Man’s mission to find dad’s old dance halls
Put on your dancing shoes.
Many people wore dancing shoes. The shoes didn’t have to be special in a “Sunday best” way. They just had to be different. Dancers didn’t use the same shoes on the dance floor that they used to get to the dance. Prior to dancing, they put on dancing shoes. The words evolved to mean, “prepare for an upcoming activity.”
In the 1930s, my dad had a dance band, Irv’s Melody Boys. While looking through some of his keepsakes, I got the notion to polish his trumpet. As I was polishing, I started thinking about places Irv’s Melody Boys appeared. Then I got another notion: go looking for the old dance halls.
I put on my dancing shoes.
Finding the first dance hall was easy. Irv’s Melody Boys played for dances at the city hall in Big Stone City, South Dakota. It was constructed in 1910, the year my dad was born. The cities of Ortonville, Minnesota, and Big Stone City, South Dakota, are separated by about 1.7 miles which includes the source of the Minnesota River. If I was going to look for dance halls where the Melody Boys played, then why not also try to find someone who attended some dances?
The search for someone who had attended one of the Melody Boys’ dances and how daunting this would be hit me during a conversation with Marion Larsen. Larsen has run the Cottage Inn Cafe in Big Stone City, South Dakota since 1971, when, after raising seven children, she acquired it from her parents. We were talking about dance halls, and she mentioned the Coliseum in Browns Valley, Minnesota. I recalled going to Browns Valley for Sunday dinners at my dad’s Aunt Della’s house. Larsen asked, “Was Della a Horseman?” I told her yes and that she lived with Jim Oliver. They never married, and I never heard anything about why. “I knew both of them,” she replied, “and I think they probably thought it wasn’t anybody’s business.” I said I was doing research about dad’s dance band and how great it would be to find someone who had attended one of the dances around 1932. “Good luck with that,” she said. “In 1932 I was six years old!” Marion is 93. How old a person do I need to find? How about 109?
Rena Bagne was 109 and that would make her 24 years old in 1932 and old enough to go dancing. I went to visit her at the Fairway View Senior Communities in Ortonville, Minnesota. Maybe I would get lucky. Not so daunting after all. I was a stranger to her, but when told I was Irv Broich’s son, she said, “I remember how I enjoyed hearing him sing in church.” I told her she was the only person I knew of who was old enough to have attended a Melody Boys’ dance. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you there,” she said. “I remember him in church and painting my house, but I never danced to his band. My dancing days were in Glenwood.” Those dances would have been at the Lakeside Pavilion on Lake Minnewaska in Glenwood, Minnesota. Was she a good dancer? “I won a dance contest,” she exclaimed. “I’m not getting clear on who I was dancing with.” Did she remember what year it was? She smiled at me and said, “Oh, it had to have been at least two, three years ago.” 109-year-old eyes could still twinkle. Bagne died in August, 2018, at age 110.
My search for dance halls where my dad played took me to Dumont, about 30 miles north of Ortonville. Irv’s Melody Boys appeared there often. The road to Dumont runs through Clinton where, on Jan. 6, 1932, the band played for a dance at the I.O.O.F (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) Hall in Clinton. Among the dance bills my dad saved was one that said, “FOLLOW THE CROWDS TO CLINTON, Where a Good Time Always Awaits You.” The crowds are long gone; the same for the hall.
During the early 1930s, there was an inclusive attitude about clothing. The announcement for a Dumont dance on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 1931, said to, “Come dressed as you like—your old clothes or your best suit.” A dance bill stated that on Wednesday, Oct. 21, “Once Again, Irv’s Melody Boys will play for a Dance at Dumont.” They also played there on Wednesday, Oct. 28, with that dance bill noting, “When it’s a Dumont dance it’s the best dance in Western Minnesota.”
Another dance bill sent me to Revillo, South Dakota. My friend, Ivan Thomson, was riding with me the day I stopped in Revillo. His help with my search was inestimable when I wanted one more thing checked or one more photo taken, saving me a couple of 350-mile roundtrips. We found a man working on his tractor in what appeared to be a back yard melding into an alley. After talking for about 20 minutes, he seemed satisfied we were really just out looking for old dance halls. At the time we did not know there was a building in Revillo that was used for dancing. I don’t know if he knew about the building. This would end up requiring a return trip to Revillo.
For now, we would follow his directions to Twin Brooks, South Dakota, about 25 miles from Revillo, to the location of a threshing show. He said there was a building there called Vernon Hall that had multiple uses, one was dancing. The show site is maintained by a private group of 30-40 volunteers called the Twin Brooks Threshing Show.
Vernon Hall was built in 1914, about three to five miles north of Albee, South Dakota. The hall was moved to Twin Brooks in 1988. Lowell Boe led the restoration of the hall. “Many volunteers devoted hundreds and hundreds of hours,” Boe said.
The dance floor area in Vernon Hall measured 28 feet x 28 feet, which gave 784 feet for dancing. It would seem reasonable that a couple could dance comfortably in an area of 16 square feet, allowing for 49 couples. However, if there was a large turnout packed on a floor this size, a person could end up dancing cheek-to-cheek with two people at the same time. Vernon Hall is still in use for church services and a polling place. The voting booths are stored under the stage.
I have a dance bill for which dad made a barn wood frame that announced a dance on Friday, Feb. 5, 1932 at the New Rolstad Barn located at the south end of Main Street in Sisseton, South Dakota. Music would be provided by Irv’s Melody Boys, “A hot 6-piece dance band of Ortonville, Minn.” The building would be well-heated and, “A splendid floor and great music assures you a good time.” A six-piece band would mean a guest musician sitting in with the five-piece Melody Boys. Maybe it was Pluky. The bill for the Friday, December 18, 1931, dance at Harmonia Hall in Milbank, South Dakota stated that Pluky Hendricks would be featured on saxophone. I don’t know for certain that Hendricks was in Sisseton.
The roughly 50-mile drive to Sisseton winds through Browns Valley, Minnesota where dad was born. The Coliseum was in Browns Valley. It had a capacity of 2,000 and featured big-name bands such as Guy Lombardo. Inside was a sign that read, “Somebody’s mother and sister is in this hall tonight. Please act as you would toward your mother and sister.”
When I arrived in Sisseton, I went to the first building that caught my eye: the Roberts County Courthouse. I couldn’t have made a better choice. I showed a copy of the dance bill for the Rolstad barn dance to county auditor, Dawn Stattler, and asked if there was a history center where I could find a picture of the barn. “I can do better than that,” she said. She asked to make a copy of the dance bill, which she returned along with a phone number. “Call this guy,” Stattler said. “He can help you with the barn and more. He’s a country artist and has painted a lot of dance halls.”
The artist was Harry Moshier. His card read, “Prairie Painter.” I told him about my interest in dance halls and that dad’s band had played in the Rolstad barn. Moshier had pictures of the Rolstad barn for me, both ground level and an aerial view. Almost all of his paintings were out of Irv’s Melody Boys’ territory except for two. He had painted the Coliseum and Vernon Hall. I purchased a print of the Vernon Hall painting and decided to give it to the Twin Brooks Thrashing Show, the group that restored the building. The painting is a winter scene depicting people riding by Vernon Hall in a horse-drawn sleigh.
Dad told about getting snowed in at a dance. The best I can remember is it was in Revillo or Dumont.
The snow started that afternoon, and it was getting heavier around the time the dance started. People had come out anyway, and the dance was well-attended. Every now and then someone would say, “It’s really coming down out there” or “It’s starting to pile up out there.” Midnight was approaching when the sheriff came up to Dad and said, “Irv, you guys have to play all night. We can’t let them out in this. It’s too dangerous to let them try to get home.” At some point during the night, Herman Hahn, the drummer, decided to give his brother Harold, the pianist, a break. “He was just slapping at the keys,” Dad said, “and it sounded like hell. Didn’t matter. People were dancing to it.” About sunrise the sheriff returned and told Dad that the butcher shop and café owners were up early, and soon there would be breakfast for all. “We’ll feed them while we get the roads cleared.”
When I called Lowell Boe to verify the naming of Vernon Hall, I thought I had found all the dance halls I was going to find. I explained that Irv’s Melody Boys were popular in Dumont and Revillo and although the Dumont Town Hall, where the dances were held, had been torn down, at least I had a picture of it. I wished I had something for Revillo. “That building is still there,” Boe said. “It’s being used to for fireworks. It used to be the Revillo City Auditorium.” Much to my delight, there was another building, still standing, where the band had played.
The band was also popular in Big Stone. There was a Friday, Oct. 30, 1931, Halloween dance at City Hall. People were encouraged, “Never Mind Your Clothes—Come Dressed As You Are.” On Friday, Jan. 29, 1932 there was a Kiss Dance. For New Year’s Eve, Thursday, Dec. 31, 1931, people were invited to City Hall: “Come Dance the Old Year Out and New Year In to Entrancing Music of Irv’s Melody Boys.” They also played New Year’s Eve, 1932, at Parish Hall in Big Stone.
I had put on my dancing shoes. How was the dance?
I now know 11 locations where the Melody Boys played. There are four where I have locations but no building or picture: I.O.O.F. Hall, Clinton; Harmonia Hall, Milbank; Parish Hall, Big Stone; and what was identified only as, Hall, Barry. Four locations have no buildings, but I have pictures. These are the Coliseum, Browns Valley; Town Hall, Dumont; City Hall, Big Stone; and Rolstad barn, Sisseton. Three have buildings still standing: City Auditorium, Beardsley; City Auditorium, Revillo; and Vernon Hall, Twin Brooks. I hope I didn’t miss any.
I found it was, indeed, enchanting to dance to the music of Irv’s Melody Boys.