LIMA — In the good old days of early 1941, as Americans made the most of a nervous peace in the final months before Pearl Harbor changed everything, 59-year-old Bill Hodde, “Lima’s Old Dance Man,” recalled the good old days of square dancing several decades earlier.
“It wasn’t a bit uncommon, Hodde said, to see 500 persons crowd into the halls. Many times, there would be 30 sets, or 240 persons, dancing at one time,” The Lima News wrote Feb. 2, 1941. “In 1926, as other dances forced the square dance to the sidelines, Hodde went out of business.”
In a history that could be traced to 1600, square dancing had been forced to the sideline before; it never stayed there, and dancers continue to do-si-do today.
According to the history.com website, square dancing evolved from several European ancestors, including English country dances, in which couples lined up on village greens to practice weaving, circling and swinging moves reminiscent of square dancing and French social dances such as the quadrille and cotillion.
In early America, French dancing styles were favored as, in the wake of the Revolution, many people snubbed all things British, according to the website. “A number of terms used in modern square dancing come from France,” according to the site, “including ‘promenade,’ ‘allemande’ and the indispensable ‘do-si-do’ — a corruption of ‘dos-a-dos,’ meaning ‘back-to-back.’” In the 19th century, instead of memorizing each step, participants began relying on callers, many of them African-American, to provide cues.
To Hodde, “the quadrille — generally called the square dance — means a good time with a fiddler, four lively couples to a set and good clean fun.” The News wrote in 1941. “The quadrille, packed with ‘swing plus,’ elbow clicking and grace, had its fling in Lima back in 1907 when Hodde first started a hall at Hover Park.” Hodde, whose son Harry called square dances as well, also operated, in the words of the News, “famed halls” on South Union Street and in the 100 block of East North Street.
Square dances were common in Lima long before Hodde and his Hover Park hall. In November 1872, the Allen County Democrat opined that “square dances are to be fashionable this winter.” In January 1891, the Lima Daily Times proclaimed, “The waltz is doomed. It is being supplanted by square dances, with beautiful minuet figures.”
In December 1906, according to an item in the Lima Times-Democrat, gentlemen could dance to “old-time square dances” at Klauss Hall, on the corner of Main and Wayne streets, for 10 cents a dance while ladies danced for free and “no improper characters” were allowed. Other early venues included the Morris Arcade Hall on North Main Street, German Hall on East North Street, the dance hall at McCullough Lake Park (today’s Schoonover Park) and the Majestic Rink on East Spring Street.
By the 1920s, square dancing was considered a fading form of entertainment because, according to a theory advanced by an unnamed Ohio State University economics professor, there was less “elbow room” in the country. “But now people live in crowded cities, tiny homes and dance close, cheek-to-cheek, or even stand still and shimmy,” the professor explained in a story published in the News in June 1921. “Continuing his theory, the professor explains today’s abbreviated costumes by asserting that costumes must be as cool as possible, because of the violent exercises in the close rooms.”
Popular evangelist W.E. Biederwolf, for one, was not at all happy with where all this shimmying was taking American youth. During a sermon before more than 2,500 youth in Lima in December 1922, Biederwolf said, “I have nothing to say of the old-fashioned square dance. I could never see anything wrong in it.” But, Biederwolf warned, according to the News, “Many dances go under that name and they start off in the old square fashion, but in a very few minutes the corners are all knocked off and we have the popular round dance that everyone seems to have lost their heads over.”
Whether or not it met Biederwolf’s standards, square dancing enjoyed at least sporadic popularity in the 1920s and ‘30s with dances at McBeth Park, Hawisher Hall and the Moonlight Barbecue and Dance Hall at the intersection of Bellefontaine and Kibby streets. In February 1926, the News reported that an auto show at the Timmerman showroom on West Market Street drew 4,000 people, many of whom took part in square dancing on the third floor.
In November 1935, a headline on a story in the News proclaimed that “Square Dancing Vies With Night Club Floor Shows.” At the Blinking Owl, on North West Street Road, the newspaper wrote, “The management has arranged for a typical old-time fiddler plus a guitar player for the modern touch. A ‘caller’ with the approved railroad waiting room announcer’s nasal intonation will pace patrons in ‘chasing the squirrel’ and other gymnastics so dear to the hearts of square dance enthusiasts.”
In the decades after World War II, square dancing enjoyed a revival across the country as microphones and records made it more accessible to the general public, “since,” according to history.com, “a highly trained caller with a booming voice no longer had to be physically present.”
Venues such as the Blinking Owl, the nearby Glendale Gardens, the Blue Circle Night Club on South Dixie Highway, Helen’s on North Jackson Street, the Century Club on state Route 309 near Delphos and the White Dove Inn at Scott’s Crossing vied for customers. Patrons danced to the calls of Harry Hodde and Curt Ambler while Pete Patton and his Demon Fiddlers, or Tex Ferguson and his Drifting Melodiers, or Clay Eager and his Railroad Boomers provided the music. In the early 1950s, Lima native Jerry Byrd, “the nation’s favorite steel guitar player,” according to a December 1950 ad in the News, often appeared at area square dancing venues.
In September 1957, the Lima Citizen interviewed Al Brundage, a well-known square dance caller from Connecticut, who explained that the revived interest in square dancing was partly due to middle-aged couples who had been raised on competition. Square dancing, Brundage told the newspaper, is a cooperative venture. “A couple has fun without competing. Dress is casual. The evening is inexpensive and non-alcoholic,” the Citizen wrote.
In addition, Brundage told the newspaper, “it’s a sure-fire cure for a man who feels he has two left feet.”
Although its popularity eventually waned, local enthusiasts, who formed clubs like the Lima Sues ‘N’ Cues, the Silver Spurs and the Hix and Chix, kept on dancing. “It clears your mind,” Bob Skeen, a Silver Spurs member told the News in December 2002. “All your troubles and aches and pains go away.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.