Dance halls? Where were they?

— Orcasional Musings by Steve Henigson —

Back in the good old days, there weren’t a lot of recreational opportunities for the people of Orcas Island. There was no electricity, and therefore no movies, and no radio. The boys and men played baseball, but what was a girl supposed to do? One could only make a family’s-worth of quilts before the linen closet overflowed.

And how was a courting couple supposed to get to know one-another? Ah, but there was ballroom dancing! There were dance halls all over the island, and if one wasn’t immediately accessible by trail or road, people could always row.

In Eastsound, starting in 1892, there were weekly dances at the Odd Fellows’ Hall. The small West Sound Community Club started hosting dances in 1908. The Olga Dance Hall was purpose-built before 1910, and it
remained in use until it was torn down in 1938.

Down at Orcas Landing, a large and sumptuous hall, with a huge dance floor and a mezzanine for spectators, was built in 1910. Robert Moran donated $10.00, to help build it. The Orcas dance hall came to an ignominious end in the 1950s, though, first as a grain-storage warehouse, and, finally, destroyed to make way for the ferry holding lot and its road.

Next, in 1915, the Nortons, who ran a nicely appointed inn near Deer Harbor, built a fine, large dance hall on their property. Today, it has lost its mezzanine and become a private residence, but, until quite recently, it still
was used for occasional parties and dances.

But, island-wide, the strangest place for a dance hall was atop Mount Constitution. Long before Robert Moran bought, and then donated, the mountain to the people of Washington, volunteer Orcasian labor built a wagon road to the summit, and an open-sided dance pavilion there. Both road and pavilion were formally declared open with a picnic and a dance in 1895. It rained, and the mountaintop was cold and windy, but Orcasians have always been tough, so they ate and danced anyway.

The W.I.I. Club hosted almost all of the public dances. It was an Orcas Island women’s club, but, by 1910, nobody could remember what W.I.I. stood for. Instead, jokers insisted upon calling it “the I.W.W.,” the name of the most militant labor organization of that time.

Hand-wound, wax cylinder phonographs weren’t loud enough to help a crowd of boisterous, happy people dance, so music was provided by local men and women playing piano, violin, horns, and drums. Once, on top of Mount Constitution, it was a portable, foot-pumped, church organ.

Orcasians danced the waltz, the two-step, the three-step, the polka, the fox trot, and the “brownie,” which was half waltz and half contradance. Square dancing was also popular. Festivities, under hanging kerosene lanterns, usually began at 9 p.m., took a midnight break for supper, and went on until sunrise. Saturday night was dance night, because, after dancing all
night long, a tired participant could sleep though Sunday’s church service, rather than have to scythe hay on a weekday.

Although almost all of Orcas Island’s dance halls are now long gone, Orcasians still enjoy a good ballroom dance when one comes along. Nowadays, Mount Constitution closes for the night at sunset, and there’s a parking lot where the pavilion was, so Odd Fellows’ Hall is all we’ve got.

Previously on Orcas Issues...

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We still got dancing at the best dancehall on Orcas! Come and dance at the Oddffellows Hall Sunday, July 7!
8 decades of music starting with the 1940’s at 4:00,
50’s at 5:00, 60’s at 6:00 and so on. All the way till midnight with the last hour being music from 20010 till now This fun-raiser for OPAL’s April Grove is DJ’d by Bruce Pavitt

Brian A Ehrmantraut

Wonderful history, Steve!

Janet Koltun

Among the popular dances was schottische. Another aspect: live music, including the group Hiskey’s Harmonizers. Good story!

I remember enjoying a great night out at the Deer Harbor Dance Hall in the early 80’s with the band ‘Wet Paint’ from Bellingham.

Linda Woods

My Grandparents Al and Florence Coffelt told me they use to go by boat to the dances on the Island as it was faster than horse and buggy.

Sylvia McKenney

Thank you for sharing this history of Orcas!

Fran (Barfoot) MacMillan

Great story. I might add that several years the various square dance groups from Orcas, San Juan, Lopez and even Shaw, used to meet on the Island Ferry and dance the evening away. Another interesting “Dance” story was in the 1950’s 1960’s, O.I.H.School Senior Ball and Junior Prom were open to the adults and general population as the classes were so small, a Band could not be afforded without those extra admissions fees.

B. Sadie Bailey

Great article, Steve; thoroughly enjoyed it and all this historical information! With Random Howse sadly retired as a dance hall, the Oddfellows Hall – a wonderful place to dance – IS all we have, and that’s all the more reason to cherish, protect, and preserve it, and spaces for the dancing Public to park. Much of the proceeds of hall rental go to scholarships for Orcas graduates, firewood for the needy, and other worthy community causes) The Bruce Pavitt Dance-athon fun-raiser for OPAL at ODDS hall was a blast – a feel good all-ages event that was savored by us… Read more »

Edith Thomsen

Shortly after we arrived on Orcas in 1980, the dance hall/hay barn) was dismantled, salvaged and stored. We traded a Whitehall skiff for the windows and flooring from that salvage. Those items were integrated into the home we built. The old island fir became a beautiful rich golden-red floor with a Gym seal finish. This article reminds me that I am on a dance floor everyday. Now, a little music please.