Sunday, March 29, 2015

Texas Dance Halls, Part Two

The last bitter, rainy, windy day passed. The sun came out more frequently. This would probably be a problem later on, but for the moment it looked good. What better way to celebrate than with the second half of Steve Dean's dance hall tour, this time of the eastern end of the trip?

This part of Texas is one I haven't spent much time in, although I have been to Schulenberg in the company of the present Count Studeman von der Schulenberg (better known to his friends as Fred) and would often break the journey back home from Louisiana at the now-vanished Bon Ton in La Grange for their superlative fried chicken.

This was also the part of Texas that Steve has documented in his only (so far) book, Historic Dance Halls of East Central Texas, available in Austin at your favorite independent book store (or that link). Just reading that book made me want to jump in the car and head out there, but I was more than happy to be a passenger with a bunch of other people, like last time, and just ride along.

As we did last time, we headed out from the Midway Food Park, where Steve books the entertainment, and headed east out of Austin. We had a full van this time, 13 of us, all history buffs or Texana fans, apparently, although the couple next to me were dance fans and seemed to have a project of dancing in as many Texas dance halls and honky-tonks as they could, and at the outset were already plotting to see if they'd be home in time to see the Bellamy Brothers in the evening. Our driver was Erik McCowan, who's still working on his documentary about dance halls, which should be a doozie once it's finished. Steve usefully defined the difference as being "A dance hall you go to to dance with your wife, but a honky-tonk you go to to dance with someone else's wife," as concise and useful a definition as I've heard. During the day, as we went from one dance hall to another, he'd also point out legendary honky-tonks, most of which were no longer operating, but emanated history and good-natured sleaze.

The main difference between what we'd see today, as opposed to what we saw last time, was that Czech-Tex was added to the mix. The Hill Country is pretty solidly populated with the descendants of German immigrants, and although when the immigration boom happened, there was only a subtle difference between German and Czech (go look up the Sudetenland, if you want), there being no Czechoslovakia at the time, these settlers, mostly from Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were different in that they were solidly Catholic (the Germans were Protestant and Catholic, depending on whether they were from the north or the south), and their foodways were subtly different.

Our first stop was Kovar, a fly-speck so small that nobody has ever included it in a census, a Czech-Moravian settlement with an active SPJST (Slavonic Benevolent Society of the State of Texas) chapter at one time. There's still not much in the way of Kovar, but the SPJST Hall, is still there, and in pretty good shape. When we arrived, it was preparing for someone's Golden Anniversary party, and truth to tell, it wasn't much.

It doesn't even have the SPJST seal on it, but at least it's still in use.

Our next stop was an early lunch in Smithville, which connoisseurs of barbeque will realize meant a stop at Zimmerhansel's. This relatively unsung barbeque joint is one of the best in the state, and if it were in Austin, would give healthy competition to Franklin's for crowds. But the servers are quick and efficient, and if you order right, you can get a very memorable meal.

The good stuff is hiding under those onions

Unfortunately, I ordered wrong. Or part-wrong. The sides were utterly undistinguished, including the beans, but the brisket (I asked for half fatty and half lean) was astounding. The sausage, much raved-about in the online reviews, was the coarse-ground, underseasoned type found in a lot of barbeque joints in this area, and was only mildly improved by dipping it in the vinegary sauce. What was good, although I was afraid my teeth wouldn't be able to handle it, was the pork ribs, which a fellow-diner shared with me and was the cliched falling-off-the-bone excellent. So next time -- and there will be a next time -- I'll order small quantities of meat (mixed brisket, ribs) with one side. I've known about this place forever, thanks to my pal George Carver, but never made it out; Smithville never seemed that attractive to me. Silly me.

Erik exits, happy.

Where the action is: Zimmerhanzel's' pit, powered by post oak.
Next stop was Plum, Texas, pop. 95, host of the annual Plum Sausage Festival in June. Steve swears by Plum's sausage, but it's only available at the festival. Hmmm.

Plum in full bloom.
It sure didn't hurt that the recent rains have encouraged a fine bloom of seasonal wildflowers, which will continue (barring a freeze, which in a state loaded with climate deniers, Nature might yet impose just to show them), and this display was very patriotic, consisting of bluebonnets, some little white flower, and bright red Indian paintbrush. I also spooked a cluster of small frogs while taking this shot; they were hanging out in a culvert with water in it and leaping into darkness when they sensed my presence.

Plum's hall, again, wasn't very spectacular, but the surroundings were so nice I wasn't about to complain. Unlike the rest of the halls on this tour, the original settlers here came from Tennessee, and so were presumably Anglo Protestants, but the place soon was full of Moravians, who built the hall next to Sts. Peter and Paul church.

From here, we went to LaGrange, whose large fairground just out of town sits on a magnificent bluff above the Colorado River, totally invisible from any fairground attractions. It also has the spanking new Texas Czech Heritage Center, an archive of historical papers and photos which is expanding to a museum village just behind it with various buildings of interest to Texas Czech history in the process of restoration. The Pavillion is used in several events on the grounds, although as a relatively recent hall (1927) I didn't find it too interesting.

It is, however, big.

After leaving LaGrange, it was down another back road to another break, this time at the Rohan Meadery in Nechanitz. I'm not a big fan of mead, and after one small taste of what promised to be one of their varieties not infused with sweet fruit syrup (although a pure honey mead was, inexplicably, not available), I noted a nose of decay and a bunch of cloudy flavors and walked out to await the rest of the party on the porch. There was a huge white dog who'd greeted us, some guinea fowl making noise off by an outbuilding, and a bunch of chickens, some with elaborate leg feathers. There was a much smaller one who was chased away from the water dish by a very aggressive black chicken, and after a while I managed to coax it onto my lap.

What I saw.

What I imagine the chicken saw. 
And, refreshed by their mead-tasting, my fellow voyagers filed out and we were on our way to Cat Spring, where the Landwirtschaftliche Verein (Agricultural Society) erected a round (actually octagonal) dance hall in the 19th century. Thanks to an unusual community cohesiveness, this society is still in existence, with over 200 members, and was setting up for an event when we showed up. It's been dramatically renovated without harming the exterior, and you can dance in air-conditioned splendor when they have music.

The Germans, being German, had rules, though:

Translated from the Deutsch-Tex: The wearing of hats, spurs, smoking and chewing are forbidden in this hall. 
Cat Spring was an important German community, the first German settlement a lot of immigrants encountered after getting off the boat at Indianola or Galveston and heading towards the Hill Country, so it prospered by selling them supplies and provisions.

The history (click to enlarge, of course)
Germans just seem to naturally form associations, and so down the road apiece we pulled into Millheim, where the local Harmonie Verein built a hall in 1874, and built a new one in 1938.

The two chairs in the picture had just held two voluble and entertaining gentlemen who filled us in on the history and were eager to invite us to the Father's Day bash, where two tons of meat (including mutton) are cooked in an odd concrete trench and served to members and visitors.

The trench, minus glowing coals, brisket, pork, and mutton.

The history
Among the things the two guys yakked about with us was how pathetic the folks down the road at Peters were, especially after we told them that was our next stop. Oh, Peters could hardly draw flies at their Mother's Day barbecue! Those poor people! Well, we'd see about that, but I'd already begun considering coming back to Millheim for Father's Day, and Erik and I made a tentative plan at the end of the day.

Peters turned out to be another octagonal hall, surrounded by large trees -- and the stumps of others, since a violent wind-storm in 2001 severed a bunch of large boughs, one of which went through the roof --  and it dated from the end of the 19th century, built by a Schussverein, or shooting club, like the one in Grapetown we'd seen on the Hill Country tour. The Verein no longer exists, but the association now administers the hall, which is popular for Mexican 15th birthday celebrations and weddings. And that Mother's Day barbecue.

The local paper was supposed to be there to meet us, but instead they asked the folks from the Verein to do the honors, and at one point we all sat on the lip of the stage and grinned for a photo. The things people will do for the media!

Schneider Hall, though, our next stop, was a raging success story, mostly due to Amber Burris, a descendent of the four Schneider brothers on whose land it sits. In 2009, her younger sister Adrienne decided she wanted a deluxe wedding reception and they started clearing out the old hall, which had not only been a venue for dances, but also a meeting place for the local Farmers League. In 1941, it was shut down and used to store cotton, and then hay, so the girls had their work cut out for them. But after the wedding, Amber went into high gear, engaging social media, the site's proximity to Houston, and a clever feeling for marketing Texana into a publicity campaign that assures that the place is booked up nearly every week into the beginning of the summer and starting up again in the fall. Current pride of place goes to the new building containing the bathrooms, which are the equal of some I've seen in fine restaurants.

Deceptively funky: Schneider Hall
Amber admitted to being a garage-sale addict, and two corners of the hall bear her out with a wonderfully improvised lighting system:

Mason jars, Ball jars, and tea lights: this whole array may have cost two dollars.

Our last stop was Schulenburg, where Steve had assisted in the renovation, opening, and managing of Sengelmann Hall, a two-story dancehall that's attempting to be a tourist magnet in a town whose motto, last time I was there, was "Halfway to Everywhere!" Presumably someone snapped to the hidden meaning of this phrase, because it's changed. I was looking forward to getting there, not only to see how it had changed since my last visit, but because their annual Sausage Fest was underway. We cleverly managed to miss it, though, and it was even hard to snap a photo of the hall because the sun was making a blazing exit from the sky.

Kinda hard to miss. 
A bunch of vintage tractors (and one vintage car) were parked across the street, but the cookers had long packed up, won their prizes, and hauled their sausage home. Something of a street party was happening in the block the sun was zapping, but I didn't bother to go check it out because, like a number of our other passengers, I was bone-tired by now: one of the problems with Steve's enthusiasm is to assume it on the part of everyone, and since this turned into a 12-hour tour, it was too long by several hours. Also, having Erik making his film stretched out our time at places where there were people to meet us, because he wanted to interview them. I stayed around for some of these interviews because I found them interesting (as I assume the film will be) but not everyone else did. And I believe the couple headed to the Bellamy Brothers must have missed the first set.

* * *

Although the Hill Country tour was more scenic (East Texas is pretty flat), both tours had me thinking similar thoughts, but talking to the folks at Millheim and Peters really put one issue in stark relief. These places were largely built by communities, and sectors of those communities who identified themselves by reference to national origin, activity, or occupation. Since travel between towns was done by horse, and 20 miles was an average day's horse ride, that's where towns were, but starting in the 1920s, the car shortened those distances (although the state of Texas took a while improving the roads). Nonetheless, the community feeling remained, often bolstered by a statewide association of associations (the SPJST being the most obvious) or simply common interest (now it was easier for the singing groups to visit and compete with each other). 

World War II put the German communities through a lot of stress, although their loyalty to America was hard to question, and indeed Texans rarely equated a German-American neighbor with Hitler, even if he did speak Deutsch-Tex. But when men came back from the war, they'd seen a lot of the outside world, even if they hadn't shipped overseas, and mass media began to break down the kind of solidarity these people had felt for each other. The next generations saw this solidarity erode even further, especially as the young people left for good-paying jobs in the oil fields and the cities -- far better-paying than a family farm could offer. Even those who stayed saw no reason to engage with their forebears' culture, and the current generation seems to have no interest in it at all. This may well change as they grow older, but as they grow older, so will the majority of the current members of the Vereins who maintain these halls. The men we talked to at Millheim and Peters admitted it was hard to interest the younger generation in paying the nominal fee to belong, and at Millheim, they said that the only time younger folk showed up was when the night crew for the barbeque (they start the fire about 10pm for an 11am start to the food), and when the cooking was over, they disappeared. (Another thing to note is outside interference: the health authorities raided the sausage-making at Plum one year, although there had been no complaints and certainly no illness or deaths from eating sausage made in the traditional way, and the association had to comply with the rules). 

Community is one of America's vanishing resources, at least partially because it's in the interest of the forces attempting to take control of the country to keep its people atomized and stupid, by cutting back education, putting them at each others' throats on political and racial issues, and numbing them with cretinous entertainment, particularly on television. So far they're doing a magnificent job, but I can't help but feel that by entering into the world that the activities generated by the structures we visited yesterday represent, a key towards a contemporary definition of healthy community -- even temporary community -- people might see an alternative. To me, this alternative is vital, essential for putting American society back on track before the oligarchs and plutocrats have it totally at their mercy. That's why getting married at one of these places is a more optimistic thing to me than just the cliche of two people setting off on the journey of life, blah blah blah. The people who attend the reception get a glimpse of what community can do. A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but with enough buckets, you can start putting out a fire. 

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