Dancing Through The Depression
by Jeanne Cook Walsh

      Dancing was an important and inexpensive form of entertainment during the Great Depression.  Admission to a dance was usually 5 or 10 cents in Polk County, Nebraska.

      My dad was called on frequently to play violin with a hastily called together group to provide music for a dance.  He enjoyed playing but quite often the other musicians left something to be desired.  He and his brothers and sisters had been urged to learned to read music and play an instrument by their dad, Henry Cook, who had worked with each one of his 11 children.  Some of them accepted this better than others. 

      Jesse, my dad, was one who really "took" to the violin and by age seven, was playing with Henry for barn dances, and house dances.  When he came to work as a hired farm hand to Polk County from Richardson County where he grew up, he brought his violin and banjo with him and was soon playing for barn dances there from about 1910-1920.

      In the 1930's, the Shelby IOOF lodge looked to dances as both social opportunities for the community and as a money maker for the lodge.  They needed a good music group, one that was actually organized and used to playing together.  Jimmy Cook, one of Jesse's young brothers, recognized this as a money making opportunity for the Cook brothers as well as the lodge.  He played saxophone and Sammy Cook, younger still, played drums.  They talked it over with Jesse, who agreed to work with them.  They had heard of a great piano player from Rising City, Fay Kilgore, and contacted him.  Any hint of a few extra dollars usually brought a response in the 1930's and Fay joined the group.

      Musical arrangements were needed.  Jesse scraped together a few dollars and bought sheet music at the local drugstore.  The store displayed the latest pieces of music by clipping them to a wire across the back of the store.  Sammy and Jimmy worked at our diningroom table transposing the music into the proper key for the saxophone.  Fay did not need any music as he could play anything that he heard.  Practice times were held in our "front room" and I as a seven-year-old sat enthralled as they worked and played. 

      The going pay rate for an orchestra was $10.00 for the entire group of four people.  Some lodges would pay only $8.00 for an old time dance.

      The 4 piece Cook orchestra played at the IOOF hall above the drugstore in Shelby and began to get requests to play for lodges, and groups in other towns.  The dance halls were usually the old "opera" houses above stores.  Rising City had an empty building with a nice floor and some dances were held there.  The American Legion in Shelby held their dances in the opera house above Moon's IGA Store.  That was a larger building and the floor of course was the ceiling over the store.  A big crowd dancing to a lively tune would cause the ceiling to move up and down in that building.  One could actually see and feel the floor give to the beat of the music and the dancers' feet.  Eventually it was decided it was no longer safe to dance there. 

      A dance hall was built by the Eller family on their farm in the Platte Valley north of Shelby.  This was a big dance hall with an fine dance floor.  It was heated by enormous coal and wood burning heaters in two corners of the hall.  A crowded floor brought dancers dangerously close to the red hot heaters.  Behind one of the heaters was a ledge about 4 feet off the floor.  The ledge was perhaps 4 feet wide by 10 feet long.  This was designed as a place for the babies to sleep while their young parents danced.  There would be two rows of bundled babies the length of the ledge.  Toddlers were usually hauled around whether they wanted to be carried or not, by little girls in the 6 to 8 year old range.  Children 9 or 10, boys and girls alike, hopped around among the dancers, learning to dance.  When the floor cleared between dance numbers, little boys took off running and sliding on the slick dance floor. 

      Eller's hall was usually the place that the Catholic wedding dances were held.  Now, a wedding dance was FREE.  The bridal couple paid for the orchestra and the hall.  This would bring out a big crowd.  The big event of the wedding dance was the march.  It took some skill to lead the dancers in a wedding march.  A couple from Osceola, I think, who could lead quite intricate crossovers and circles usually led the marches at Eller's hall.  The dance did not begin until the bridal couple arrived.  The crowd would make way for the bridal party, the bride's long train would be spread out on the floor, the groom would give her his arm, and they would take their places behind the lead couple.  They would be followed by bridesmaids and their partners, groomsmen and their partners, parents, grandparents, relatives and anyone who wanted to take part in the march.  The leaders and the orchestra agreed on the tempo and the march began.  Once, twice, around the hall so everyone could see the bride and her gown, the happy groom.  Then the leaders began the real march, once up the center of the hall, to separate, ladies to the right, men to the left, the stately march went, down to the opposite corner where the two lines diagonaled across the room, crossing in the center.

      A march with many participants could have two crosses going at the same time.  Then into circles single file, ladies going one direction, the gents the other.  Finally the lead couple came together at the back of the hall, up the center, where they went right, the bride and groom went left and back to the back of the hall again joining four across.  Then up the center for four to go right and four left, this continued until there would be 16 coming up abreast to complete the march in the front of the hall in front of the orchestra.  Ah, it was a grand sight.  And the bridal train had a bad time of it until the bride would gather it all up on her arm and complete the march.

      A dance was advertised as "Old Time" (with mostly square dances, polkas, schottische, waltz) or "New Time" (round dancing to popular tunes) or "Mixed Dancing" (some of each!).  For New Time, Jimmy played saxophone, Sammy played drums, Jesse played banjo, and Fay the piano.  Jesse would sometimes take a break, and redhaired Hank, another brother, would play banjo.  For Old Time, Jimmy laid down the saxophone and swung a pretty partner, while Jesse picked up his fiddle and played the many old tunes he knew from childhood. 

      There was always an intermission about 11:30 when the orchestra would take a break of about 20 minutes, and food would be available.  Another money maker for the sponsoring group.  Sandwiches, cake, pie, coffee and cold drinks were available.

      At Eller's, the far end of the dance hall had a real lunch counter where Nick Eller and his brother-in-law fried hamburgers by the dozens.  There was plenty of cold beer, and ice cold "pop".  This was so enticing, that my mother soon realized we were spending all of the money Daddy made, on hamburgers and cold drinks.  Although it was hard to do, we no longer had one of those heavenly smelling hamburgers.  My sisters and I could have a bottle of pop only.

      I was one of the little girls struggling on the dance floor, learning to dance with other little girls.  And learn to dance we did.  Shelby was full of very good dancers when the big bands began to play at the large newly built Catholic dance hall in Shelby in 1940. 

      After two years of late nights and either bringing his wife and four little boys with him to the dances, or leaving them home, Fay Kilgore retired from the group.  By this time, my sister, Doris, was 16 and could read music and play the piano very well.  The only problem she had in fitting in with the other players was accompaniment to the "old time" melodies which had no written music.  She and my dad worked many an evening while he taught her the "chords" and key changes needed in the old tunes.

      The days of the big bands began to encroach upon the Polk County dance scene.  Radio and artists' unions were bringing about a change.  Composers began to agitate for some recognition of their talents.  ASCAP, a union of musical artists and composers, gained national prominence, and one day, Jesse received in the mail, a letter from ASCAP which strongly suggested he pay royalties for the use of sheet music by the orchestra, or stop using it.  It was a hard blow. 

      He still played with some pick-up groups for an old time dance now and then.  But the old time dances were losing their popularity and bigger bands were forming who could afford to pay the royalties. 

      One more time the orchestra played.  Vernie, another Cook brother, was getting married, and he wanted the Cook orchestra for the wedding dance.  So one final time, the Cook family gathered their instruments and headed for the dance hall, this time in Bellwood.  This time when the wedding march ended, it was Vernie and his bride standing before the orchestra with relatives and friends clapping and cheering.  It was a fitting close to the era of the Cook orchestra and the small dance hall.

© Oldtime Nebraska, 2000 -- Dancing Through the Depression -- submitted by Jeanne Cook Walsh, June, 1997