A Christmas Dance Party Fifty Years Ago
Old Time Tales of Warren County


A Christmas Dance Party Fifty Years Ago

In the year 1880 both the Kansas House and button's Band were immensely popular. Announcement of a dance at the famous tavern, with Dutton's Band playing, was enough to bring the people, young and old, from many miles around. It was not unusual in those days, for a young couple to drive twenty, even thirty, miles to a dance party, starting soon after dinner and making it an all-afternoon's drive in the swellbox cutter. From Stillwater Creek, the two Brokenstraw valleys, even from Tidioute and Pleasantville, they drove to the big Kansas House dances, often a whole sledload of young folks with plenty of blankets and straw in the sled box, and plenty of love making, on the long drive home.

There were progressive dances, too, when two or three sledloads of young people drove from town to town and tavern to tavern, dancing at a new place each night and keeping it up for three,-four, even five nights in a row.

It was a great event, the Christmas dance at the Kansas House in Columbus Township, just half a century ago. One man living near Bear Lake remembers well the occasion, recalls it because it was, "The first time I ever proposed to a girl in my life." He mentions, also, that that evening was the first time he'd ever met the girl. And they talk about things moving slowly in the old times!

Sleighing was fine on Warren County's roads on Christmas Day, fourteen years after the close of the Civil War. There had been plenty of snow, but it had had time to pack, so the traveling was perfect for sleigh runners. Jingling bells had been passing the Kansas House all day, as neighbors of the countryside drove back and forth, paying Christmas calls, enjoying the brilliant sunshine that sparkled on the snow covered hills, enjoying too the cookies and wine, or perhaps the bit stronger glass that was sure to be brought out at every home, on the occasion of a Christmas day visit.

The early-setting winter sun sank in a brilliant rose-glow behind the fringed turrets of tall tamaracks in Coffee Creek Swamp. Its ruddy, reflected flame lighted the small window panes of the roadside tavern, as if lamps were already lighted for the great Christmas dance to be held this night in the Kansas House.

At this thrilling hour, with evening coming on and the social event of the season only a couple of hours away, let us steal a peep at one of the belles of the ball, Miss Susan Blaine, whose twentieth birthday occurred scarce two weeks before this Christmas. All day long Susie has been preparing for the dance. Preparation was begun, in fact, a full month before, when, her Aunt driving her to Jamestown on a visit, Susie took full advantage of the stay in town to purchase ribbons, shoes, a most elaborate wool knit "fascinator" of pink and white. Susie will wear the pink fascinator tonight when she drives off to the Kansas House with Paul Baker, a neighborhood youth, but she would be quite fascinating enough without it.

Susie's aunt lives on Coffee Creek, and Susie lives with her Aunt. That mellow light which shows on the snow-covered porch roof beneath an upstairs blind is in Susie's room. She is sitting before the square mirror of a small marble-topped walnut bureau, adjusting, twiddling for the thousandth time, the playful little curls at either side of her peach blossom cheeks. When they are "just so," she gently picks up the pink and white fascinator, places it over her head, allowing two little curls to escape on one side, one on the other. Susie has been before the mirror since milking time, when she helped her Auntie milk, and came in from the barn with cheeks the rosier for it. Half a dozen times her Aunt has called up stairs, "Ain't you never comin' downstairs?"

Let no one blame Susie for looking long in the mirror, 'twould be difficult indeed to find a fairer picture for her to contemplate. If she smiles at her own reflection, displaying two rows of pretty teeth, who can blame her. She is not, of course, practicing a bit for the devastation of any certain young man, she could hardly be thinking that, at the dance, in just an hour or two, she may be meeting some handsome young Lochinvar who has his steed already saddled and bridled in the big Kansas House barn.

Lovely Susie Blaine, famed for her beauty in a day when real beauty existed. By that divine right that is a queen's, she may gaze into her magic mirror as long as she will. Because she is beautiful she can neither be foolish nor vain, in spite of ourselves we shall love her. The world will always worship beauty because it images the ideal, and it is so awfully scarce.

The toilet requisites set forth on Susie's marble-topped dresser are simple enough-how many elaborate ladies there are in the world who could not hope, with all their complicated cosmetics and beautifiers, to hold a candle to the pinky-fresh beauty of Susan Blaine, dressing for the Christmas dance tonight in the modest farm home of her Aunt on Coffee Creek. A small curling iron, not a patent thing with springs, but a plain iron rod, which Susie heats by laying across the chimney of her oil lamp, a little jar of toilet cream, a reckless luxury purchased on her recent trip to Jamestown, a cake of magnesia, used by the young ladies of the day as a face powder, a small vial of White Rose perfume.

Susie's cheeks are the live pink of newly opened peach blossoms, and yet, well, all the girls are doing it so of course Susie must,-she just must add a little color to her perfect cheeks. So she follows the feminine practice of the day, takes a few petals from an artificial red rose which has served as an ornament on a hat, moistens them in water and rubs them gently on her cheeks, blends the color, so she fancies, quite perfectly.

Susan, having read but little and experienced, of the great outside world, not at all, knows many things because she is a woman, howbeit, a very young one. To wear color on one's cheeks in 1880 is considered worldly, if not actually wild. Only ten years ago a young lady at Lottsville had been put out of the church for "indecently and with intention of alluring, painting her cheeks." Susie goes to church, but the times are changing. To wear just a suggestion of rouge attracts the attention of young men, they consider the girl who does it "lively." Susie wishes to be considered lively, not too lively, of course, but she wants to attract. And so, although she is lovely as a wild crabapple blossom, and as sweet, she dabs the artificial rose petal in a little water and lightly touches her cheeks. She is painting the lily, but knows what she's doing. "Does she paint, or doesn't she?" that's what Susie wants them to wonder..

Having heightened the color of her cheeks, Susan Blaine now puts on the new wool fascinator for the twentieth time. It would be a severe critic that would say the effect is not fetching. The little curls have learned just how to peep from under the pink-and-white border, all is satisfactory. Susan lays the fascinator aside and devotes her attention to the piece de resistance of the toilet, her dress.

Susie's dress is an amazing and intricate creation which none but a fashion creator of the times might hope to describe. There are numerous reeds in the voluminous skirt which are kept bowed and rounded by means of tiny straps. There's certainly enough room in the skirt for half a dozen Susies, but the waist is a tight fitting affair. As the dear girl stands before her inadequate mirror, which can reflect only a small portion of her glory at a time, her trim waist and plump shoulders seem to be surmounting a glorified haycock. A bustle of no mean dimensions holds out the skirt at the rear so that there is three times as much of it behind the young lady, as before her. There are ruffles, frivolous little ruffles, running riot over the skirt, each ironed with the meticulous care only a doting aunt can bestow.

Although the waist is skin tight, with double up and down rows of buttons that follow the swelling of Susan's bosom, the sleeves are wide and loose and hanging. But, do not overlook the fact, inside are other sleeves made of nothing but gauzy lace through which round, white arms show alluringly. There is really a great deal more dress than girl, plump as she is. But, as her good auntie says, the dress is somehow just made for Susie, and how young and fresh and sparkling and irresistible she does look in it as she stands in her bedroom before the mirror, all dressed and ready for the big Christmas dance at the Kansas House, in the good year 1880. May happiness be hers tonight, she well deserves it, for does she not make the world brighter and happier and more worth while wherever she goes? As for Paul, her escort this night, one can only envy him his ride to and from the Kansas House in close company with the tricky little curls and those full, rosy and willing looking lips. Let Paul look well to his pretty partner tonight, many covetous eyes will be glancing, as she dances at the Christmas ball.

Paul arrives, there is the brief wait that always precedes the appearance of a star, Susie comes skipping down stairs, is bundled into a heavy coat and then a shawl, the small, curved-backed cutter goes jingling off into the winter night, under the bright faced stars. Aunty has insisted the shawl go quite over the fascinator, completely covering both it and the curls. Susie will attend to this matter when the cutter is well out of sight.

Paul and Susie are not the only ones on the Columbus-Lottsville road tonight. If you listen you can hear sleighbells jingling both ahead and behind. Over every road they are coming, couple after couple in swell box cutters, whole families beshawled and capped and hooded, seated in large farm sleds drawn by heavy horses joggling coarse-toned bells that seem to befit their size and strength. Everybody is coming to the dance, there will never be room for all the horses in the Kansas House barn, big as it is, some of them will have to be put out in neighbor's barns, nearby.

The big tavern is all aglow with friendly lights, oil lamps that shed their soft rays out onto the snow. From the red brick chimneys at either end of the roof, blue wood smoke from the two large fireplaces rises straight upward into the still, sparkling sky. Warmth and light await the coming guests, the whole huge house is beaming with hospitality.

As you come closer you see that many have already arrived at the dance, a long line of sleds and sleighs is drawn up in front of the tavern, the shafts empty, horses already put out and blanketed in the barn. Forms move to and fro across lighted windows, the hum of talk can be heard. There's going to be a big crowd at the Kansas House tonight, it's easy to see that.

That livening, anticipatory sound, the tuning up of a violin and clarinet comes from inside the lighted tavern, the Dutton boys are making ready for the first quadrille. Two men with lanterns help put the horses out, stand them in two rows on the threshing floor, since all the stalls are full. They slant a pole between each pair, looking out for kickers. Every few minutes a horse suddenly squeals and thumps the floor. "There's that mean roan mare of Jerry Danforth's," says one of the men with the lanterns. They go to see if any harm has been done.

The big porch is full of young men who have sent their girls on in, loitering outside to chat of men's affairs. Also there are young men who have brought no girls, who do not dance but who nevertheless never miss a dance, always hanging around the door, even on nights as cold as this. As the crowd grows more dense, some of these may edge in, watch the dancing from close range. But most of them will stand around outside all night, irresistibly lured by the glamorous atmosphere of the dance, yet not exactly wishing to take part in it.

The big lower room, where the bar used to be, is thronged. Girls and women chattering like mad, a general rumble of conversation stabbed with high, excited laughter. Susie's is not the only fascinator, these woolen head wraps are popular. There are blue fascinators and green, one girl with hair the color of bright wheat straw looks pretty enough in a black one.

The men unwind long wool scarfs, pull off heavy caps and make a vain attempt to smooth down tumbled hair with their hands. Long tables are piled against the wall. Dinner will be served on these at midnight. The large wall clock whose pendulum swings visibly behind glass, shows the hour to be nine o'clock. Little boys in shoe-top trousers run across the waxed floor, stiffen out their legs and slide, sometimes falling and finishing the slide sitting down, sometimes pitching into the lap of a spectator. They are calling for couples to fill out the first sets upstairs. Feet can be heard rushing across the floor above, couples hurrying to get places in the first dance.

It is almost impossible to force your way up the stairs. You are obliged to stand ten minutes with your face in the middle of a farmer's broad back before making the final steps. What a crowd, they are standing three deep on two sides of the hall. Old men and women occupy a goodly number of the chairs, some of the girls will have to stand between dances.

The famous Dutton's Band is tuned and ready for the fray. The three brothers, John, Elmer and Ellis, sit with clarinet, cornet and violin, their music racks before them. Ab. Fox, tall, broad shouldered, stands with bow poised, ready to launch into the first change. Ellis Dutton raises his violin and bow, bowing as he brings both down with the first note. Dutton's Band swings into a lively quadrille and the Christmas dance has begun.

"Honor your partners,-opposite lady,-balance-four. The Iadies change and half promenade. Allemande left. Sides right and left. Balance four. Two ladies change and half promenade. Promenade all."

There's magic in the music of Dutton's Band, its rhythm has already caught the crowd. Ab. Fox, standing by his big bass fiddle, stroking the strings as he watches the dancers, calls off.

Ab's voice is mighty, it sounds above the thump and scrape of dancing feet. His big fiddle sings `Broombroom-broom," a wonderful bass. The dancers pause for a short breathing spell at the end of the first change. The lilting music has enlivened everyone. How those Dutton boys can play! The first dance just getting started. It's going to be a big night.

The warm air is full of the odors of perfume. Musk predominates among the ladies. The men are perfumed, too. The younger men have their hair slicked down with Burgundy Oil, their coat lapels are dabbed with a new perfume, extremely popular, "Jockey Club."

The second change is off with a stamp and go. "Honor your partner,-opposite lady. First four lead to the right and chasse out and half way around. Balance all. Right and left through,-half promenade. Balance four. Chasse all across the hall. Right and left through and right and left back. Balance four. Half promenade. Chasse back and forward. All swing partners to place and all promenade !"

There are some steppers among the crowd at the Kansas House tonight. Nathaniel Martin is dancing with Nancy Hare. There are few who can outdo him on a dance floor. His boots are shined right down to the bottoms of the heels. He's limber as an eel, his feet move like lightning. He gets in a lot of stuff that's all his own, fancy bows and quick, clog steps. How he does spin Nancy around when the caller shouts, "Swing your partners !" Their feet, taking fast little steps, are close together, their bodies lean far apart, the two of them making a shape like a top.

The third change is a jig, livelier than ever. How they do dance, these red cheeked, healthy lads from the lumber camps and farms. But the girls can keep up with them, plenty of quick steppers among the girls, too. It's exercise. You can see the color coming up in the girls' faces already. Dutton's Band is playing the ever popular "Irish Washerwoman."

"Honor your partners. Opposite lady to right. Allemande left. Gents pass your partner to the right. Balance with your partner. Turn 'em around. All promenade!"

The first change is over, the dancers flock from the floor. A few hold their places for the next dance. It's a good natured, jolly Christmas crowd, but those already on the floor realize they may have to wait a long time for a chance to dance again. No calling for "Two more couple,-One more couple" tonight, the dancers are right there on the floor, in their places, ready to go. The narrow stairway pours in more people than you'd ever suppose could get into the ball room at the Kansas House. There's so much weight on the spring floor, with the crowd edging out and out, it takes most of the spring out of it. But never mind, there's plenty of spring in the dancers.

Eighteen sets should be dancing tonight, but the onlookers take up so much room only fourteen sets can manage to dance. And they have to cut down on the real fancy swinging. No room for a fellow to swing his girl off the floor. The lads who can do the fancy work have to confine themselves to clog steps.. The hall is growing so warm, windows have to be pulled down at the top. Some couples are even taking the air on the upper porch, off the ball room. John Dutton mops his brow with a handkerchief, his coat hangs on the back of his hickory chair. The Christmas dance is warming up, and going to be warmer.

The hoop skirt had by no means disappeared from Warren County in the year 1880, it was present at the Kansas House this night in all its fullness. It was not, however, the enormous hoop skirt worn at the opening ball in Uncle Sam Wilber's tavern in 1856. It had diminished in size materially, and was very soon to disappear. There were girls dancing in modified hoops at the Christmas ball, and the way they managed them in the crowd was beyond understanding. The girls who did not wear hoops wore bustles. In the year 1880 a peculiar type of bustle was in high favor among young ladies. It was called the "Tilden Bustle." It began at the usual location, and it began as if it meant business, showing a tendency to reach out for more territory. It extended due west with a generous, rounded fullness, then extended downward,-to the very bottom of the dear girl's skirt, which was a distance considerably greater than it has been in some times since. Sitting down in a Tilden Bustle was a thing to practice, in private, or far from the rude gaze of any male. A false move might mean a general uprising which would disclose valuable secrets to the enemy. When a young lady sat down in one of those extensive bustles, she was compelled to seize the lower extremities of the thing in her hand and switch them out of the way. The Tilden Bustle was an uppish thing and would not be sat down upon.

There was also a device called a "plumper," much in vogue in 1880. Bustles deceived no one, but the plumper was designed for this very purpose. It was a curving distender, worn under a waist to produce the effect of a full, voluptuous bosom. In those days some girls were plump and some were plumper.

With only the second dance under way in the Kansas House ball room, proprietor Seth Wilber is hard put to it to handle his crowd. At nine-thirty the folks are still flocking in, filling every corner and stairway of the big tavern. Wilber mounts a table and announces an overflow dance will be started downstairs, if the people will please stand back sufficient to allow the dancing of four sets. The orchestra will move near the stairway, so the dancers on the lower floor may hear the music. Of course this dancing in the big downstairs room can only go on till eleven, or eleven-thirty, say, at the very latest. Because that will be the very last moment when the women can begin setting the long tables, if they're going to be set, and ready for the dinner at twelve o'clock.

At ten o'clock belated couples are still arriving at the Kansas House, coming in muffled and red cheeked from a snowy drive, perhaps as much as twenty miles. These late arrivals are young people very much in love, they are in no hurry to be among the crowd at the dance, it is really very pleasant driving in a soft-slipping sleigh under the starry night, on a lonely country road. These couples will keep arriving till as late as eleven o'clock, for country dances are very late affairs and if some of the young folk get in an hour of dancing before dinner is served at midnight, they are quite content. And then, as everybody knows, the best two hours of any dance come after supper, between one and three, when things are warmed up.

Eleven o'clock. In another hour Christmas will be over, but not the ball, it has hardly reached its height as yet. Every nook and corner, every stairway and window sill seat in the big tavern is filled. The whole place hums and glows like a great lighted hive. They have allowed the wood fires in the fireplaces to burn low, everywhere in the tavern it's so warm windows must be opened.

Comes now the odor of cooking in the lower rooms, a last basting is being given the big roasts. Coffee is being made. The brothers Wilber, in shirt sleeves, are helping the cooks in the kitchen. Goodness only knows how many tables it will be necessary to set, the crowd has gone beyond all expectations. Fortunately there are many capable neighbor women here this night who can be drafted in as waitresses. The Kansas House help could never cope with such a crowd.

Upstairs in the big ball room Susie is dancing in her pink dress, she has not missed a dance since she took her place beside Paul in the first one. No need for rose-petal rouge now, certainly, Susie's cheeks outglow the roses, her eyes are all a-sparkle, pretty teeth flashing in peals of laughter, as she bows and turns, whirls from one stalwart partner to another. What a night it is for Susie, how the warm young life seems to pulse and glow and dance in her. Impossible for Susie now to remain still. In the little waits between evolutions her feet are tapping, dancing, keeping time with the wonderful music of Dutton's Band. Yes, there is no doubt about it, Susie is the belle of the ball, the prettiest girl on the floor. She stands out among severe competition, for there are other beauties, and plenty of them, at the Christmas dance.

A riotous, stamping, jig subsides with the announcement that supper is ready. There will be an intermission of an hour. The clock downst?.irs shows twelve. Quickly the long tables fill up. Let those who want to dance eat first, onlookers can dine later. It's a real supper with roast beef and potatoes, vegetables, stewed fruits, pie, coffee and tea. Less than twelve hours ago these folk have eaten Christmas dinner, but since then there have been chores, a drive through the frosty air, dancing.

Plump ladies, red in the face, holding filled plates above the heads of diners, push along the tables. There is a tremendous clatter of talk. Those who intend eating at the second table stand close to the chairs. A quick change of diners is made when the first have finished. More rushings from the kitchen, more clatter of knives and forks and tongues. The big coffee pot comes 'round for replenishment of the cups. At twenty minutes to one two sets have been served at the long tables, a third is pulling up its chairs with loud scrapings on the board floor.

In another twenty minutes the band will be playing again. Men put on overcoats and visit the barn to see the horses are all right. John Dutton has had his dinner, is adjusting a key on his clarinet. Three hours more playing ahead of the orchestra, possibly more. Girls reappear from bedrooms where they have been straightening their hair. Those who have danced downstairs are now determined to dance in the ball room, where the floor is better,-that marvelous spring floor.

One o'clock and the dance begins again. The irresistible swing and go of Garry Owens, the famous Irish jig. The dance rhythm beats through everyone. Girls standing along the side, unable to get a place in a set, beat time with their hands. Everything beats time to the music, the crowd, the floor, the jiggling oil lamps, the whole tavern trembles in time with the "broombroom-broom" of Ab. Fox's big bass fiddle. All along the line of onlookers boots are tapping the floor. They say nobody but a wooden Indian could keep his feet still when Dutton's Band played.

"Choose your partners for The Racket!" It's a newer dance, not everyone will attempt it. It's something like a schottische. Quite the thing to dance The Racket.

Plenty of room on the floor now, plenty of comments from the side lines.

The Fireman's Dance, that prime favorite. Monie Musk and then the Virginia Reel, danced with a great deal of spirit. Crooked S, Opera Reel, a waltz to the strains of The Blue Danube. And again the floor is filled for a square dance. Ab. Fox, the caller, knows some singing calls, sung in tune with the music.

The swinging, plaintive rhythm of "The Ocean Wave" comes from the musicians. Ab. sings the call.

"The first two ladies cross over
And by the gentleman stand,
The sides two ladies cross over
And take him by the right hand.
Honors to your partner,
Swing on the corners all,
Take the corner lady and promenade the hall."

The next dance, Dutton's Band plays another old favorite, which has a lilting rhythm. Ab. Fox sings the call for "The Needle's Eye."

First couple lead up to the right
And four hands 'round.
Chasse right, chasse left,
Swing opposite partner once around,
Take care of yourself that you don't fall down,
Swing your partner once and no more,
Chasse back and right and left four.

Beating time across the coarse strings of his bass fiddle as he sings, playing in a detached way, as if the big brown fiddle was part of him, and he could make no false note, watching the dancers in order to time his calls, Ab. Fox seems to put added vim in their steps with his singing calls.

A late traveler on the road would not long have remained in ignorance of what was going on at the Kansas House. Every window beamed forth light onto the snow. A full half mile away the rhythmic thumpthump-thump of dancing feet, the high peals of clarinet and cornet, came on the air. What a Christmas night the old tavern was having. It would be long remembered by those who danced tonight to Dutton's Band.

Two o'clock, three o'clock, and still the dancing going on, with pauses only long enough to refill the floor. No let-up in the pace, quadrilles, reels, jigs, with now and then a waltz. There are flushed-faced girls who have not missed a dance all night. They seem to move as spryly as ever. Will they ever be able to slow down, and stop. Never mind the time, Christmas comes but once a year, nor do they dance every week at the Kansas House.

Since midnight the older folks have been gradually thinning out, jogging homeward in their sleighs. But at three o'clock not all the gray heads, and certainly not all the bald ones, have disappeared. Grandfather Gates, his flying hair as white as snow, has danced half the night and is ready for more. What are seventy-five years,-nothing at all,-he proves it by dancing a jig, between changes, that brings wild applause from the crowd.

Four o'clock, and a full floor still stepping in the ball room. Here and there an oil lamp has gone out, others are burning dimly. No one complains about the lamps, a lot of love making is going on in the big tavern. Waists now tolerate encircling arms that would not have been allowed at ten o'clock. The dance music has had its effect, romance has been aroused, there is a common drawing together of couples, flirtations begun at nine o'clock have ripened considerably. There is not a little sitting on laps, quite unblushingly.

What a night it has been! Surely, says everyone, there's never been a better dance at the Kansas House. The dancers are loath to have it end. They applaud every change. But the big clock down stairs has not forgotten to mark the hour and now says "half past four." "Mercy," says a girl in a low necked blue dress,: "look at the time. If it were summer it would be broad daylight !"

Ellis Dutton rises with tireless fiddle under his arm, waves for attention, announces the next dance will be the home waltz. Separated sweethearts hasten to find each other for the last dance. Generous Dutton's Band draws out the final waltz to extend the night's pleasure to its utmost limit. But eventually comes the last dying note, the dance that began nearly eight hours before, is over.

A great deal of commotion at the big barn. Lanterns moving about, horses being backed, led, hitched in the shafts or at the tongue, as they keep making continual starts, anxious to be on the way home.

The girls, muffled in coats and shawls, await the sleighs. It's nearly another hour before the last cutter goes jingling off down the road, leaving the now dim lit Kansas House to recover from its night's hilarity.

In the enormous silence of the woodland winter's night, sleighbells jingle farther, and still farther. A late moon comes climbing up behind the hills to make soft, bluish shadows under the hemlocks. Muffled crowing of roosters comes from the snowy barns.

Susan Blaine, who had made conquests enough for one night, finds she really is a little tired as she climbs the stairs to her bedroom with the small oil lamp her Aunt has left burning downstairs for her.

A bed creaks, Auntie is awake. "Did you have a good time, Susie?" comes a voice from a dark room.

"-Auntie-it was just g-l-o-r-i-o-u-s!"

SOURCE:  Page(s) 289-307: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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