This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
A Context for Historic Texas Dance Halls: The development of the immigrant social halls in Texas and their place in the history of settlement, music, and culture by Patrick Sparks
Patrick Sparks: What I wanted to talk to you about was my perspective on the context of our main type of dance hall in Texas. It’s something that a number of us have been studying for a number of years. I’ll tell you it’s a gradual, eye opening and evolution of understanding. I think it’s constantly evolving. I want to talk about who are these people that came in Texas and established these halls, and then what are the building types and what’s significant about them.
For some strange reason Texas became an object of immigration out of Europe in the middle of the 19th Century. The first immigration starts in 1840, it’s primarily German. Over the next 40 years some couple million people come to Texas and they’re mostly from Central Europe, a relatively small area of Central Europe that comprises what we now call the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Austria and some others. The fascinating thing is this is not easy to do in 1840, to do this. Now they might stop in New York and they go over in like this, or New Orleans. It’s a big deal.
Here’s the basic, this is just a quick glimpse of some of the halls. This is a portion. This is not all the halls. You’ll notice sort of how they’re clustered a lot down in this area. This is a geographically fairly large area. There’s Houston, and there’s San Antonio, and there’s Austin and there’s Dallas up there. One of the things that [inaudible 00:02:58] talk because there’s so many coming out between the cultures of south Louisiana and south Texas. Of course one of those is family aspect. It was the first thing that struck me about the traditional dance halls. In college I thought that’s just so cool that old people and little kids and young couples and everybody is all in the same place and there’s no real problem. Nothing is going wrong.
Who are the cultures that came to Texas early on? Well by and large Germans, and I can give some examples. If you’ve ever been to Texas you might recognize some of these names or you might not. Luckenbach, Gruene, Welcome All, Cat Spring are examples. In the Czech tradition we have something called the SPJST, and here’s a perfectly good Czech place name. Then the Czech’s have a lot of church associated halls, interestingly enough. There’s some Alsatians out in the western, just west of San Antonio, the Polish south in San Antonio. We know of 2 Swiss originating halls, a number of brilliant important Tejano halls in south Texas and then some African American halls, notably Wright’s Park.
I made a note to myself down here. My area is just primarily Scottish Irish. Well we don’t have any halls. Our music is really embedded into the Texas sound so I just made a note so you know for any of those Irish people. There are quite a lot of Irish people in Louisiana.
Okay, anyway, what are the time periods? Well our halls, as you can see about 20% of them are built prior to 1890. This is the halls we know about. Of course, we find new ones all the time so this will change. About half of them are between 1890 and 1910 and then it tapers off pretty rapidly towards the war. Essentially more than half are built prior to 1910. The break is down, we’re going back to the cultures of origin. Almost half are what we would consider to be German. About a third Czech, and this number on the Polish is too low. Of course we’re like 2 Swiss halls. I throw them in because it’s really interesting to me. Now we also discover there’s a couple of Norwegian hall tri state. Then quite a few Tejano halls and some African American halls as well.
[inaudible 00:06:34] primarily responsible for the inventory. I just put this number up here. This is ballpark number. I’m sure he’ll go correct that. The inventory is well over 500. This is a very old picture. This is about 1870. It’s a round hall.
I’m just going to throw out my big thesis right now so everybody think about it. This is a 1870 census map and it’s foreign parentage. Well, check this out. This is essentially immigrant populations. Notice how well defined that boundary is. I find it really interesting. Then there are of course your pockets you can see little splotches of color here and there. Then you come down here and you look. Here’s y’all. There’s past Christian and there’s New Orleans. Right there, I think, about there and around there are where we are. Then even right down here in this really swampy part right there.
Then look at over in Texas. We have this funny U shape thing here and a real big splotch there. You can’t see it but there’s a little tiny splotch right up there. Those are our 2 main ports of entry, Galveston and Indianola. That’s where the immigrants are coming ashore. Down here of course is Spanish or Tejano population on the border.
Speaker 2: What’s the year down there?
Patrick Sparks: 1870.
Speaker 2: What is it a map of?
Patrick Sparks: Foreign parentage.
Speaker 2: Foreign parentage.
Patrick Sparks: This is immigrant … This would be essentially first generation immigrants, because your parents would’ve been born somewhere else. It’s an immigrant map, immigrant settlement map. What’s common, what John talked about, I think what everybody in Louisiana knows is the social dancing thing is a very strong, defining characteristic. It is also here in Louisiana, it is also in Texas and it is also that way in northern Mexico and south Texas. It’s interesting that the strongest cultures of social dancing in the United States historically have been like this. Even know the cultures are very distinct.
Any ideas on that?
Speaker 3: Catholic.
Speaker 4: Religion.
Patrick Sparks: Religion, that’s one. Another one I think is isolation. The other one is survival. If you noticed at this time in 1870 there are no railroads in Texas. Survival rate from Indianola to the hill country is 50%. This is a very difficult place to live. There are Indian reservations all the way to here. Most of this area is still extremely dangerous to live in. I don’t go up into that part of Texas but it’s really, it’s not exactly a walk in the park sometimes as far as making an existence. Now this area in here is very fertile, but out here it can get really dry and so forth.
One is survival, and one is isolation and lack of assimilation. The other concept is sort of place making or purposeful, cultural sustainment. In other words you’re doing things to sustain the culture which you come from. You’re purposely continuing your culture.
Just to blow this up a little bit, and we start putting some dance halls on the picture. Okay, so what I did was overlay … The colored splotches are areas of language, it’s a language map to define … Well some of this information comes from a language map, so the map German dialects, and some of it comes from settlement data. The blue, purple-blue is German. It gets you oriented. San Antonio is here, up there. Austin is like right up there, and there’s Dallas and there’s Houston. This is that horseshoe looking boundary that we saw in the 1870’s. The brown is African American settlement. The purple, I mean the hot pink is Czech. The rust colored is Polish and there’s there, there, there, there, there and there and there and there.
Then is there another color? Probably. It’s unfortunate that the yellow and the little pins are not all the same color. What this means is that the hall is gone. That’s how it’s colored but the background is the settlement area. You’ll notice this really strong correlation. Look at this. Look at how many halls are in this area. This is really the largest, these 4 counties represent the largest number of dance halls per square foot or whatever in Texas. In one county, Fayette County at one time there were …
Speaker 4: 65.
Patrick Sparks: 65 dance halls. There are about 30 something left in that one county. Some towns had as many as 4 dance halls. There’s a town out here in west Texas, we’re showing 1 thing right there but that’s actually 3 dance halls in this one little town out there.
Speaker 4: What’s it called?
Patrick Sparks: Rowena. It’s a little Czech place, Czech and German. We just zoom in a little bit and look a bit closer at this. We see this is the German settlement in the hill country, what they referred to at the time as western Texas. Then you can see these little onclaves. This is the first Polish settlement in North America right down here. You can see the Czech settlement areas define there. There’s this very strong correlation. That map works good for predicting where you’re going to look for some.
Who were the builders and the sponsors of these buildings? Well most of these are civic, mutual benefit, mutual aid societies, fraternal or some kind of association. Then some of them were built by individuals and usually used by the community. For example we have this organization called Slavonic Benevolent Order of State of Texas, SPJST. There’s about, I don’t know, 30 halls at least of that type. The KJT, the Czech organization. Sons of Hermann is the German equivalent of SPJST. Of course we all know about Knights of Columbus. We have this other one, this is a little women’s catholic organization, KJZT that’s some halls.
By and large a lot of the halls fall into this group. They’re association halls and in German they’re called Verein, which means association. They’ll be agricultural Verein, rifle clubs, athletic associations like a term Verein, singing clothes, so they’ll be a singer in the hall or a singer hall. Then there’s cultural organizations.
I’m just going to throw this out there. Again, I don’t like these other kinds of buildings but just to get some nomenclature down, and John Sharp mentioned this too, we made a distinction between a Honky Tonk and a real dance hall. We’ll talk a little bit more about that. Here’s these other types of things. We have these of course. A lot of these are a lot of fun, but they’re not exactly the same. We have a Honky Tonk, a night club, a saloon, it’s different. Roadhouse is a little bit different. What they call the dance hall in the old west is different still. It’s a euphemism usually for a gambling hall or a brothel. Juke joint, y’all will be talking about those. Ballrooms, USO’s, state park pavilions, seaside pavilions or gambling houses. These all kind of get co-mingled and sometimes people use the terms or call them a dance hall. We think that a large portion of our dance halls fall into this category.
This is the first SPJST dance hall. This is a very typical picture of whatever event it is. Everybody’s there. Here’s the band. It’s very patriotic both to the culture they came from and to America. These are beautiful halls. This is unusual but it has actual windows. There he is, you can see the actual windows, so that’s a neat event.
A surprising number of our most interesting halls are gun clubs. In fact the oldest gun club in the United States is [inaudible 00:19:58], which has a beautiful hall. These guys would go from, they’d have a shoot and maybe even a march around the area and the shoot and then the BBQ and then have a big dance. Of course children are a big part of the whole dance hall scene, even up till today. Then here’s a bunch of guys. They must’ve heard about the Republican primary. They’re going to have their own party. Also, notice the siding and the metal shutters or flags like John was talking about, so very similar. Notice the amount of brass instruments. He will cover a lot of that, I’m not going to get into that. There’s some more. Now this is a round hall. There’s some deer antlers right there. This is a pretty nice hall. It has a metal roof. Steve what is that? Is this Bartlett?
Some of the halls are not just a simple rural barn type but they’re really high end. We learn more and more about some of these. This is probably the queen of Texas dance halls. It’s the Garten Verein in Galveston, which would’ve been the gateway of German immigration in Texas. This is a fabulous octagonal dance hall from 1880. This is a little Czech hall at a church, so this is one associated with a church festival, the second best sausage in the United States.
This is a little hall called [inaudible 00:22:13] Hall. Built by a German and then used over time mostly by Czech immigrants. Barn type so now we’ll get a little bit into the types. This is a barn type. This is very classic style with the lift up window collapse, some metal siding, it’s open. This is one of the most amazing halls you will ever see. This is called [inaudible 00:22:58] and it’s in the German hill country. It uses a tied bowstring arch. This is common in quite a few of the German halls, you use this tie arch so there’s a iron rod and then this beautiful built up arch. Quite a few of the German … It’s a sign. If you see this you say, “Oh, it must be German.”
This is a little bit simpler, more elegant. This is 1886. It’s in a different part of the state. Also, German origin. Again it’s a tied arch but this uses laminated bow if you will. It’s a very pretty building. Same construction, part of this building is 1879, but this is unusual to have a ceiling. It’s the same basic idea.
This is a little bit different style. This is Rice Park. That’s an African American hall. It’s built about 1930 or 40.
Speaker 4: 48.
Patrick Sparks: 1948. Very popular place for Juneteenth celebrations and dances and still a viable place, good frame. The opposite of that our course is from the Juke Joint. This is in east Texas. It falls kind of outside of the … This is more canon I think to what you find in Louisiana. This is a very important place in terms of the musicians, blues musicians. Of course it’s disrepair.
Some of the halls are 2 story. This is a 2 story wood frame type. This was built by an individual and is still being run by his daughter who’s getting on in years. Interestingly enough there’s another hall across the road. In the town, that’s all there is in the town is the 2 dance halls. They’re both Czech halls by the way.
This is Cat Spring Agricultural Society Pavillion. Stephanie Doodle is an expert on round halls. I think your dissertation was on … Did you do you dissertation on round halls? Yeah. One of the things is that this is a peculiar and interesting subset. I’m going to guess there’s about 30 of these maybe. Steve has uncovered several.
Speaker 4: There has been 30, so not all.
Patrick Sparks: Yeah, about maybe half of that is still standing. This is the inside of one that burnt, unfortunately. This is a gun club, again it’s a very nice big hall. It’s about maybe 10,000 square feet tall. It’s a beautiful hall. It’s still an active gun club. This is another gun club. This is sort of two halves. What do we call this? This is like an elongated round hall with a cross gate in the middle. It has real windows, so this is another sign we look for, distinctive, a character defining trait is what type of windows you have. It’s real windows.
This is a Czech hall. Nada means hope in Czech. This is kind of typical siding out in the hill country, metal siding on wood frame. We look at the setting of course, like we talked about yesterday. Many, many of the halls were rural setting or small town. This is in the earliest Polish settlement in the United States at Panna Maria. Again, how the windows create ventilation. Each one is different. I find it fascinating to see how they open in different directions, they’re different sizes and each hall has a different latching and propping mechanism. Whatever they came up with. Some of them are really fascinating. The floor. That’s edge grain pine. Out here you’re going to have Cyprus of course.
Just to come close to wrapping it up, to nominilize on what John was saying is you have to give some thought on how we define a dance hall. I found it real interesting. I think we’re similarly defining a hall, only a couple of differences. Of course again, the idea of this isn’t to say, “Oh well the other kinds of halls are not good”. It’s just to define what we’re talking about with these new immigrant halls.
These are purposely built as social or community or association halls. They’re built to house some function that’s not dancing. They’re built by identifiable ethnic group, immigrant group, whichever it is. The social dancing is a characteristic activity. Just like what John was saying, the halls a lot of them were not built to host dancing only. They had other functions. Distinct from night clubs, honky tonks and bars, the purpose in the time period starting very early, 1850’s, the same purpose is the development of the mind, body and sociability. In these central European groups this is a very important concept. One other thing is the welcome presence of children. That’s really a big difference between a honky tonk and a Texas dance hall. Everybody feels good about bringing their kids to a dance hall, just like on your [inaudible 00:31:01]. Right?
The dance floor is usually large in proportion to the size of the building. It’s a major characteristic. In a honky tonk the dance floor may be just a very small area, but in the dance hall it’s the biggest piece usually. Then, just like John said, it’s got to be this. Now a days of course you might find a juke box but traditionally that’s it. Of course it goes without saying social dancing this. That kind of dancing is a 19th century European phenomenon. It came to the United States in the immigration population and it stuck more in south Texas, northern Mexico, Louisiana, I think than in any other part of the country, even though the population was the same.
Built mostly by central European immigrants during the development of the southwestern frontier, the dance halls of Texas represent a unique lens through which to study Texas history and culture. Most are rural wood framed buildings, without interior decoration, yet possess a simple elegance.
Today we know of over five hundred halls (extant and lost). At one time there may have been as many as one thousand. The earliest halls were built c.1850, followed by appearance of large numbers of halls by the 1870s, with the building of halls declining after the 1930s.
The traditional dance halls of Texas are found in all major ethnic groups: German, Czech, Polish, Tejano, and African-American. They can be see, too, as part of a broader pattern of traditional music and dancing that, perhaps due to isolation, has persisted on the Gulf Coast from Mobile to Brownsville for over 150 years.
This presentation will explore the definition of the Texas dance hall; how the halls are distinct from other venues such as night clubs, honky-tonks, and bars; typical dance hall architectural types; and the social and cultural contribution of the halls to the heritage of the Lone Star State.
Patrick Sparks is co-founder and former president of Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc. He is also president of Sparks Engineering, Inc., a consulting firm based in San Antonio, Texas, specializing in the preservation of historic structures. He is a former director of the Association for Preservation Technology; a professional fellow of the Center for Heritage Conservation at Texas A&M University; and an expert member of ISCARSAH, an international committee on structural conservation.