top of Preservation Texas’ annual list of the most endangered historic places statewide. Advocates caution that the Texas dance-hall tradition could disappear altogether if there is no revival or rejuvenation for the buildings, many of which still have the original structures, wiring and plumbing.
“Our endangered list recognizes an important statewide trend — the neglect of Texas dance halls and the negative impact of suburban development encroachment on the cultural history of Texas,” said Libby Buuck, president of Preservation Texas, Inc., a nonprofit group that raises funds and awareness to save historic buildings. “True Texas treasures, many of our classic dance halls are cultural landmarks, founded by fraternal orders, singing societies, gun clubs and agricultural organizations. Many had their roots in the traditions of Czech and German immigrants as well as in the Mexican-American and African-American cultures. They have been such an important part of our heritage that it is easy to take them for granted.”
Another advocacy group, Texas Dance Hall Preservation, was founded in 2007 after Gruenau Hall in Dewitt County was destroyed in a fire. Built in 1900, it was one of the state’s rare round dance halls with maple hardwood floors. (Due to the dedicated efforts of its fans and local citizens, I’m happy to report that Gruenau Hall opened again in October 2010 with air-conditioning and new maple dance floor). Dance halls were often among the first public structures built in a town, the preservation group states, which estimates as many as 1200 were active in the early 20th century. Most have been lost and many of those still standing have been abandoned or converted for alternate uses, such as Saengerhalle in New Braunfels, which closed in July 2006 and is now used as a church.
Whether playing Western swing to traditional country or Tejano music, today’s performers also play a key role in keeping the dance halls alive and thriving. In return, the dance halls give Texan musicians a wide variety of venues to play live music.
They’ve also launched more than a few careers. Amarillo native Kevin Fowler does an annual Deck the Dancehalls tour each December, marking his eighth year of the dance hall circuit in 2011. “As Texas musicians, we’re lucky we can make a living playing dance halls all the time,” Fowler has said. “In Texas music, you’re given the freedom to try to do something different. No matter what goes on the Top 40 chart, Texas music is always going to be chugging along.”
Most people don’t realize that several hundred of the dance halls still exist. Supporters want Texans — and tourists — to visit these places where families and communities danced and learn about a slice of state history, said Patrick Sparks, president of the Texas Dance Hall Preservation group. “The key to saving them is to get people dancing in them,” Sparks said. “It’s the most Texas thing there is.”
While working in Texas’ Hill Country for a few months, I tried to see as many of the historic dance halls as possible. From the people of every age that would gather from miles around to dance the night away, to the local color and countryside, smoky BBQ, and extensive music history (still in the making), the dance halls easily became a favorite part of Texan life. As such, here are three of my favorites, plus another classic dance hall that has recently reopened. I hope they inspire you to pull on your best pair of cowboy boots and pay a visit, and help to ensure they’ll be around for future generations to enjoy.
Gruene (pronounced “Green”) Hall was my first Texas dance hall experience, tucked into the sleepy town of New Braunfels, about 45 miles south of Austin. A potluck birthday party was underway in the front room around the potbelly stove, while a local band was tuning up to play on the main stage, so we took a seat at one of the well-worn picnic tables behind the dance floor to take in the show.
The stage is decorated with original tin signs from companies like Blue’s Sugar Bowl and framed by a painted canvas backdrop. A rusty tin roof is the only existing cover for the aged wood rafters and dusty wiring. The tiny bathrooms serve as a changing area for artists and are still in the same location as they were 100 years ago.
Built in 1878, Gruene has brought an impressive roster of performers to its stage, such as Garth Brooks, Jerry Jeff Walker, Chris Isaak, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Albert Collins, Ernest Tubb and Little Richard, illustrated by the overwhelming amount of autographed photos that decorate its walls. However, one whole section of this hallowed space is dedicated to George Strait, who cut his musical teeth at Gruene in 1975, playing regularly with his Ace in the Hole band. The back photo for his debut album Strait Country was taken at Gruene and depicts a young, handsome Strait in 1981. “They were just awesome guys,” said owner Pat Molak. “We didn’t have an office. When they finally started getting big, we’d settle up on the pool table.”
Strait later shot a Bud Light video on-site. Many recordings and movies have also used Gruene as the ultimate setting, including Pat Green’s Here We Go live album, as well as the movies Michael (starring John Travolta) and Flesh and Bone (with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan).
“Gruene is the quintessential Texas dance hall experience,” Green said in his Dance Halls & Dreamers book. “It’s history co-mingling with a few cold beers and good music. That’s a pretty good way to do things.”
1281 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels; 830.606.1281; gruenehall.com