City On A Hill: Tanz(hallen) Im Mai

By May 11, 2014 on the "City on a Hill" blog at


Yesterday I had the opportunity to do something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, although I hadn't really been aware how much I'd wanted to do it. I've known Steve Dean for a long time, ever since he and his mother were running the Aus-Tex Lounge, one of innumerable clubs that I used to stop into on my rounds as the music guy for the Austin American-Statesman 35 years ago. Thanks to Facebook, I've discovered his fascination with old Texas dancehalls and their preservation, and when I was teaching my history of Austin music course through UT (and I'll be doing it again in August), I had him and a friend of his come in to talk about the 1950s country dance hall scene (and the formidable Harold McMillan to discuss Austin's East Side blues scene, but that's another blog-post).  I was astounded by how much he'd learned, and discovered that he had a book coming out, the first of several volumes that'll cover the entire state.

So when he announced he was doing a tour of central Texas dancehalls on May 10, I got on board. Originally there were going to be something like 15 people, but the larger block of participants had to change to another date, so I was told to be at the Midway Food Park at 9:30 am.  And I would have been, if Google Maps hadn't decided it was just over a cliff about six miles from where it actually is. I burned up a lot of gas finding it,  but just as I gave up and was on my way back home, I realized I'd driven past it almost an hour ago, and found my way in. Fortunately, problems at the vehicle rental company delayed things, and I drove up to find Steve and his friend Sherry (who was going to drive) helping a pair of documentary filmmakers pack their gear into a Ford Explorer. At about 10:15, we hit the road.

First stop was Hye, population maybe 105, owned by two entrepreneurial brothers who have decided to turn what there is of it into a roadside attraction. It's mostly a footnote of American postal history, in that Lyndon Johnson, who grew up nearby, is said to have mailed a letter there when he was four years old, no doubt asking someone to vote for him for something. There was a chili cookoff setting up when we got there and the air smelled great.

Steve hustles to get into the Hye Market. Must've been the bacon bread

Inside the market was a cornicopia of food and drink all laid out for tasting -- and sale, of course. I took a pass on the craft beers, locally-distilled whiskey, wine, and vodka, but checked out the salsa, spaghetti sauce, and barbeque sauce, all sopped up with the excellent breads (overpriced at $6.75 a loaf) on sale there.

What we were there for, though, was this:

Hye Dancehall, fallen on hard times

As there would be at most of the halls we subsequently visited, there was someone to let us in and reminisce about childhood nights spent falling asleep to the music from the stage. There are plans to rescue this hall and turn it back into a venue for music in about two years. Hye's on a well-travelled patch of highway, so unlike so many of the stories Steve tells, this one has a shot of success.

Our next hall was in beautiful downtown Albert, where a renovated hall awaited us next door to a tiny beer-joint.

Albert Hall. There will be no Beatles jokes, please

Albert Hall, interior

The whole town was sold to an Austin businessman ten years ago, and he put it up for sale on eBay, only to get a winning bid from an Italian who never paid up. Like most halls, this one has live music on a regular basis, usually once a month. The Albert Ice House next door is a popular hangout for locals and passers-by, but I remain suspicious of the food trailer parked next to it, which offers french fries with goat cheese. Although, come to think of it, goats do feature on some of the farms we passed.

Next up was a place I'd as soon have missed, but the film crew obviously needed it. Luckenbach, Texas, really does exist, and Waylon Jennings' hit song put it on the map shortly after I visited it in September, 1976 and interviewed Hondo Crouch, its alleged only inhabitant and front-man for its legend. I don't remember where we sat and had our chat, but he did his charming thing, there was nobody else around except for a friend of mine who'd driven down to Texas from Alaska when she'd heard I was doing a story on Texas and would be seeing Willie Nelson in the process, and who burst into tears the next morning at the La Reyna Bakery on S. 1st in Austin as I was reading the paper: apparently not long after we'd left Hondo had succumbed to a massive heart attack and died, and his obituary was on the page facing her.

Today, it's the Central Texas tourist trap to end all tourist traps (if only!),  although for some reason there were only a couple of hundred people there yesterday.

Luckenbach Hall from a distance. To the right, parked motorcycles, tourists, food trailer not featuring goat cheese. 

Interior. Rosie Flores had played the night before

Somehow we temporarily lost our documentarians there, so it took us nearly forever to get out of Luckenbach. If you're planning on visiting the Hill Country, I hope you can take some hints from this post to find other places to visit.

Steve was a little concerned at this point because we'd told the folks in Grapetown that we were going to be there at 3, and it was that time when we pulled out of Luckenbach. Despite there only being 76 people in Grapetown these days, the reason for the dancehall is still active:

Shootin' at stuff since 1887

This whole part of Texas is rich in Texas-German history, since a bunch of settlers started arriving from Germany in the 1840s and only increased with the failure of the 1848 revolution, when many families wanted to escape mandatory conversion to the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, the Prussian state religion, and the military conscription that went with it. All manner of religious nonconformists flocked to Texas and, being Germans, immediately started building breweries, making sausage, and forming singing and gymnastic and shooting Vereins, or non-profit organizations. Each year, the Grapetown Eintracht Schuetzen Verein (United Shooting Club) held a massive fund-raiser/dance/shooting championship/barbeque that lasted an entire weekend, and built a dancehall to go with it, which was used for weddings and other celebrations during the summer. It's still in pretty good shape, but so is the Verein.

Steve gets the story from a Verein vet

Grapetown School

Grapetown's other building

Bikers love the Hill Country, so just down the road from Grapetown a guy from Austin who had the brilliant idea of opening a Hooters clone called Bikinis decided to build a Bikinis in a town which he bought and renamed Bikinis, building a dancehall there. To the credit of the motorcycle enthusiasts of the world, they rarely seem inclined to stop for a beverage there, and the locals don't seem to be in mourning over this. Recently, his Bikinis location in San Antonio burned to the ground. If, for some reason, you want to experience Bikinis, Texas, I suggest you do so very soon.

Steve's been booking shows in Twin Sisters Dance Hall. so that was our next stop after a very late lunch or early dinner at a place called Hillbillyz, which featured wooden doors leading to the kitchen and prep area made out of a 1941 or 1948 Oldsmobile woody, some rather provocative taxidermy involving two coyotes, some relaxed bikers, and some okay barbeque. Twin Sisters is named after a pair of extinct volcanoes visible from the highway as you approach, and its dance hall is amazing.

Twin Sisters Hall

The inside is capacious, and Steve managed to talk a couple of the guys standing around to get out a couple of ladders and put down the curtain in front of the stage for the first time in ages.

Wanna buy a Hudson? A Kaiser? Go to your eternal rest in a Packard hearse?

This is the first curtain like this I've seen outside of a museum in decades. Each of those boxes or circles advertises a local business, who helped pay for the painting and manufacture of the curtain (made out of duck cloth in Mexia, Texas in this case). From the phone numbers and goods listed for sale, this would appear to date back...well, several years. Early '50s, to judge from the automobiles listed. The board above the stage lists some somewhat newer merchants, but it, too, has some age on it. The place needs some work, but it's getting it, and the folks who run it are as nice as can be.

Steve had deccided on a magnificent finale, so we drove to Anhalt Hall, which is officially in Spring Branch, and is a mammoth facility overseen by the Germania Farmers Verein. Apparently there was once an actual Anhalt, Texas, and this building, on the edge of the Verein's property, may be what's left of it:

The building is huge, and has been added onto many times since the first structure was built (for a whopping $344) in 1879. Steve had a key, but most of the lights weren't accessible, so we poked around in the dark. The main hall is, as you'd expect, cavernous.

The bar area was also huge (as is to be expected: the Farmers Verein lobbied heavily against Prohibition, as did much of German-Czech central Texas)

I'll have a Grand Prize, please

and the kitchen was finally outgrown a decade ago and housed in another building entirely. The stage (on which Asleep at the Wheel performs at a yearly benefit for Texas Dancehall Preservation) has a fence in front of it, and the fact that old-timers continue to dance there (also obvious from the performers for the Maifest currently up on the hall's website) is seen on this sign.

But if you look above that sign (there's another banning t-shirts and bluejeans, among other clothing), you'll see a truly remarkable sight: curved beams made from timber left to soak in the river and gently coaxed into the arches that still support the roof today.

The sun was setting as we began the journey home, but my head was buzzing with Texas history and amazing scenery (which I didn't photograph because we were in the car when it was surrounding us). It was, as Steve noted earlier in the day, a perfect time to be in the Hill Country, with relatively low temperatures, moderate breezes ventilating dance halls, beer joints, and biker barbeques alike, and the last cycle of the wildflower season, with firewheels (a daisy-strawflower-like plant), poppies, thistles, and especially prickly pear cacti in riotous bloom. It was just icing on the cake that, as I left Midway, I discovered a way to get home in about ten minutes. To hell with Google Maps.