texas music history
3:07 pm
Mon October 25, 2010

Historic Central Texas Dancehall Destroyed by Fire

Central Texas’ historic Club 21 Dancehall is no more.  It burned down in a fire over the weekend. 

Club 21 was a popular spot off Highway 21 in Uhland, east of Kyle.  The owners claim it was the “oldest continuously operated country dance hall in Texas.”  KUT News spoke to Gary Hartman about the history of Club 21.  Hartman is the Director of the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University.

Hartman: There's a lot of debate about which is the oldest dance hall in Texas, and for that matter, which is the oldest continually running dancehall. So there is some debate,. but it was definitely one of the oldest in Texas.

KUT News: Do you know how old?

Hartman: Yeah, they built the front portion of the bar in 1893, the German settlers in that region did. It wasn't until 1912 that they added the back part that became the dancehall. Originally, it was the gym for a local high school, which is a little strange if you think of the front section of the building being a bar that serves alcohol, and then you walk through a door and it’s the high school basketball gym.

KUT News: You knew this place particularly well. Tell us why.

Hartman: Well, I used to play in a band, a couple of bands that played out there. Of course, this was way back in the 1980s, but it's only grown in popularity over the years. It's a very popular dancehall for that region, sort of east of Austin. A lot of those small rural communities, that's the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night.

KUT News: Explain what a Friday night or Saturday night would be like at Club 21. What would you hear?

Hartman: Mostly you hear country dance bands. There's some original singer-songwriter type material, but a lot of it would be classic country. George Strait songs are always big in a place like that.

It was first and foremost like all those community centers established by German settlers. It was really just that, a community center. That's what the German settlers wanted. They wanted a place where they could meet, where they could celebrate different events, and of course where they could sing and play music. So it grew out of that.

But it's really just a communal center. It's a place where people from all different walks of life would gather on a Friday or Saturday night and dance and drink and socialize. There were always lots of kids playing, running and dancing, and adults of all ages as well. 

I especially remember the little lady who ran that place for so many years. Her name was Martha Ilse. She was a German Texan, a descendent of some of the original German settlers. She was a very loveable lady. She was tough as nails. She wouldn't put up with any nonsense from anyone, and she had a strict dress code. Even in the middle of August when it was 100 plus degrees and there was no air conditioning inside, she would not let anyone step inside that dance club if they were wearing short pants or sandals or something she would consider inappropriate. She ran a tight ship, but she was a good lady and kept that place going and going strong for many years.

KUT News: Had you been there recently?

Hartman: I had stopped by there I guess a couple years ago. It was as popular as ever.  It continued to draw good crowds and they had a good selection of bands that would play out there every weekend.