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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Barn Dance Nights

Built in 1906, Densmore's Casino on Fairlee's Lake Morey featured dancing to named orchestras and a view of the late. It was described as "a pleasure palace."

A Farm Security Administration photograph shows a fiddler at a dance event. In this area, bands played tunes including big band, country and western and rock.

Huntington's Pavilion, also known as the East Thetford Pavilion was built after the original dance hall was destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938. Weekly large crowds of area residents came her to dance until the early 1960's.

Midnight Serenades, local band formed in 1928 and for the next five years played at the Bonnie Oaks, Rutledge Inn and numerous other sites around Vermont and New Hampshire.
Pictured left-to-right: Les Donnelly, EltonWoodward, Vivian Copp (pianist), Bill Thurber, Russ McCauley and Ken Ladeau. (photo courtesy Brenda Edwards Velte)

Originally published on August 13, 2008
Journal Opinion

Those who enjoyed good times at George Bedell’s Barn dances remember Bedell calling the squares, how tasty the steamed hot dogs were and the large pot-bellied stove at one end of the floor. But in the competitive atmosphere of young males, “alcohol-fueled” fights occurred frequently.
It was an August Saturday night in the 1950’s, just before his senior year in high school. With his weekly pay from his gas jockey job in his pocket, he was cleaned up and ready to go. He was no James Dean, but there was no doubt in his mind about his status as a young stud. His car was the1940 Plymouth he had bought for $250. Some weeks, it would be just him and his buddies. They would go to three or four dances a night, just to hang out or, more likely, look for girls. They’d hit the Circle C in Barnet, Frye’s Barn in Peacham, and the East Thetford Pavilion. Sometimes, he double dated with his best friend, dancing with the girls they brought. It was cool, a real kick. It was dance night.

Opportunities to dance to live music blossomed at the end of Prohibition and continued into the 70’s. Almost any night of the week, blue laws allowing, one or more dances were held in the area. They provided a social highlight for singles and married couples.

There was a long history of dancing in New England, mixing the traditional European dances with newer ones. There had been early Puritan opposition to “mixt” dancing, who saw it as promiscuous. That opposition continued among some religious groups and concerned parents well into the 20th century.

Dances in the early half of the 19th century were held in homes or hotels. A grand military ball was held on February 21, 1845 at the Bliss Hotel in Bradford. Private family ballrooms, such as the one on the third floor of the stately Low Mansion across the street, were found in some larger homes.

Kitchen junkets or tunks took place in farmhouse kitchens. With furniture removed and a fiddler and a caller, dancing, games and refreshments often lasted until well after midnight. An early letter to the Bradford Opinion stated, “Dancing was considered a qualification of the very first importance, especially step tunes. At their balls they sang songs, and had pawn plays, finding the button, etc.”

Olive White of Corinth, quoted in that town’s Thought the Eyes of Our Elders, recalled that her father said that in order to prevent drunkards from attending dances, they would send out invitations and “they wouldn’t let anybody in that didn’t have an invitation.”

With the coming of the 20th century, commercial dances were held in converted barns, halls, inns and pavilions. Fund-raisers for community groups were held in town, Grange and Legion halls. High schools moved beyond the very proper promenades of earlier years and allowed and even taught social dancing. Grand balls and street dances became a major event in town-wide celebrations.

Many residents’ fondest memories are linked to the sheer fun of “hooting it up” at a dance. Asking a special person to dance was a privilege that was exclusively a guy’s prerogative, except for an occasional “Sadie Hawkins” dance. There were also moments filled with youthful stress. For young men, it was the long walk across the floor to ask for a dance and, if rejected, the even longer walk back to the jeering stag line. For women, it was the embarrassment of being tagged a ”wall flower,” as others were asked to dance.

For those who enjoyed country dancing, callers such as George Smith, George Bedell and Glen Pease, all of Orford, drew people with their skill and patience. “Squares” were intermingled with polkas, fox trots, waltzes and other “round” styles, often in the same order each week. Community dances were often intergenerational events, with the young being taught by their elders. One could expect the call to “grab your partner” for traditional standards such as The Virginia Reel or Texas Star, so familiar that many could do them with only the briefest of directions.

One of the earliest dance pavilions was built in 1906 at the south end of Lake Morey. Robinson’s History of Fairlee recalls that Guy Densmore built it to replace two earlier dance locations on the lake. Originally known as Densmore Casino, and described as “the new pleasure palace,” it initially featured dancing three nights a week. According to several who danced there, Densmore’s hope to create “a refined dance hall” was maintained, even as ownership changed, and it was renamed the Lake Morey Casino. The dance hall was on the second floor, featured a smooth dance surface and porches overlooking the lake.

Eris Eastman of Bradford recalled that it had an “altogether different atmosphere than many dances, with named orchestras.” In the 60’s, it fell into disrepair and has now been torn down, replaced by a private home.

Another dance hall known for its fine dance floor was John Huntington’s Pavilion built in East Thetford around 1930. Ninety-two year old Fred Howard of that village recalls going there as a young man, when the dances attracted “loads of girls from Norwich and Hanover.” He said that bands provided “good solid music, very danceable.”

The hall was destroyed in the Hurricane of 1938 and dances were held in the Fairlee Town Hall until it was rebuilt. A May, 1946 advertisement stated that Gene Godfrey and His Orchestra played there every Saturday night, but that on May 7, Paul Ruse and His Boston Spades Canteen Orchestra would be featured. Posters held by Anne Scotford, current owner of the building, mention a wide variety of other bands. “Prompters” George Bedell and Glen Pease called square dances there for patrons from a wide area. The Pavilion was sold and subsequently closed in the early 1960’s.

George Bedell opened his own barn dance in Orford around 1950. Located at the south end of the village, it replaced Ye Old Hay Loft that had operated nearby from 1931 to 1948. Betty Messer of Orford said her father, Clyde Cummings, operated the Hay Loft for its last four years. Then, she said, Bedell rebuilt the main floor of his barn to serve as a dance hall, roller skating rink and high school basketball court. His herd of cows remained in the lowest level. Those who enjoyed good times there remember Bedell calling the squares, how tasty the steamed hot dogs were and the large pot-bellied stove at one end of the floor. It closed about 1967 and the barn has since been torn down.

Arthur Pease shared his memories of going to the Painted Barn in Wentworth where his father Glen Pease called. This site on Rt. 25, opened by Dorothy Brown in the late 50’s was, according to Arthur, “the perfect site for a quintessential New England barn dance. Its big barn doors were open on warm summer nights, allowing music from the band on the stage at the far end of the hall to stream out to passing car.”

Dance halls could also be rough. Katherine Blaisdell’s History of Haverhill relates the sordid history of the pavilion on No Man’s Island between Wells River and Woodsville. Described as “an evil drinking place” and a “pretty wild place, with lots of fights” this popular dance location was swept away in the 1927 flood. Bedell’s Barn was also one of several local dance halls that earned a bad reputation for the activities in the parking lot. One man, now in his mid-sixties, told me that there was a thriving business in the parking lot supplying alcohol to underage drinkers. Tongue in cheek, he added that while his buddies took advantage of this service, he did not! In the competitive atmosphere of young males, “alcohol-fueled” fights occurred frequently. To avoid this violence and the more intimate encounters, many came in groups and stayed inside the hall, even during intermissions.

There were many other dance venues operating at one time or another. So many, that a brief article on this subject is bound to leave out some reader’s favorite one. Some were named for their owner, some for landmarks, others just had enticing titles. In addition to the ones named above, there was Club 25 in Bradford, Echo Valley in Post Mills, Pineland Park in Boltonville, Lake Morey Inn in Fairlee, Harvey’s Lake Pavilion in West Barnet, Cole’s Pond in Wolcott and the Rock Maple Ballroom in Groton as well as community halls and club rooms in every town in the area. Some were fancy and other just “poor people’s ballrooms.”

The bands played music that varied from the “big band sound”, country/western and eventually rock and roll, the hits of the day. Memories of the earlier bands include the “smooth rhythm” of the music at levels that allowed conversation. Marsha and Francis Hathaway of Bradford, sharing their memories of these dances, said that “visiting was as important as the dancing.”

Bands include popular local groups such as Don Fields and his Ponyboys, the Rhythmaires, Woody and the Ramblers and Rin Wright and his Circle Cowboys. Band leaders included Wini Wright, Jimmy Packard, George Smith and Bob Hanley. Fancy groups such as the 11-piece band of Bob Ren and his Bostonians might be imported for a special Labor Day dawn dance or New Year’s Eve celebration.

A recent interview in the Valley News, gave a brief history of the Woody and the Ramblers. The group was organized in the period after World War II and led by Leon “Woodie” Woodward. They played in dance halls around the Twin States. “Country music, folk and popular tunes-but no rock ‘n’ roll, were on their play list,” played at as many as five or six gigs in a week.

Dick Carpenter, formerly of Corinth and now of Barre, began played locally in 1951 and continues to play even as his audience grows older. He said that at the beginning of his career, musicians got $5 for a four-hour gig. Later it increased to as much as $20. His wife, Nancy, spoke of the burden of being the spouse of a musician who was often gone on weekends and holidays evenings.

Some venues were short-lived. Bob Benjamin of Bradford related how his father “Chub” built the Bradford Pavilion on South Road in 1949. Briefly successful, it just “didn’t pan out” and closed within three years. Equally brief were several attempts to revive Dreamland on Route 25 in Bradford. Bruce Stever, Dan Perry and Don Biglow open it as the Crystal Ballroom in 1956, but it closed within a year.

Operating a dance hall for a period of years is wearing. Carol Robinson of Passumpsic said that she and her husband Clayton operated Robinson’s Barn in that town for 29 years after its opening in 1949. Crowds of up to 300, including many families with children, would gather for the weekly dances. Mrs. Robinson said that she is constantly reminded of the many couples that met at the dances and got married. After1973, the no-alcohol policy was altered to allow patrons to bring their own drinks inside the hall. But by 1978, the combination of problems with drugs and alcohol and just being “sick of it…with each weekend tied up” led to its closure.

Arthur and Ester Cheney had the same experience in running the Circle C in Barnet on Little France Road. The hardwood floor of the dance hall was located on the second floor of what was originally a horse barn. They called an end to the dances in the early 60’s after so many “dang drunken fools” and responding police visits caused many to stay away.

An equally success dance location was Woodsville’s BYOB “111 Club”, opened in 1976 by Julius and Cindy Tueckhardt. “Tuck” said that their goal was to operate a dance that was “exceptionally different, with rules and regulations making it good for everyone.” For seven years, they also operated Friday night teen dance that drew large crowds. As with the Robinsons, changes in attitudes about alcohol and the increasing high cost and availability of bands led to the closure of this club in January, 1994. Looking back on the enterprise, Tuck proudly said that they “ran quite a show.”

Actually, the entire history of dance halls in our area was “quite a show.” 6Interviews with those who owned, performed and danced bring back memories of good times. Today, there are places in the Upper Valley for dancing, but they appear to be a mere shadow of the many former dance locations at which these memories were made.


  1. Great article! I hope you do more on the dances. Do you have more pictures?

    You folks might enjoy this excerpt from an article I wrote about Glenn Pease as a square dance caller.

    My most vivid memories of Dad calling, however, focus around the Painted Barn in Wentworth, NH. Now demolished, this old barn was located just west of the stream which runs along the South Wentworth road where it branches off from Route 25. Once, I’m sure, the working barn of a prosperous farmer, by the late 1950s Dorothy Brown had made it the perfect site for a quintessential New England barn dance. Situated end to the road [Route 25] and about five feet off the pavement, its big barn doors were wide open on warm summer nights, allowing music from the band on the stage at the far end of the hall to stream out to the passing cars. Bench seats lined both long walls and a snack counter had been built into the former stable on the east side. There were still six or eight twelve-inch-square, floor-to-ceiling beams left in the barn, arranged symmetrically around the floor. The square areas between these beams made just the right space for one set of dancers and the beams even gave a post to push off from in order to get a promenade going right along! I think there was room for three sets wide and four longways of the barn. There was a fine floor, with the little dance wax which Dad scattered around each night adding to its danceability.
    Dances at the Painted Barn were from nine to twelve on summer Saturday nights. Many people have fond memories of arriving a little past nine and hearing the fox trot or polka [perhaps “Red Wing” or the “Beer Barrel Polka”] as they got out of the car and started for the door. These dances were almost scripted, with many of the same tunes and dances played in much the same order each week, although I doubt that anything was written down. The first few dances were round dances, waltzes, polkas, fox trots, etc., and then about 9:30, Pat would move to the piano, Dad would go to center stage, and “Choose your partners” would ring out. Glenn didn’t use a microphone much until the 60s, but there was never any problem hearing him. As teenagers, we liked to get four couples our age in a set, so we could swing fast and promenade twice around while other sets were going once around. There were many “regulars” at these dances and they often danced in the same sets week after week. Sometimes, groups of counselors from area summer camps would attend the dances and we locals liked to laugh at them trying to dance and swing, in sneakers, no less! On these occasions, it was not uncommon for Dad to come down onto the dance floor, directing the befuddled couples through the dance, all the while calling the changes.
    Three squares would be called, usually coming from the following selections: “Honolulu Baby”, “Just Because”, “Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous”, “Wearing of the Green”, “Comin’ ‘Round The Mountain”, “Jingle Bells”, “My Little Gal”, “The Fairest Gal in Town”, or “First Two Ladies Cross Over”. These were the old-time dances, with simple, repetitive calls, each couple proceeding around the set in turn, repeating the same figures. If one knew how to swing, do-si-do, allemande left, allemande right, ladies change and grand right and left, a person could get along fine. If there was a particularly enthusiastic crowd and if we just stayed on the floor in our sets after the third dance, we could sometimes get Dad to call one more square, but three was the norm.
    After the first squares were over, a few round dances followed, with tunes such as “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy”, “You Are My Sunshine”, “She Wore A Tulip”, “The One Who Has My Heart”, “Release Me”, “My Blue Heaven”, “Side By Side”, “McNamara’s Band”, and “Pennsylvania Polka”. At about 10:15-10:30, Dad would call for the line dance, “Lady of the Lake”. This usually stretched the length of the hall, with twenty-five or thirty couples participating. After “Lady of the Lake” came intermission. Dad, Pat and the band retired outside, while many of the dancers did the same. Some folks also listened on their car radios to the Country Music Jamboree from WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia.
    By 10:45-11:00, after a few more round dances, the second set of three squares was called. The dancing might be a little more ragged or “fluid”, depending on the “fluid” of choice during intermission. I don’t remember a problem with drunkenness at these dances, at least not on the floor. There was certainly drinking outside but there was a cop on duty and Dot Brown, owner of the Painted Barn and organizer of the dances, was clearly in charge. Much of this behavior would not [and should not] be tolerated today but that was a different era and drinking a few beers during the Saturday night dance was common. Finally, just a few minutes before twelve, Dad or Pat would announce the last waltz and so the dance ended at midnight, usually with “One Who Has My Heart”, which Pat speeded up to polka-pace for the last few bars. Dad would typically dance one or two polkas or fox trots during the night and if he spied a particularly good dancer in the hall, would prevail on Pat to play a Viennese Waltz. He and his partner and a few other couples would dance in a setting which couldn’t have been less like the salons of Strauss’s Vienna but with a skill and pleasure which was fun to watch.

  2. Hi, We are both from Vermont, now living in NYC, and found your blog while looking for photos of the Dance Hall at Harvey's Lake. We've heard stories of this amazing place, supposedly built at least partially on a Pier. Thanks for your article!

    S and S

  3. Hi, Just wanted to suggest a minor correction. The Circle C was in Barnet at the Cheney Farm on Little France Road. My grandparents Arthur and Esther Cheney ran the dances and they had Chet Howards band playing most of the time with my uncle Walter Corriveu on Fiddle. I have played guitar off and on in different in bands myself for over 40 years because of going to the dances when I was a kid, the influence was so strong on me. The Hall was the second level of what originally was the Horse Barn. We stopped running dances in the early-mid 60s much for the same reason the Robinsons did, dang drunken fools which led to a lot of visits from the Sherrif and the State Police to roust the troublesome ones and soon the good folks stopped coming. We converted the lower level into a milking parlor and the beautiful hardwood floors on the Dance hall became the hayloft and a Sawdust bin where the Bandstage was. We sold the farm in 71 I think The property now belongs to the Karma Choling spiritual group and the Barn is still standing but it is showing regretably years of neglect and disrepair and it's like the life that once was has been sucked out of it. I wouldnt be surprised if it collapsed in the next few years. My mom still lives across the raod from the Cheney Farmhouse and the Barn and when I visit, I cant help but have happy memories but with deepend sadness that times have changed and wonder if that life could ever be brought back to the old place. It's like watching something die and you have no means to change things. Oh If Time travel was possible!!!