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Dance hall buff featured at book signing Saturday

By Melissa Crowe
July 16, 2014 at 2:16 a.m.
Updated July 17, 2014 at 2:17 a.m.

Schroeder Dance Hall was voted the  best live music venue in the Victoria Advocate's  2013 Best of the Best contest. The dance hall was also voted best place to dance.

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: Stephen Dean book signing

WHEN: Noon-4 p.m. Saturday

• WHERE: Hastings Entertainment, 5206 N. Navarro St., Victoria

• Books are available at Hastings, on Amazon and by contacting the author directly.

The iconic structures of Texas' country music are taking center stage in a new book by Stephen Dean.

The book, released June 9 through Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, is the first in a series on the state's historic dance halls.

While fire and decay have ravaged many of Texas' historic dance halls, Dean, the new manager of Schroeder Hall in Goliad, resists the allure of shiny and new. He opts instead to preserve the venues' extravagant workmanship, truss ceilings and walls of windows that welcomed in summer breezes on Saturday night dances.

The author is available Saturday at Hastings for a book signing on "Historic Dance Halls of East Central Texas," which features historical halls across Victoria, Austin, Colorado, DeWitt, Fayette, Goliad, Gonzales, Lavaca and Washington counties.

On the heels of this release, Dean is already working on another history of the halls, documenting the halls' social and historical significance in a book deal with the University of Texas Press.

He took a few minutes recently to talked a little about the book and local dance hall history.

You've been adamant about correcting a long-standing misconception that Schroeder Hall is the second oldest dance hall. Which is the oldest?

You can't clear it up. That's like asking who is the first person to settle Texas.

Everybody wants to forget about the indigenous Indians.

What's the oldest dance hall that's still standing that has continuously had live music?

The Saengerrunde Hall attached to Scholz Beer Garden in Austin was established in the 1860s. You might find a pier-beam from 1860s, but it has all been renovated.

Twin Sisters in Blanco could lay some claim to the oldest. It stands in its original spot, still has original lumber, still has dances, and it's eight years older than Gruene Hall.

It's hard to pinpoint which is the oldest in Texas, but there's close to 100 dance halls that are older than Schroeder. Sengelmann Hall in Schulenburg was built originally in 1878, but it burned down and was rebuilt in the 1880s.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and I hope I don't get tarred and feathered and run out of town, but Schroeder Hall isn't the second-oldest.

You grew up in beer joints. How has music been a part of your life?

I grew up in the 50s. A lot of the music was segregated, but the juke boxes were integrated.

I grew up listening to that jukebox - Jimmy Reed and Fats Domino - it became a huge part of what I became later.

As I started approaching my teenage years, I wanted to be Elvis Presley, so I started taking guitar lessons. I joined a band in junior high and played drums.

Anything with music interested me.

I formed a rockabilly band, and I could always lean on my mother and her friends who had these honky-tonks and would let their kids bring a band in.

Music was always a huge part of what I was and who I am.

I went off to college and continued going out to hear live music. As soon as I was in my third year of college, I knew I wasn't going to be a psychologist, which is what I thought I would be. I was putting together concerts, managing bands and I was making money. It was what I wanted to do.

I quit college in my junior year, moved down to Austin and opened up a rare records shop on Sixth Street. ...

I just immersed myself in the Texas music scene and culture and loved everything about where I was and the music I was absorbing. I love Texas history, and I had heard about these dance halls, so I started going to them.

What inspired you to write this book?

It needed to be done. The problem with Texas dance halls is that there is so little documentation about them, and yet it is one of the most important facets of our Texas history.

Dance halls were born before the rise or birth of what we call Texas music today.

Because of these Texas dance halls - the first historic ones being built in the 1860s - once the railroad started connecting towns together, a lot of the German and Czech immigrants started building these dance halls and started these brass bands.

They eventually morphed into country and western dance halls.

Conjunto and western swing was born in Texas dance halls.

Had it not been for these dance halls, not only would we not have Texas music as we know it today, but it also would have been harder for these early immigrants to survive.

It was where they shared ideas, finances and farming information. It was how they preserved their culture, retained their language and customs. It was probably the most integral piece of the puzzle of these early settlements.

What was your research process during the decade you worked on the book?

There's an amazing amount of materials in county libraries.

If you lived in Victoria County all your life and all of a sudden you've got all these pictures - maybe your father was a congressman or buffalo runner - you wind up giving all this history to your county library. In the state archives, it gets lost or buried. There's a wealth of information in the small community libraries.

I visited all the libraries, but I also went to all the halls. As soon as you meet one person, they tell you about another person and another person.

I just interviewed as many people as I could and interviewed musicians, former owners of the dance halls, associations or people who helped book the place. You meet people and they tell you about their grandparents who might have been avid dancers, so you go to the rest homes.

You immerse yourself in it.

In the book, you document hundreds of dance halls, how many have you visited?

I've been to about 900.

Some are not classic dance halls, and a lot of them were also fraternal halls that had multi-uses.

There's a lot of Sons of Hermann halls that were built for multiple purposes - Czech halls that were dominated by insurance companies, but Saturday nights were dances.

American Legion halls proliferated after World War II.

German gymnastics clubs that were also dance halls Saturday nights.

It seems that as the South integrated, country music and these dance halls evolved with it. Is Victoria's own Club Westerner, which has long been run by a local Hispanic family, an example of that?

The Villafranca family brought a whole new element to the music tradition.

It was originally owned by a white man; I forget his name, but he ran it for 15 years as "Pleasure Island." It was a tourist destination with a pool, and the hall was built as kind of a resort.

Villafranca started booking Tejano music in the 1950s, right about the time it was poking its head up in Texas music. He was in the forefront of the change in Texas dance halls.

Because of that, late arrival of Hispanics doing that, that culture is still more ingrained in the Texas culture. Anglos had TV and MTV and all these other distractions, and it's not the center of the community like it used to be.

Does the evolution of dance halls follow the evolution of country music?

In the deep South, you had deep racial divisions. The blacks were segregated, and even after Reconstruction, you later had a lot of racial tensions still with poll taxes and laws that "kept the black man in his place."

This happened in Texas to a degree, particularly in the eastern part of the state, where the plantation mentality was very prevalent.

It was also a religious thing with Texas being dominated by Baptists and Protestants.

In Central Texas, you had Catholics and Lutherans who didn't have problems with dancing and beer drinking.

Because Texas was so difficult to survive in those early years, immigrants from Eastern Europe were of a farmer culture; they were not very well-to-do. They came because of free land and freedom from oppression.

They knew what it was like to be oppressed like many of these Mexicans who had moved north into Texas, and later, freed slaves.

They depended on each other for survival.

At that time, nobody had any money. They came together a little more in the state until the predominant Southern United States mentality started dominating.

After Reconstruction, that started changing land grants and started segregating the people again.

What you saw was the evolution of brass bands to country bands and polka bands. These cultures started melding and borrowing from each other.

They were playing together before it was legal to go to school together or drink out of the same fountains.

What's on the horizon for you and your book career?

East Central Texas is where most of the significant early dance halls originated, and for some reason the Hill Country has garnered a much larger cache, articles extolling the Hill Country this or that, and now, with the wine country there, it is taking off. This area has so much history and beauty that it needs a bigger spotlight on it.

When it comes to the culture, it is still closer to the source here than there. Now, that doesn't mean the Hill Country isn't important because that is my next book, but in this area, there are more dance halls clustered together than anywhere in the state.

Our culture being is lost as we are losing our 80- and 90-year-olds. Even the '60s garage stuff needs to be preserved. It was the first generation of "do it yourself."

Arcadia surprised me because not only am I getting to do these books on dance halls, I'm getting to do a book on early music in Austin from the 1930s through 1950s.

I think the important part about this book and the reason I did this one first is I'm a huge supporter of all this area between Austin, Houston and Corpus Christi.

This is where everybody from Eastern European origins who started these dance halls came in through Indianola or Galveston and had to walk or ride ox and cart to where they were going to settle.

This is where all these little towns started happening.

Now that you've taken over management of Schroeder Hall, what do you see in its future?

My idea is to get it on a good firm foundation, find someone young who has the same passion and I can teach the elements to.

I want to keep the community happy, keep the dance hall financially stable and put our foot into the 21st century. The culture and history is an important part of the landscape.

A lot of these dance halls are dwindling and not being used as much. There's tons of documentation about the courthouses and the churches, but people didn't write about the dance halls at the time.

The dance halls weren't road houses or honky-tonks; they were family places in the early days and well into the 1950s. The drinking was done on the outside.

We want to retain that family element and the dance culture. There's nothing wrong with the beer culture, but we want to preserve the dance culture.

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