Saturday night we went to the most charming dance I have attended in a long, long time. The dance was held at Farley’s Music Hall in the village of Elsah, Illinois, to celebrate the recent graduation of four members of the Young family, including our friend Valerie, who just earned her degree in math and women’s studies from the University of Missouri. By the time we arrived, it was just getting dark, and electric candles shone from the windows of several historic buildings in the little village. As we drove down the street, we could hear music coming from the hall.
We entered the hall through a small foyer. To the left of the foyer was a small woodstove, framed photos of the graduates on the wall, and a table holding large coolers of iced tea and lemonade. To the right was another table with cake, chocolate-covered strawberries, and wraps that we would eat later during the break. Through the wide doorway, we could see a gleaming wooden floor, with two lines of dancers of all ages on either side of the center support posts, a few spectators sitting on chairs around the hall, the caller Eric Schreiber standing at a microphone at the far end of the hall, and members of The Bony Goat Band (on fiddle, banjo, guitar) sitting in chairs at the far end of the small hall, playing without amplification. We recognized several dancers we know from St. Louis, who seemed pleased to see us. Valerie’s mother also seemed pleased and surprised that we had made the two-and a-half-hour drive.The hall felt so warm and friendly, just the way I imagined such a place would be when this country was new, and villagers would routinely gather at old-time dances in grange halls on Saturday nights.
I am always pleased to discover communities that are dedicated to preserving the character of a place the way that Elsah has, even in the face of great tragedies such as the 1993 flood, which put the village of Elsah to a test as they made the difficult decision to rebuild. The Farley Dance Hall was originally built in 1885 and served for many years as “a center of village activity, including visits from wandering Indian medicine shows, meetings of the literary clubs, church socials, school plays, and all sorts of dances.” In the early twentieth century, the Knights of Pythias purchased the building and added on a second floor.
After the flood of 1993, the Historic Elsah Foundation purchased the building, and with grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, stabilized the building and brought it back to life. In the process, they revealed the original interior paint, with charming stenciled designs in blue, maroon, and white, under the layers of newer yellow paint. They decided to leave the original milk-based paint on the upper walls and re-painted the wainscotting and trim to match. If you’re ever out for a drive through southern Illinois along the mighty Mississippi, I highly recommend a visit to the village of Elsah.
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