I love the old dance halls and am always thrilled to discover such places still standing, usually in small towns, where the community still gathers to dance and make music together. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the village dance hall was the place where young people could mingle and where friends and neighbors could relax. Most dance halls at that time were single-story buildings with a wooden floor, benches along the sides, and a small stage at one end for the musicians. These community halls offered entertainment, refreshment, and opportunities to socialize after a hard week of work. In many communities, dance halls were built by ethnic groups, fraternal organizations, or individual social clubs. The dance halls tended to be family friendly, while the roadhouses and taxi-dance halls were often located beyond the jurisdiction of town and tended to draw a wilder crowd.
Farley’s Music Hall in Elsah, Illinois, was built by Dr. Farley in 1885 and served as the center of village activity for many years. In addition to dances and musical events, numerous other gatherings were held in the hall, including travelling medicine shows, literary club meetings, church socials, and school plays. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Knights of Pythias bought the hall and added a second floor. After the building was severely damaged in the flood of 1993, Historic Elsah Foundation purchased the hall and began the difficult process of renovation.
Today Farley’s Music Hall once again serves as a gathering place for residents of the village and visitors from around the region. On the calendar for November and December are two community dances, a lecture, and a Christmas hymn sing. The village of Elsah is not a historical museum, although it feels that way; people actually live in the charming stone houses and other nineteenth-century buildings. There is no commerce in the village, since the one restaurant closed, although there are a couple B&Bs–the Green Tree Inn and the Maple Leaf Cottage Inn. Many of the residents of the village are retired; others work at Principia College up on the limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Some villagers commute to nearby St. Louis, MO, or Alton, IL, for work; others telecommute.
We have had the good fortune of dancing at Farley’s on two separate occasions so far–once in May for a graduation party for a young friend of ours, and this past Saturday, for one of Elsah’s regular community dances. (One of the bonuses of being married to a dance caller is that you get to dance in all kinds of places you might never have found on your own, and you get to dance with people you might otherwise not have met.) The community dances were started about eight years ago by residents of the village to give their children a place to play music and socialize. Both dances were charming. The first time we went to Elsah, I knew I was going to love the place, as soon as we turned off the river road onto the narrow village street and saw the warm glow through the windows and heard the fiddle music through the open door. It felt like walking into a story book, where the dancing was in full swing by the time we arrived.
Last Saturday we went earlier in the day and had dinner at the home of the dance organizers, then walked down the street together to open up the hall for the dance. The hall is intimate enough that the band can play acoustic, so we only needed one speaker and a microphone for the caller. Our hosts had made snacks for the break, which they set up on a table in the small foyer, along with a cooler of water. The chairs were already set up around the perimeter of the hall, so after we got everything ready, we began the somewhat anxious wait for people to show up.
The band (members of a group music class at the Folk School of St. Louis) began to arrive around 6:30, but the dancers were slow to arrive, and we were beginning to wonder whether the band would outnumber the dancers. Jim, the caller for the evening, began sorting his dance cards into ones we could do with as few as six dancers, squares if we got eight dancers, or “as many as will” if we got enough dancers to fill the hall. Shortly after 7:00, however, our anxieties were relieved, when several students from Principia arrived, and before long the hall was filled with music and dance. It was an altogether satisfactory evening.