Life continues its grand march across the well-worn wooden floors of Schneider Hall thanks to Amber Burris Becerra’s passion for family, history and meaningful celebrations.
“Historically dance halls were where families and communities came together,” said Becerra, who represents the third generation of Schneiders to operate the hall located near Columbus. “Today, with private events, we continue to bring together communities, albeit smaller ones, and allow them to celebrate relationships just like they used to. We get to preserve the past and propel traditions into the future.”
Four Brothers and a Sister
Charles Schneider arrived in the area in 1872 when he was nine years old. In 1886, he married Caroline Sommerlotte. They made their home in Colorado County, but they didn’t purchase the property south of Columbus where Schneider Hall is located until 1925. They built a home there in 1926.
By that time, they had 10 children: four boys and six girls. One daughter died at age 11. Four others married. The boys, Jim, Willie, Jake and Fred, and their sister, Martha, never wed. After their parents passed away, the unmarried siblings remained on the land farming vegetables, growing cotton, raising sugar cane, making molasses and eventually converting a cotton storage shed into a dance hall. They began hosting dances in 1931.
“While all the siblings participated in running the hall, Aunt Martha was arguably the woman behind their success,” Becerra said. “I understand she was a tough, grouchy woman—and I understand why.”
The large scale farming operation kept the men busy. Martha, like her New Testament namesake, was busy, too. She milked the cows, tended the chickens, cultivated the garden, laundered the clothes, kept the house and fed her brothers. According to Becerra, cooking was a full-time job because the manual labor made for hungry men. In addition to breakfast, the hard-working men took a mid-morning break. They returned to the house at noon for lunch.
“The Schneiders were successful farmers,” Becerra said. “Their friends included bankers, businessmen and lawyers who often came out to the house around 3:00 in the afternoon for coffee and pie with the brothers.”
Martha had supper on the table by 6:00 p.m. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights, she hosted dances in the nearby hall.
The family advertised the dances in Columbus using placards. Being thrifty, a necessity during the Depression, they printed a template with blanks where the date, time and band could be written in, preventing the need to print new posters for each event. Admission for women was always less than admission for men. If the math was too complicated for the ticket takers to do in their heads, they picked up a pencil and ciphered on the ticket booth wall. Admission tickets were stapled to the patrons’ collars. The original stapler is still in the family’s possession.
Martha sold beer, sodas and hamburgers at a small stand on a slab adjacent to the hall. By placing the stand outside, she kept the hall’s floor space open for dancing. Plus, it moved the risk of a kitchen fire outside the wooden hall. (A freak wind storm destroyed the building in 2009, but the slab remains.)
The hall’s big windows were positioned to catch the breeze and funnel it inside. Towering oaks helped insulate the building from the sun’s heat. Benches lined the wall to provide seating when dancers needed to cool off or rest their feet.
In 1939, Schneider Hall was the site of Colorado County’s first Farmers’ Day Rally. The day’s events included a host of speakers, a barbecue and a dance at night. More than 1,000 people attended.
“It was a big front page story in the Colorado County Citizen,” Becerra said. “I still don’t know how 1,000 people fit on this property.”
The hall closed in 1941 when Willie and Jim left to fight in World War II. The raging war limited the number of men available to attend dances. Eventually, the dance hall reverted to a storage barn.
The Family Ties That Bind
Becerra’s connection to the Schneiders comes from her father’s side of the family. Her paternal grandmother, Laura Zickuhr Burris, spent a lot of time with her aunt and uncles on the family farm.
“On a wall near the bandstand, there’s a message: ‘Laura loves Joe,’” Becerra said. “Obviously, my grandmother had a childhood sweetheart.”
As the five Schneider siblings died, they passed their holdings to the remaining siblings. Eventually, Fred was the only living heir. Laura was his primary caretaker during his later years.
“I remember Uncle Fred,” Becerra said. “He always kept Cokes and cookies at his house. The only time my brother and I got to have a Coke was when we went to visit him. We’d share one of those eight-ounce bottles.”
Fred passed away in 1984, about the time Becerra was five, leaving his estate to his nieces and nephews. Laura inherited a significant portion of Fred’s holdings including the Schneider home and the hall. In 1986, Becerra’s immediate family moved into the home.
“The house is a time warp of life with the Schneiders,” Becerra said. “It’s filled with photos of them, aerial photos of the farm, the furniture and tools of daily life. The shop held their syrup making equipment. It is a living snapshot of their life—and my parents were wise enough to respect and keep it intact.”
The dance hall was part of her childhood playground that included rolling fields, ancient live oaks and stock tanks. The dance hall was the family’s hay barn in the era of square bales.
“The dance hall was our fort,” Becerra said. “We spent hours out there digging tunnels, fighting off enemy attacks and climbing up those stacks like we were scaling castle walls. It was hot, scratchy and home to the occasional varmint or snake, but it was fun.”
The fun came with a price. Becerra and her brother, Kyle, who is 18 months younger than her, hauled a lot of hay in their formative years.
“We hauled hay for my parents, and then we hauled hay for my grandparents,” Becerra said. “We spent our summers working hay—a whole lot of hay.”
Even when Becerra left to attend the University of Texas, she couldn’t escape the pull of the dance hall hay barn.
“My little sister, Adrienne, is 10 years younger than I am. When I’d come home, she’d get busy organizing a sleepover for her friends in the dance hall. Then my mom would ‘ask’ me to sleep in the hay with a bunch of 13-year-olds. Let the record state that I am a good big sister,” Becerra said laughing.
Like her older siblings, Adrienne loved the dance hall hay barn and the memories it represented. She loved it so much she asked to have her wedding reception inside. In 2009 the family embarked on a yearlong restoration project to make her wish come true.
“My dad, Larry, worked in construction and has a rare gift,” Becerra said. “He can look at something and instinctively know what needs to be done. He has an amazing mind and the ability to keep my wild creativity grounded in reality.”
Becerra, who was managing a corporate plumbing supply outlet in New Braunfels with annual accounts of $3 million, came home almost every weekend to help. The family took down the front of the hall and completely rebuilt it, added a deck to the back of the hall and built restrooms nearby out of reclaimed barn wood and materials to keep them in the character of the original hall. They decided against installing central heat and air because the ductwork and equipment would alter the aesthetics. They refused to change the hall’s structural integrity.
“Our goal was keeping everything in the hall the way it was when it opened,” Becerra said.
To that end, guests can still hang their coats in the cloak room, check in at the ticket booth, see the hollowed out tree stump with the toilet seat that was the accommodation for the ladies, sit on the benches that line the wall and feel the breeze from the windows or the heat rising from space heaters.
“My parents were always committed to leaving as small a footprint on the world as possible,” Becerra said.
This philosophy extended to the surrounding land. Her mother, Kathy, selected native plants to enhance the landscape. Her father restored the front field using a mixture of grasses and forbs that would have been native to the post oak savanna a century ago.
“The front field is art,” Becerra said. “It never looks the same because it changes with the seasons, with the light and even with the wind.”
Adrienne celebrated her wedding in May 2010. Afterward the family had more than wedding photos; they had a beautifully restored venue. Kathy began to rent it to guests as opportunities arose. It wasn’t a serious business but a labor of love.
“My mom loved having people out here,” Becerra said. “She loved the fact that music was floating through the trees again.”
The dance hall also gave Kathy an outlet for her creativity. A naturally talented designer, she used the hall as her canvas and nature as her inspiration and supply store. For instance, she handcrafted the grapevine garland that hangs from the rafters providing the support for the white twinkle lights that lend atmosphere.
“There was nothing my mom couldn’t do,” Becerra said. “She was the most diverse, wildly talented woman you could ever meet.”
In 2013, Kathy was killed in a car accident.
“We had my mom’s memorial celebration at the hall on a Sunday,” Becerra said. “She had a wedding booked at the hall the following Saturday. I couldn’t let those people down.”
The phone kept ringing. People wanted to rent the hall. In September 2013, Becerra left her high-paying corporate job and moved back to Columbus to manage the hall. In January 2014, she implemented a new business model complete with structured wedding packages designed to establish the hall as a “legitimate business.” In 2015, she hosted 15 weddings. At the time of this writing, there were 19 on the books for 2016.
“This hall was a labor of love for my mom,” Becerra said. “It’s a labor of love for me, too. Taking care of people and helping them create beautiful memories is my ongoing tribute to her.”
Celebrating New Life
In March 2014, Becerra, at the age of 35, got married to her husband Mark in a nearby field. Her bridesmaids rode in the back of an old International truck. The bride arrived in an antique fire truck. Almost 300 guests celebrated in the dance hall.
“I was that girl who was never going to get married,” Becerra said. “It’s ironic, and more than a little bit funny to me, that I’m a wedding planner and hostess.”
Her wedding and her corporate experience combined to form the philosophy that undergirds her growing business.
“Our wedding was so much fun; it was the perfect combination of family, friends, food, music and alcohol,” Bacerra said. “While the commitment of marriage is serious, the celebration surrounding the union of two lives should be joyful and fun. In my opinion, stress shouldn’t be invited to the party.
“To that end, I provide exceptional customer service. The hallmark of my corporate career was putting customers first, and it’s still part of who I am. My team and I go above and beyond to make sure people are happy.”
Sometimes Mother Nature makes it difficult. In October 2015, the skies opened up and dumped 12 inches of rain on Columbus. It was on a Saturday with a wedding scheduled. Becerra and her team, which is led by her resourceful dad and includes many family members, reimagined the wedding and reconfigured the set up so the ceremony could take place in the hall; they trenched around the tents to keep water from rushing in and put trucks, tractors and operators on standby to pull cars from the muddy field if necessary.
“The bride, groom and their families had the best time despite the flood,” Becerra said. “They took their wedding pictures under umbrellas and standing in the mud. It wasn’t what anyone expected, but it was joyful. In this business, in this venue, we prepare for anything and everything—and we smile about it.”
History Repeats Itself
On Sept. 1, 2015, the Becerras welcomed a baby girl, Laurel Kathryn, into their family. Her name honors her grandmother and great-grandmother.
“My grandmother was only 61 when she passed away, and my mother was 52,” Becerra said. “They were phenomenal women who were taken from us way too early, but their spirits are alive and well in our hearts. Our daughter is blessed to come from strong, loving, creative women.”
In late September, Becerra hosted a wedding. During the planning and prep stages, in the time-honored tradition of historic dance halls, she turned over a table so baby Laurel would have a place to rest. These days, in another time-honored tradition, the infant is passed from lap to lap as clients plan events and dote on the baby.
“She’s getting used to life in the hall—and that’s a good thing because the hall is a good place,” Becerra said. “It’s a wonderful building where people come together to dance and celebrate the good things. This hall transports people back to a simpler time when people focused on one another and enjoyed themselves.”
by Lorie Woodward Cantu