Old Texas Dance Halls Decaying, But Some Won’t Let Them Fade

Some 40 miles north of San Antonio, along a lonely two-lane road, stands a bedraggled, tin-sided building that hints at Texas’ past.

Kendalia Halle’s multi-tiered wooden truss was decked out in white lights as Bruce and Louetta Schwab joined about 200 others for a monthly dance. The Schwabs live east of Dallas and during their recent visit to central Texas Hill Country decided to visit the old hall, where patrons paid about $20 to hear Bobby Jordan and the Ridgecreek Band.

Photo: Eric Gay/AP Photo
Girls dance to fiddle music at Twin Sisters Dance Hall in Blanco, Texas.

“It’s a combination of her love to dance and my interest in German history,” said Bruce Schwab.

Kendalia Halle was built more than 100 years ago by German immigrants, who through the latter half of the 19th century comprised more than 5 percent of the state’s population, according to the Texas State Historical Commission. It’s one of an estimated 1,000 dance halls that sprung up around Texas in the 1800s, knitting together German, Czech, Polish and other immigrant communities.

About 400 such halls still stand – many unused and decaying – but only two traditional Texas dance halls continue to operate on nearly a daily basis: Luckenbach hall in Fredericksburg and Gruene Hall in New Braunfels.

“The culture has shifted away from rural areas where most of the halls are, but what we see is that these cultures are foundational to what Texans are and what Texas is,” said Patrick Sparks, board president of Texas Dance Hall Preservation.

Sparks’ group and others are working to preserve the state’s remaining dance halls, in part by creating an inventory so that the most distinctive ones become candidates for the National Register of Historic Places. Such designation would enable the halls to apply for grant assistance and protections against encroaching development.

More practically, it would raise their profile among tourists and other travelers.

“You can still go out on a Saturday night and experience an authentic dance hall like you could 100 years ago and that’s something that really defines our culture here in Texas,” Sparks said.

Some dance halls also are architecturally unique, according to Sparks. The Cat Spring Agricultural Society Pavilion west of Houston is a 12-sided hall built in 1902 by German immigrants that features an elaborate wooden truss rising up to a cupola. At one time there were about 40 such “round halls” in the state, Sparks said, but now just half that number exist.

Carolyn Vogel is president of a nonprofit association that operates the Twin Sisters Dance Hall. It’s believed Twin Sisters, not far from Kendalia Halle, has hosted at least a monthly dance since the 1880s.

It costs about $16,000 a year for volunteers to maintain the building. “On a good year we break even,” Vogel said.

The association is seeking an IRS designation as a charitable organization that would allow it to apply for state grants and other money, which would prove valuable in addressing expensive repairs like the nearly $20,000 needed to replace the roof, she said.

Twin Sisters, founded by German immigrants, for years served as a vital community center, Vogel said, and it’s important “to reacquaint and refamiliarize people with this heritage.”

“We’re really working to bring people back,” she said. “I think it’s a unique type of entertainment, also.”

From about 1870 into the 1920s, European immigrants in Texas built hundreds of these halls. They largely served as meeting places for agricultural groups, rifle clubs and mutual benefit societies. Over time, Sparks said, they also became important social centers that on many evenings hosted popular dances.

The popularity of the halls waned as Texas’ population shifted to the cities. In 1900, 83 percent of the Texas population lived in rural areas; 50 years later that percentage had fallen to 37 percent, and continues to decline.

Nowadays, a couple hundred remaining halls may host an event or two each year, but only a few dozen are used at least on a monthly basis, Sparks said.

When Lee Temple bought Kendalia Halle with his wife Judi in 1995, business didn’t look so promising. One weekend he laid out $700 for a band only to have one couple show. While still not a money-maker, Kendalia’s monthly dances, along with wedding receptions and birthday parties, help the Temples break even.

“Texas dance halls are becoming a very good investment because there are fewer and fewer of them,” Lee Temple said.