Since dancing was the most popular form of social recreation for pioneers in Utah Territory, all adult settlers enjoyed the activity. They danced the same kinds of dances to similar music, with strict regulation of conduct rigorously maintained.

The following stories, told to daughters and granddaughters by the pioneers themselves, are included in this lesson. Similarity of subject material occurs but personal incidents are different, thus providing interest to the reader.


Seriously as most Mormon pioneers took their religious duties, missions and obligations, they sensed that wholesome recreation would give them some measure of relaxation from their daily problems, and keep them more fit for each season
*s work, whether it was trekking across the Plains to new locations in the untamed West, or battling with enemies, real or imaginary, and with the elements. And the dance floor, if only a cleared place along the campgrounds, a bowery, or later a social hall, was an invitation for mirth and relaxation and a common ground of human enjoyment, whether one danced or merely listened to the music.

Making their trek from Salt Lake City to Utah*s Dixie in the dead of winter, the Cotton Mission pioneers did little or no dancing along the way. But once they arrived in the St. George Valley, December 1861, their preparations for the Christmas celebration included dancing. This was a great occasion.

The big Sibley tent owned by Asa Calkins was set up on the Adobe Yard campgrounds and here they held their first Church meetings; likewise, their first social event—the Christmas social and dance. It was a great celebration. The afternoon was warm enough for outdoor sports—wrestling matches, hop-step-and-jump contests for boys and men, foot races for old and young and a program of singing. The dance started in the early evening.

Older folk were to dance inside the tent, and the space around the tent was cleared for the young people.

Oswald Barlow and his orchestra furnished the music for this first dance. Several of the young boys who had not learned to dance decided to peek under the tent and watch the stately couples bow and balance and swing and promenade. One of the boys, Brigham Jarvis, age eleven, who later became the father of the writer, wrote down the name of the first couple to lead onto the floor after the prayer was said and the first dance was called. This was Angus M. Cannon and Ann Amanda. He often told of how lovely Ann was, and how grand they looked dancing that night.

Jane Thompson Bleak, a polygamous bride, age fifteen, said of that first dance in St. George: "Large as the tent floor was, we younger people knew there would hardly be room for the older couples even though they could dance several quadrille sets at once. It was necessary to ask folks to count off, allowing odd and even numbers to alternate in filling up the floor for square dances. Only a few more couples could dance when waltzes, schottisches, or other round dances were called, and there were few of these. As a result, many of us younger ones were permitted to dance just outside the tent where we could hear the music and calls. We accepted this privilege happily and were very decorous. But while we were dancing a lively quadrille, my partner and I moved too close to the ditch which ran between the double row of wagons and tents across the valley. The newly plowed bank gave way, and I ‘sloshed* into the water up to well above my ankle, soaking the hem of my rose colored taffeta dress, and almost ruining my dancing slippers of which I was very proud. But we took the incident with a laugh and went on with our dancing, being more careful after. It was not long before rain began to fall—just a light fine shower—gradually getting heavier until the entire dance was closed and people hurried to their various tents and wagons. This marked the beginning of many days of rain."

For two and a half months the Cotton Mission pioneers of St. George remained at the Adobe Yard camp until the city proper was surveyed and lots were drawn late in February. The first place of entertainment and dancing after that was the Bowery located approximately where the Dixie Theatre now (1953) stands (one half block north of the tabernacle). Early Dixie writers tell of dances here in 1862, mentioning especially the dances and programs enjoyed when President Brigham Young and his company made their first visit. This was a very festive occasion and for more than a week there were children*s dances in the early afternoons, adult dances and programs in the evening, and several wonderful meetings. Again Oswald Barlow and his associates were the dance musicians.

The McIntyre brothers were also good "fiddlers" and played both at that first dance on Christmas at the Adobe Yard and for many of the dances at the Bowery. There were also several who could "call" the changes for the square dances. They were very kind in helping children to learn the changes and in keeping couples aware of the etiquette of the dance floor—the ballroom of that period.

Among the Swiss Company that arrived in Santa Clara, December 25, 1861, was one very excellent and gifted musician, George Staheli. He had been a member of a wind instrument quartet in his native land and brought his wonderful trumpet across the ocean, across the Plains and to Utah*s Dixie, or nearly there. But a sad accident occurred at Harrisburg when the wagon wheels bounced into a chuckhole along the road and threw his precious trumpet from its hook on the wagon bows, and it was crushed under the wagon wheels. He knew his people must have music, so after the 1862 January flood danger was past and the Saints had moved into what became the town of Santa Clara, he organized a vocal orchestra and band. He wrote various music parts and taught his group—which included both men and women—to hum and trill the tunes for programs, dances and Church services. They became expertly proficient and provided music for their own town*s events as well as for the other settlements of the area. Later, a bequest of band instruments made possible the organization of Staheli*s Band which furnished music for many events over a long period of years. Many of George Staheli*s family descendants are still prominent musicians. Some teach music in schools, and one son, Frank Staheli of Washington, nearing eighty years of age (January 1953) heads a dance orchestra that plays for many local dances.

One pioneer tells of the first Washington County fair which was held in the town of Washington in the fall of 1858, before St. George was settled. Records tell of the dances held each night, and of prizes being given for the waltz, schottische and for step dancing. Among the small group of settlers were musicians who could furnish good dance music. Among the family names are the John D. Lees, the Covingtons, Larsons and a few others. In fact, there were only seventy-nine souls in the entire county at that time, though many attended the fair from Fort Harmony, Cedar City, Kanarra, Parowan and a few from Kane County.

Other families were located at Toquerville, Rockville, Virgin, Duncan*s Retreat and Springdale from 1854. Until the early 1880s these towns belonged to Kane County, although they were geographically more associated with the Washington section, to which they were finally officially connected for taxing and other purposes. Except for Duncan*s and Toquerville, the settlements were earlier known by different names than are now used.

Music ability was present in the families of Gifford, DeMille, Hirachi and others. The well-known Gifford band and dance orchestra made long trips to play for seasonal dances throughout the area. Just as in other settlements, the school buildings replaced boweries for dance halls until a late period. Many times the people gave dances for small groups in their own homes. Many stories have been written of these dances, especially of those held in the DeMille Castle up at Shunesburg; at the Duncan Home in Duncan*s Retreat, and at the Naegle home in Toquerville.

In all of the old communities, stories tell of dances beginning at 1:00 p.m. on such holidays as May Day, July Fourth and Twenty-Fourth and other occasions for the children, while there were early evening dances for the teenagers and night dances for adults.

When towns were well established, or even before, dances were used as a source of revenue even as they are today. However, the turnover amount was seldom in cash those first years. All usable items such as brooms, fuel, molasses, flour, corn, beans, cotton, squash and other vegetables in season helped to pay the dance orchestra, the hall expenses, and such, and raised revenue for building funds, ward maintenance such as candles or kerosene for lighting. It was quite common for a young gallant to guide his charming partner, decked out in hoops and ruffles, using his right arm, and in his left arm to carry the pumpkin, small bag of corn, potatoes, beans or cane seed with which to pay his dance ticket.

After the first St. George Social Hall was completed in 1865, dances became quite elegant, as printed invitations and tickets of the period, still preserved, indicate. There were calico balls, baseball benefit dances, leap year balls, ward socials, Christmas benefit balls, ward dinner-dances and banquet dances listed on invitations. The elaborate printed cards and folders say "Yourself and Lady," etc. Oh, they were really elegant. Some even included, "Present This at the Door. Price $2.00."

Chairs were fitted behind the low balconies for those not dancing at this St. George Social Hall. It was also the center of dramatic productions, and what a history of dances, banquets and drama it held! In the basement were large slab tables, a broad mantel and plank benches. One end of the hall was partly closed across the center with the large fireplace, with entrances into the main hall at either side. In the fireplace were three large pothooks on swivel bars. Here food for many a banquet was cooked or kept hot in huge iron pots, and even biscuits could be cooked there, or heated in two large hearth reflectors that could be set close to the fireplace. Rich beef stews, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and brown gravy were all menu items, along with pie and cake for dessert.

Some time later the St. George Opera House was erected, a building nearly twice as large as the social hall and quite unique. At the edge of the large stage were two mammoth jack screws, two inches in diameter, which permitted lowering the main floor for dramas, operas and political or other public meetings, or raising it to increase the floor space for dances. The orchestra occupied the center of the hall. This building served until far into the 1900s and many still live (in 1953) who danced there, or who took part in the annual dramatic and opera performances. This also became the first moving picture hall. A large hall built of lumber was later built across the street, and for many years was known as Booth*s Hall, and later as the "Bim-Ray" for the managers.

Along with these places of entertainment, each ward had their respective school buildings where benches were moved out or stacked against the wall for small ward dances, especially afternoon children*s dances, special school dances and minor programs.

Among the many musicians recalled by the pioneers who remain and who danced to their music in St. George were several of the Worthen family, especially Joseph Worthen—a mason by trade and a skilled violinist. His brother George called for dances for many years. There was also Jesse Tye, photographer by trade; James Booth, and later James Booth, Jr., also photographers; Samuel, James and Thomas Bleak, some of the Whipple family, the Fullertons, Mclntyres, Graguns, Thompsons, Hardys, Ridings, Otto and Belle Clark and others, all of whom were connected with providing dance music through many years. In fact, there has never been a time when St. George and Washington County generally fell short on dance music.

The stories of dancing in St. George during the pioneer years could be duplicated in all parts of the county, and in all wards of the Church. Recreation was part of their way of life, and dancing was considered dignified entertainment. Every effort was made to keep these hours of amusement decent and proper, though they were sometimes a little rowdy, especially in the gayer square dances. Drinking and smoking in the dance halls was ruled out; and generally, intoxicated persons were likewise ruled out; sometimes moved out. Dances were opened and closed by prayer.

Dances of early days and even far into the 1900s always started early and closed at midnight, having allowed a brief recess during the evening for refreshments, and for sweeping up the dust-laden floors and sprinkling more cornmeal or other such powder to make the floor slick. During the intermission there were frequently special numbers performed—dramatic readings, skits or dance exhibitions. Sometimes a clever step dancer—and some of those older pioneer boys, such as "Daddy" Watkins, Isaiah Cox, Sr., Walter Kemp, Augustus Hardy and many others—could really do the hornpipe, the highland fling and double shuffles, furnishing top entertainment and a lot of variety during the dance intermission.

Silver Reef Mining Camp, located above Leeds and at the foot of Pine Valley Mountains, filled in its own pages of dance history of this area. Mushrooming into sudden prominence, as most mining towns do, this place of stranger-than-fiction-silver production saw both the highest and the less desirable in dance entertainment. The Harrison House, elaborate night club of the period, had its bar, cut glass and high-class music, and usually preserved, according to those still living (1953) who were there and remember the town, an orderly and decorous atmosphere. Even there one night, a shooting escapade over mining claims, money and a beautiful woman marred the night*s program. One source of music in this hall was a rare record-playing reed organ known as an "orchestrone," which is now housed in the McQuarrie Memorial Hall in St. George. In contrast to Harrison House were the cheap bawdries in several of the town*s saloons and lewd houses where liquor and language set the pace. The famous Silver Reef Mine and its silver wealth petered out within ten years, and only memory*s ghosts remain.

Return to last page


07 Oct 2004