...with no lights at night to guide them safely home ... dancers had to party til sun up.
Story taken from Dance Across Texas by Betty Casey. Austin: Universtiy of Texas Press, 1985. Pages 54-56.
Matador Ranch Valentine Dance
On the high plains of Texas during the
winter months of the "gay nineties," regular dances were held every other
Saturday night, with an occasional, extra one, at big ranches --the matador, OX,
Pitchfork, Moon, and McAdams.
One of the most memorable of the big ranch dances was held February 14, 1895, at the Matador Ranch in West Texas. The setting was the headquarters ranch of the 100,000-acre Matador Land and Cattle Company, established in 1879 in Motley County, a mile from the town of Matador. The dance was one of those given occasionally by ranch manager A.J. Ligertwood to keep the cowboys happy and to promote friendly relations with neighboring ranchers and settlers. Dances were usually held between fall and spring roundups, after branding season, when the men were settled in for the winter. The guest of honor at the dance was Mrs. Hicks, the ranch manager's sister, recently arrived from Scotland.
"The grub for the midnight feed is in the commissary, "Ligertwood told the cowboys, "but how you get it cooked is up to you." The cowboys rushed to Mrs. Jack Zurick, who worked there, for assistance. She agreed to get help from the other women living in headquarters' residences, and the mess hall cook said he'd help. They began baking and cooking at once, in preparation for the feast. The cowboys galloped to neighboring ranches with the invitations, which soon included everyone within a radius of fifty miles. In eager anticipation the men would drop everything to saddle up and ride several miles to a neighbor's for a pound of butter or a few dozen eggs.
Furniture was removed from the mess hall, where the dance was to be held, and the hall was scrubbed until it shone. A large bunkhouse was cleared out and long tables were put up and "laid with white linens and silver." Then, just as they thought all was in order for the party, a heavy snow blanketed everything on the thirteenth. The cowboys got out the shovels and spent the day clearing paths between the buildings.
Among those excited about attending was Minnie Timms from Matador. "On the night before, "she reported in Old Ranches, "we girls rolled our hair in curling papers, pressed our best worsted dress and sateen petticoat; polished our shoes to a silken sheen, then waited impatiently for time to pass. And for once I was ready on time, dressed in my new brown cashmere, with a velvet bolero."
In an old stagecoach, she and three others quickly made the trip from Matador. From the top of a hill they could see the headquarters layout, which against its snowy background resembled a small village. Lights gleamed from the white house and mess hall, glistening across the snow-packed roadway. The nearby lake was shot across by a strip of light and faint glimmers came from several surrounding buildings. vehicles were so thick we had difficulty in approaching the house. A pack of dogs rushed out, barking excitedly; from under the machinery shed a horse neighed shrilly. One of our bays called back a friendly answer. But the sounds that thrilled us most were the clear high notes of fiddles, coming from the mess hall, mingling with the thump, thump, of cowboy boots and the tapping of lighter steps.
The mess hall was dimly lighted with kerosene lamps in wall brackets with tin reflectors, and pungent cedar logs crackled and burned in a corner fireplace. The moon was crowded and the dance was in full swing, although it was only eight o'clock. Tradespeople, schoolteachers, ranchers, punchers, and their ladies called out friendly greetings. W.P. Gilpin, county judge, was the dancing official. Frank Wilson of Childress and Jeff Morris of Matador played in the orchestra, which was located at one end of the long room. It had been imported from Childress, sixty-five miles distant. The dancers swung into a waltz to the popular tune,"Pride of the Ball." During the evening, the excited young Minnie Timms met her future husband, Benjamin F. Harper.
After a waltz, a big, handsome fellow with a broad smile swaggered into the center of the room. He was Roy McClain, one of the callers. He called out to the fiddler, "All set?" With the fiddler's affirmative nod, Roy's stentorian voice boomed out, "Get yo' pardners for a quadrille." The floor was quickly filled by eager dancers. "S'lute yo' pardner an' let'er go./ Balance all and do si do."
"The music was quick and devilish," Minnie Timss Harper recalled later, "Buffalo Girls and Billy in the Low-ground for the quadrille; Over the Waves and After the Ball for the waltzes." The voice of the caller was melodious and irresistible. "Then such dancing! None of your stately minuets, solemn lancers, or even the giddy waltz could equal it," Minnie declared. Dust rose from the floor about the stomping, prancing feet.
Benches around the room were filled with spectators, neighbors, and friends telling jokes and catching up on the news. Some of the men were apparently just off the range. They wore "battered old Stetsons, rough flannel shirts, chaps, spurs and heavy boots." Most, however, "were slicked up in their Sunday best, shaved, shined, smart looking in their new neckties and handkerchiefs."
Two young men with white buckskin vests encrusted with Indian beadwork in many colors caught the admiring attention of the young women. Others proudly wore watch chains woven of hair from sweethearts or young wives and decorated with gold. Shirt pockets bulged with sacks of "makings" for hand-rolled cigarettes and, "for this occasion, a package of gum." The women were turned out in their best dresses, and the gust of honor "wore a wine colored dress, with steel trimmings....Entering into the spirit of the evening, she was as jolly as anyone there."
During a lull in the square dance movements, a country official's exuberance led him to "show off." He "cut the pigeon wing" and "did the double shuffle, his long coattails cutting queer antics to the merriment of the crowd." Weave'em up an' weave'em down,/Weave'em pretty girls 'round and 'round," shouted the caller, now a trifle hoarse from his endeavors to make himself heard above the commotion. A happy cowboy let out a whoop, and "Pat Vaughn knocked the back step, to the delight of the cheering crowd. An overjoyous puncher was nabbed by the sheriff and hurried off to sober up."
The long banquet tables were loaded for the midnight supper. The cooks had done their job well. There was roast turkey, ham, chicken with trimmings, and "an endless supply of sweets." Coffee was kept hot in huge pots and boilers.
After supper the old fiddler patted his foot, wagged his head, and played so "fast and frisky" that "only the young bucks could keep step. The floor shook, the lamps trembled, their reflectors threatening to tumble off."
The dance eventually began to wind down with yawns half-hidden, the orchestra taking more time between dances and playing round dances more often. "Finally the mess cook called out: 'It's daylight, let's all have a cup of coffee.' heavy-eyed cowboys helped visitors with their wraps, while others hooked up the teams." Soon, all the guests were outside in the frosty morning air, shouting farewells, There was one last call from a distant cowboy--and the dance was just a happy memory, never to be forgotten.