The Disappearance of Dance Halls in Sheridan County | Destination

On Saturday nights, when Cretcia Ahern Overman was a girl, she would often wake up to the sound of stomping feet and roaring fiddles, banjos and guitars.

On those nights, Overman slept under a few chairs in the corner, on a makeshift bed of coats discarded during the evening festivities. When she stirred and opened her eyes, Overman saw nothing but pairs of feet, tied in nice shoes and sliding on the floor. Soon, an adult would pull Overman, blinking, from his nest among the stacked coats and onto the wide dance floor of the Arvada Community Hall.

Partygoers enjoyed watching the little ones dance, Overman linked up with local scholar Ariel Downing for his dissertation on the history of music in the Powder River Basin. When they weren’t tucked under chairs or tucked into the straw of a carriage bed, children – from toddlers to tweens – were carried onto the dance floor and made to swirl all night with the adults. .

There was a time in Sheridan County history when experiences like Overman’s were common, where dance halls – and dances – spotted the Sheridan County countryside and ranch families traveled from as far than Montana to join in the festivities. Families regularly pushed furniture or rolled carpets and danced until the wee hours of the morning. A publication by the Weston County Historical Society and the Weston County Museum indicates that these dances were ubiquitous in rural Wyoming from just after the statehood until the mid-1960s.

Throughout this period, dances and other musical gatherings were deeply woven into the fabric of ranch life, an important element of socializing that brought together friends and neighbors who may not see each other for months at a time. times, Downing explained.

“People on the ranches of northeast Wyoming generally recognize that music has an important place in their lives,” Downing wrote. “Whether they actively participate in musical pursuits or not, most…believe that they are a link in the chain of cowboy tradition, and almost all participate in some way in the music of the herding culture to which they belong.”

So what happened? Why have dance halls disappeared? Over the past hundred years or so, a few nails have been driven into the coffin of regular dances in Sheridan County, helping to demobilize the very dances that were once an integral part of life in the area.

The first was a series of arson attacks at a dance hall.

In the 1920s, the people of Sheridan took to building new dance halls in the southwestern part of the county.

The owners first erected the Big Horn Dance Hall, just past the town of Big Horn, in September 1923. It boasted a piano and a gleaming 60-by-100-foot dance floor. A July 1924 advertisement in the Sheridan Press-Enterprise inviting visitors to enter the room read, “You’d better cut your throat than miss this.”

Another venue, on Big Horn Avenue 3 miles south of Sheridan, was called Flores Pavilion. Its construction was nearing completion in September 1924, when Sheridan’s diary dubbed the “Fire Bug” first appeared.

It all started just after midnight on September 7, 1924, when the night watchman at the Big Horn Dance Hall awoke “to find the entire building was a mass of flame,” wrote a Post-Enterprise reporter at the time. The hall’s new piano and glittering dance floor warped and cracked in the fire; the night watchman narrowly escaped. The firelight and the column of smoke rising from the burning dance hall were visible from Sheridan, about 10 miles away.

When the Sheridan Fire Department arrived at 1 a.m., the main hall was nearly burned to ashes, according to newspaper reports. Firefighters used water from Little Goose Creek to save some of the hall’s outbuildings as around 30 spectators watched as the blaze smoldered into the early hours of the morning.

Ten days later, a familiar story appeared in the newspaper: “Another dance hall destroyed by fire,” headlined the Post-Enterprise on September 16, 1924. A week before the date scheduled to host its inaugural dance, the Flores Pavilion burned.

This time a can of oil, sold earlier in the week by a tinsmith in West Works Street, was found in a ditch near the burning building. It smelled strongly of kerosene, the newspaper reported.

Pressure grew for the police to find and capture the arsonist. The two dance halls burned down represented a monetary loss of more than $30,000 – more than $215,000 today – and the owners of the halls were looking for answers. The Big Horn Entertainment Company offered a $3,000 reward for catching the “fire bug” responsible for the Big Horn fire. Shortly after the Flores Pavilion fire, the State of Wyoming offered an additional $500 reward, bringing the potential reward to nearly $60,000 in 2022 dollars.

“It is high time that every citizen of Sheridan became a self-appointed MP to end this depredation,” said a Post-Enterprise editorial.

Deputies found someone to arrest hours after the fire was extinguished. George Nick, brother of the night watchman who nearly died in the Big Horn Dance Hall fire, has been taken into custody. But Nick pleaded not guilty to the arson charges and the charges against him were quickly dismissed due to insufficient evidence.

The boxes have become cold. The Post-Enterprise reported “no new developments in the ‘fire bug’ plot”; “the Wyoming State Tribune in Casper reported “still unresolved mysterious incendiary fires.”

At the end of 1924, the arsonist was still at large. The fires were counted among Sheridan’s criminal events in a New Year’s Eve retrospective by the Post-Enterprise but never resulted in an official prosecution.

By the 1930s, dance halls had become a commonplace for criminal mischief.

“Young people and others who follow the practice of emptying the gas tanks of automobiles parked near public dance halls will find little mercy from county officials,” reported a reporter from The Sheridan Press in June 1931.

The next Sheridan County dance hall disaster came two decades after the wave of arson, in 1946, when Sheridan County briefly banned dancing.

On August 12, 1946, an article in The Sheridan Press announced the closure of all dance halls in the county, including rural community halls where weekly dances were held regularly and taverns or lounges offering dances. The Sheridan County Medical Society ordered the closure.

The society has closed dance halls, as well as theaters, ice rinks and all other public gathering places for children 16 and under, to stop the spread of infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis. At the time, Sheridan County had nine of Wyoming’s 20 active polio cases, making it the highest total case count of any county in the state, regardless of population.

“[Members of the society] deemed it necessary to take immediate action to stop dancing and other activities which could prove the means of transmission of the disease, at least until the months of maximum danger have passed,” wrote a journalist from the then hurry.

The stoppage was relatively short-lived. Although newspaper reports from the time do not indicate when the ban on dancing was lifted, dancing had resumed in February 1947, when Ranchester businessmen and council organized a dance to benefit of polio.

A few decades later, the regular dances — along with the rural dance halls that once dotted the county — had largely disappeared.

Despite its few months without dancing in 1947, Sheridan still offers places – and occasions – in which locals and visitors can find themselves on the dance floor.

A handful of dance halls still dot the Sheridan County countryside. Croghan’s Hall, for example, still exists above the Dayton Mercantile, said the building’s modern owners, Elaine Stevens and Craig Boheler. Although it’s not currently used for dancing, the owners have promised never to touch the venue’s spring-filled, horsehair-filled dance floor. The Kearny Community Hall in Banner and the Dayton Community Hall are still standing as well.

Until recently, the Big Horn Mountain Polka Club met to dance at Sheridan’s American Legion Hall and Elks Club. The club was disbanded in early 2022 due to lack of members, explained club organizer George Arzy.

“There’s no more polka around,” Arzy said.

Today, the most well-known of the Sheridan dances is a street dance, which takes place on Friday and Saturday nights during Sheridan WYO Rodeo week. The celebration blocks off the downtown part of Main Street and Grinnell Plaza to allow attendees to move freely from bar to bar and between groups at either end of the street, the street dance organizer said Grant Pedigo. Although the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 street dance and limited the 2021 street dance, Pedigo said the event nonetheless provided residents and tourists with an opportunity to move freely around downtown Sheridan and enjoy the hoedown.

The bars host live music and dancing throughout the year.

Several Sheridan nonprofits — including Future Farmers of America, the Big Horn Equestrian Center, schools and others — also host fundraisers that involve dancing. The annual FFA Barn Bash offers dancers the opportunity to relax and enjoy live music while supporting a worthy cause, said FFA alumnus and organizer Tina Kaminsky. Meanwhile, the Big Horn Equestrian Center’s Winter Ball, held annually on the first Saturday in December, provides Sheridan County residents with a venue to don black tie or smart Western attire, support the Equestrian Center and dance all night, owner of BHEC, Sheila Blackburn mentioned.

“It’s a great place to listen to good music, dance, eat good food, see friends…” Blackburn said of the Winter Ball. “People look forward to it every year.”

This article was reported with assistance from the Wyoming Room Archives of the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library.

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