Driving through a beautiful expanse of Texas Hill Country on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I pull off Highway 281 somewhere between San Antonio and Johnson City. I hear the Twin Sisters Dance Hall before I actually see it.
Twin Sisters Hall Club President Jo Nell Haas loves it here. This day’s all about raising money for a place she’s been going to her whole life.
It used to be that Texas towns of almost any size would have one thing in common: a dance hall. A place for people to gather, enjoy some music and, yes, dance. The Twin Sisters Dance Hall has been that place for Blanco for around 140 years. But now, it’s in some desperate need of repair. It needs a new roof and residents of the small Hill Country town are pulling together to raise the $55,000 needed to keep the hall in operation.
Today Haas says the hall is giving buggy rides. There are children’s activities like races, a petting zoo and bounce houses. There are all types of vendors, including food. There’s washer pitching, a barbecue chili cook-off and salsa judging. And there’s dancing all day.
That’s exactly what German immigrant Max Krueger had in mind when he built Twin Sisters in the 1870s near two “twin hills.” Ever since, residents have been two-stepping here the first Saturday of every month.
Howard Koch is a fourth-generation Blanco resident and a Twin Sisters bartender. He says families used to spend hours making their way to the dance hall by horse-and-buggy.
“You’d put a blanket underneath the table, put the kids down underneath there. They’d go to sleep,” Koch says. “Grandmothers would sit up there, drink their beer or whiskey or coffee or whatever, and watch the kids.”
A lot has happened under this roof. So, it makes sense that the original cedar shingles would be worn out by 2016 – especially after a couple of very wet seasons.
“Several times during the heavy rains, we walked in to check on everything and there was water across the floor,” Jo Nell Haas says. “So we’re running around with trash cans – the big trash cans – trying to catch leaks to keep it from ruining our dance floor. And we have an absolutely beautiful, beautiful wooden dance floor – one of the best in Texas that’s still alive.”
Historic dance halls in Texas are in trouble. The day after the event at Twin Sisters, Turner Hall in nearby Fredericksburg held a fundraiser to build a brand new structure after the hall burned down in June.
It’s been the fate of many.
Deb Flemming is President of a group called Texas Dance Hall Preservation.
“At one time, there were a thousand dance halls in Texas,” she says. “And today, there’s about 400 that are still left standing. And there’s a small number of those that still do public events like this.”
Flemming says Twin Sisters is the real deal – a place run by volunteers for the primary purpose of gathering people and dancing. But it wasn’t always that way. A few years ago Twin Sisters almost closed its doors.
And let’s face it – times change. Cities and towns get bigger. Blanco’s population has grown 20 percent since 2010. New businesses have opened up and old ones are expanding. There are endless options for entertainment.
So as I spent more time in Blanco, I started asking: Why do people want to save Twin Sisters Dance Hall?
Here’s what the residents say:
“To keep the community involved,” says Andrew Cox.
“It’s a continuation of a community focal point, locus,” Leif Oines says.
“Many people come to this place saying, ‘This is my roots. My family was here for one reason or the other,’” Haas says. “And I think it’s truly important that we, as communities, keep that going.”
And other communities that have done the same thing. The people of Schulenberg, Texas, rallied to restore Sengelmann Hall several years ago.
Still, the number of people going to dances just isn’t want it used to be. Preservationist Deb Flemming sees saving these dance halls as important for another reason – and it’s tied to the state’s exploding population.
“A lot of people don’t really know that these halls still exist or what their stories are,” Flemming says. “Because there’s so many new people in Texas and they see these buildings on the side of the road and they think it’s a barn. Or they may go, ‘What is that?’”
I am admittedly one of those new Texans. And later in the day as the Hot Texas Swing Band played, it was time for me to take a turn on that beautiful oak dance floor.
Mark wasn’t willing to give his last name, but was happy to give a girl a lesson.
The Twin Sisters Dance Hall raised a whopping $15,000 at the fundraiser, fast closing in on their goal of $55,000. They’re feeling pretty good about their progress – after all, they’ve got their community behind them.