It’s a cool Saturday evening in a small Texas town. The air blows just enough to put a sway in the branches of surrounding oak trees as they cast shadows on the gravel parking lot. Cars wind down the country road, all headed for the same destination – an old Texas Dance Hall.
Usually a one-story structure made of wood, tin and memories, these halls dot the Central Texas landscape, mimicking the migration of the early German and Czech settlers who built them.
From Schulenburg to Luckenbach, Austin to Goliad, the Lone Star State’s historic dance halls often served multiple purposes, including community center, church hall, gun club, grocery store and, in one case, the local opera house. But when the weekend came, it was time to wind down the workday and kick up your heels.
Whether the music came from local bands or big names, certain dances held true – the schottische, the polka, the cotton-eyed Joe and the waltz. Many modern-day country crooners got their start in these old dance halls, including George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Garth Brooks.
Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc. (TDHP) is dedicated to saving these historic structures and the music and culture that is still found in them.
Their efforts showcase the important role dance halls played – and are still playing – across the Lone Star State. Unique Texas treasures, dance halls serve as gathering spots for socializing with neighbors, dancing a two-step, and drinking an ice-cold beer on a warm summer night.
A long-time staple in – and supporter of – old Texas dance halls is Lone Star Beer, the “National Beer of Texas.” Since 1883, when Adolphus Busch and his partners began brewing beer at the state’s first mechanized brewery in San Antonio, Lone Star has been woven into the fabric of Texas Dance Hall history.
In appreciation of that fact, Lone Star Beer has launched the “Tabs For Texas” (insert hyperlink?) campaign to demonstrate its appreciation for the TDHP’s mission: Saving historic Texas dance halls.
From now through March 31, each 12- and 16-ounce can of Lone Star Beer will feature either a red or blue pull-tab. Now do the “Tabs for Texas Two-Step” by stepping up to the bar and ordering a Lone Star, then step over to the large acrylic boot (located at more than 228 retailers and dance halls statewide) and drop it in. For each tab tossed into a boot, one dollar will be donated to TDHP and its efforts to keep Texas Dance Halls around for this generation and those to come.
So, just where are some of these fabled venues that will allow you to pull a tab for Texas history? Below are descriptions and stories for a select few, but a full list can be found at the TDHP website.
Most of these structures follow a basic design: Pitched roof angling down to flat-roof sides, allowing for one big dance floor in the middle, a stage at the front, and seating on either side. Because many of the halls are not air-conditioned, many boast large window
flaps along the side walls that can be propped up, welcoming in a refreshing cross breeze to keep the dancers cool as they slide along a sawdust-sprinkled floor.
These overviews are bunched into two main areas of the Texas Hill Country, so pick a region and make a weekend of it. A night in an historic dance hall with music, friends, boot-scootin’ and Lone Star beer is the perfect recipe for a good time in Texas!
WXSW of Austin
Follow 290 West out of Austin and you’ll find yourself in Johnson City, which might be a good anchor town for your Dance Hall visits. Boyhood home of President Lyndon B. Johnson, it offers some fine B&Bs, including one where you can rent a tricked-out airstream. And don’t miss a tour of the LBJ Ranch.
Keep driving into the town of Fredericksburg to see more of historic Texas. Here you will find lodging options along with restaurants serving some great German food and other Hill Country fare. One to try is The Peach Tree, where you’ll find homemade soups, salads and sandwiches, along with a gift gallery full of fun Texas-themed treasures.
To start, let’s talk about two venues that sound similar, but actually are named for two different features of the Hill Country landscape.
Twin Sisters Dance Hall, Blanco
Driving south on Highway 281, six miles out of Blanco, you’ll see two hills that look like, well, twins. Those mark the location of – and the namesake for — Twin Sisters Dance Hall.
The town of Twin Sisters was established in 1854 by a homesteader on the Little Blanco River. Other settlers followed, and by 1890 the town had become the social center for German immigrants to the area.
One resident named Max Krueger took the “social” part seriously, building a store, bowling alley, brewery and dance hall. While a drought and other issues have reduced the town’s population, the dance hall has remained a strong draw for two-steppin’ fans from around the state.
Large American and Texas flags hang over the entrance. Picnic-style tables fill with patrons bringing picnic-style fare to go with beverages from the bar. Around the perimeter are electric fans – “dance hall AC” – while twinkle lights in the rafters invite couples to the floor.
Sisterdale Dancehall, Sisterdale, TX (near Blanco)
This “sister” dance hall is named after the small valley – or “dale” – between the East and West Sister Creeks. Early settlers here in the mid-to late-1800s were a cultured bunch, constructing the building to serve as meeting hall and Opera House. Later, it became a full-time dance hall that was the center of social life for the community.
Through the years, a wide variety of music has resounded from these walls, including traditional country as well as folk, rock, Tejano and Americana. When the band takes a break, family and friends can exit to the back patio, or take a stroll beneath a sprawling canopy of beautiful old oak trees.
Kendalia Halle, Kendalia, TX, (Near Blanco)
Kendalia Halle, thought by many to have one of the best dance floors in Texas, was built in 1903 out of red fir lumber that was shipped from Oregon. As many of these structures did, Kendalia Halle offered a variety of entertainment, like plays, family gatherings and, of course, dancing.
Back then, homesteads and ranches were a long wagon-ride away from just about everywhere, so a “dance” became a weekend event. People brought food and drink to share, and children slept on the benches surrounding the dance floor. Legend holds that, if someone was “over-served” and got rambunctious, he was chained to the tree outside until he sobered up.
Kendalia still schedules regular Saturday night dances, and the ticket price includes free BBQ tacos — while they last!
Albert Ice House and Dance Hall, Albert, TX (Near Fredericksburg)
The towns of Albert and Luckenbach have a connection that started back in the late 1800s with a postmistress named Minnie. When she and her brother, the Reverend August Engel, established their township, Minnie filed the post office papers using her fiance’s name, Albert “Luckenbach.”
In 1892, when Albert and Minnie sold their store and moved 20 miles east to Martinsburg, the little town was renamed “Albert” in a move that has Minnie the postmistress’ fingers all over it.
The Albert Ice House – a name once given to establishments that sold ice as well as other groceries and drinks – now features a bar and live music. The Albert Dance Hall is just across a gravel road. It was built in 1922 and showcased German brass bands along with Saturday night dances.
Inside, the dance floor is surrounded by a row of stools behind a makeshift bar-height table that allows those taking a break to watch the dancers out on the floor. Outside are more tables under lights in the trees, a great place to sip a cold one and socialize a bit.
THE SAN ANTONIO VICINITY
Once Texas’ independence was settled in 1842, German and Czech settlers came to the San Antonio area in droves. So many of the town names bear witness – Poth, New Berlin, Yancey, Boerne, New Braunfels.
At the same time, several of the towns established when Texas was part of Mexico and Spain – or those named after Mexican heroes of the Revolution – were sprinkled in – Sequin, Castroville, Gonzales, Hondo, Helotes.
This made for a blending of cultures that is still evident today in the region’s architecture, food, language and, of course, music.
That’s why so many of the Dance Halls in the San Antonio area will feature straight-up country music one night, and the hottest Tejano band the next. One serves BBQ and the other specializes in tamales. It’s all good, it all draws the crowds, and it’s all Texas.
Gruene Hall, Gruene, TX
Built in 1878, Gruene Hall lays claim to being Texas’ oldest continually operating dance hall. The hall still looks pretty much the way it did when first built – the pitched tin roof and side flaps to bring in the breeze. Guests can still see some of the advertising signs that graced the walls back in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Gruene is perhaps the most famous Texas Dance Hall, having drawn such big names as Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, George Strait, LeAnn Rimes — even Kevin Costner and his band. On any given weekend, though, you’re bound to find some of the best in local singer/songwriters as well. There’s plenty of room to dance on the Hall’s giant dance floor, after which you can relax in its equally large outdoor beer garden.
Gruene is a flourishing town, with lodging, restaurants, antiques and gift stores, along with its very own winery. Throw in a float down the Guadalupe River and you have the makings of a perfect Texas weekend.
Floore Country Store, Helotes, TX
Opened in 1942 by John T. Floore, this venue has been rocking music fans of every type for 75 years. Known as the “musical birthplace” for Willie Nelson – who partnered with Floore in the original Willie Nelson Music Company – Floore’s has also hosted the likes of Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and many more.
The décor at Floore’s is strictly “Texas Dance Hall Chic” with the wooden dance floor, boots hanging from the ceiling rafters, and signs for everything from a Lone Star beer to one touting the World’s Best Homemade Tamales. There’s even a notice hand-painted directly on the wall: $100 Fine for Fighting.
Check the website for live music, but if you’re low on cash, the Family Night Dances each Sunday are usually free.
Quihi Gun Club and Dance Hall, Quihi, TX
In 1890, two German immigrants organized the Quihi (pronounced kee-hee) Schuetzen (shooting) Verein (club). Originally built to repel Indian attacks, the Quihi Gun Club is the oldest continuous running gun club in the United States. It is also a fine Texas Dance Hall.
Built between the Quihi and Elm Creeks, which tend to flood often, the Quihi Dance Hall is built on cedar posts six-feet high. Nowadays, it’s flooded with eager fans of great live music. Dances are held every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month and attract visitors from around the world.
The Quihi Gun Club still exists, boasting 600 members. Besides monthly meetings, the club holds an annual turkey shoot that helps fund the dance hall events. So while you’re spinning around the dance floor, give a little “yeehaw” for the turkeys.
Schroeder Hall, Goliad, TX
First settled in the 1840s, this area came to be known as Germantown, reflecting the heritage of the majority of its residents. In 1918, however, anti-German sentiment caused by World War I led the residents to rename the community Schroeder, in honor of Paul Schroeder, the first townsman killed in the war.
The Schroeder Dance Hall was built in 1890. Construction soon followed on a cotton gin and gristmill in 1895.
Billed as “the second oldest dance hall in Texas,” Schroeder Hall has the requisite dance floor, neon beer signs, and a separate “saloon” with a wood-burning stove and an old brick floor. It’s an ideal space to play a game of checkers, or to enjoy your very own “world famous” Schroeder Burger.