One Saturday morning in May several years ago, I went to call on Otto Heinsohn, a blacksmith I knew in the little town of Oldenburg, which is near La Grange in Fayette County. When I knocked on the front door, his wife opened it. I asked for Otto. His wife said, “Oh, he’s not home today. He’s gone to a feast or a fireman’s frolic.”
Feasts and fireman’s frolics are the order of the day on weekends all summer long in what I think of as the German-Czech belt of Central Texas, which stretches roughly from Frydek on the east to Fredericksburg on the west and from Ennis on the north to Nordheim on the south. The countryside between these points is dotted with big frame wooden buildings, usually painted white and often described as dance halls, although that description obscures both their origins and their most important functions. Many of them were built by German social clubs that had their origins in 19th century Germany: singing societies, gymnastic clubs (turnvereins) and target shooting clubs (schuetzenvereins).
One of the most imposing halls in Texas is the big white octagonal building built in 1901 by the Cat Spring Agricultural Society (Cat Spring Landwirthschaftlicher Verein). The society was founded in 1856 by German-speaking farmers who met once a month to exchange seeds and discuss improvements to agriculture. They are still meeting and exchanging seeds as well as holding dances and an annual feast. (The 2016 event is scheduled for May 28.)
Other halls were the headquarters of local branches of statewide ethnic lodges such as the German Sons of Hermann and the Czech Slovanska Podporujici Jednota Statu Texas, usually known simply as the S.P.J.S.T. (third-generation Texas-Czechs who have a hard time getting their tongues around the Czech syllables have been known to say that the initials stand for “Special People Jesus Sent to Texas”). The buildings are usually just known in the community as “the hall.”
The halls may sponsor Saturday night dances once a month, but one weekend each year is set aside for the hall’s annual feast, a celebration that usually starts at about 10 in the morning and lasts until midnight. The feast is usually combined with the annual meeting of the organization that owns the hall, and its components normally include a barbecue lunch, a domino or skat tournament, an afternoon dance with an “old time” band for the older folks, a supper and a country-western dance at night. As one of my Texas-German neighbors in Round Top once told me, “The hall feast is the day I live for all year long.”
Over the years certain activities have been dropped from and added to hall feasts. An account of a feast at the Millheim Harmony Society in the 1850s mentions “Swabian games” which involved young men leaping over barrels of flaming pitch. They don’t do that at Millheim anymore. However, at Nordheim, down in DeWitt County, the Nordheim Schuetzenverein (shooting club) has added a tractor pull to their feast, which is held on the third weekend in May. The club no longer holds a shooting match on that weekend, but back in 1922 they turned out, rifles in hand, to protect the feast from a threatened assault by the Ku Klux Klan, which objected to their speaking German and serving home-brewed beer. The Klan backed down.
The core elements of a hall feast are beer, barbecue and dancing. You can gauge the popularity of a hall by the size and quality of the barbecue pits outside it. Some are just slapped together out of metal mesh and sheets of galvanized metal; others are brick, with counter-weighted lids, built under a shelter to protect the barbecuers from the sun. At Millheim, near Bellville in Austin County, the pits are concrete-lined trenches where quarters of beef and halves of mutton are cooked over coals all night long with the young men in the community staying up to tend the fires and apply the mop sauce.
Beer is usually served from kegs in paper cups and is paid for with tickets purchased near the hall door. Sometimes the kegs are scattered around the grounds in order to prevent a bottleneck.
I had a friend in Round Top who had an uncanny ability to spot the beer keg closest to the spot where the line for barbecue would form and then station himself there until lunchtime. It is part of the etiquette of hall feasts that beer can be consumed before and after lunch but never with it; lunch calls for iced tea.
Both the afternoon and evening dances are events in which the whole community participates. Babies are laid down on pallets, sometimes in a special room in the hall set aside for that purpose. Small children and widows dance with each other; couples who have been dancing with each other for years take the floor and the other dancers drop back to watch and applaud. Sometimes, but not often any more, the dance is opened with a grand march, an intertwining of couples as intricate as a college band maneuver at half time. Couples who know how to lead a grand march are much in demand.
Music is usually provided in the afternoon by a brass polka band and in the evening by a country-western band, although at Frydek, a Czech community near Sealy, the feast features three bands alternating with each other. The posters advertising the Frydek feast always include a line that says: “Grand Finale: 18 Musicians Playing in Concert.”
Before World War II, at High Hill in Fayette County, there was a hall whose members were so poor they could not afford a band, so they danced to the music of a drehorgel, a hand-cranked organ that played music from big wooden cylinders. In the 1970s, the organ was in a museum near Round Top. Old couples used to show up and ask to hear it played because they had learned to dance to its music. The High Hill hall had been in existence so long that there was a lithographed portrait of Emperor Frederick III of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm’s predecessor, hanging over the stage.
Point your car east some weekend and party with folks who’ve had lots of practice. They’ve been doing it for a century and a half, and they’ve got it down right.
by Lonn Taylor
Lonn Taylor is a historian who lives in Fort Davis, Texas, and writes columns about Texas history for the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel and Texas Monthly magazine. For 20 years, Taylor served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He lived in Round Top from 1970 to 1977 when he was director of the Winedale Historical Center. This was originally published in the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel on May 13, 2010.