There’s a scene in the movie “Titanic” about the fabled luxury ship’s fateful date with destiny. The elderly woman in the film tells the story of her own voyage that tragic night. She looks off across the waves many decades later, visions of a luxurious whirling ballroom filled with dancing couples coming brightly back into view inside her memory, inside her words. She makes us see it too. We are transported.
I met with 95-years-young Lenora Teichman Boyd last week. I like it when someone I’m interviewing says, “I can only tell you what happened up until the 1940s.”
I’m wanting to learn about the monthly Dodson Prairie dances, held about six miles west of Palo Pinto, the town. They started just after 1910. Lenora is home from the hospital, from rehab after back surgery to relieve constant pain. She’s sitting in a recliner, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day. I pull up a chair.
“They had the dances right out there.” She’s pointing out the window south and a little east behind this house. The closest public building that direction is in Strawn or maybe Mingus many miles away. But Lenora sees the old dance hall just outside, about fifty yards away. She starts talking, teaching. She makes me see it too.
Dodson Prairie really was in 1900 – a prairie, I mean. There might be an occasional small stand of oaks out there, she told me. Mostly one saw grass, as high as a horse’s belly. The flat prairie is today covered in cedar and mesquite, flat earth loping west until the ground erupts skyward into mountains, cleaved in two by Metcalf Gap. Lenora told me that those early farmers would burn their fields back each year, to invite fresh grass in the spring. The Comanche did the same, during their turn on this land.
Dodson Prairie was and is a German settlement. Folks worked hard, mostly farming, raising stock. Lenora’s Teichmann Family arrived in 1900 from the Schulenberg-Weimar area (before that, from Germany in 1868, landing at Galveston). They’ve been hard at it in Palo Pinto County ever since.
Once a month area families gave a dance, a get together. There was a public wagon road when this all got started, leading in from the west. That road is gone, though Teichmann Road remains. Lenora keeps talking.
It’s a black dark Saturday night on the Texas prairie. Coal oil lamps paint pale orange light onto the dusty ground outside Dutch Hall’s double doors. Saddled horses and mules are tied outside. The creak of wagons pulled by teams approach from the west, puncturing the stark silence of this bone cold December. Kids hop out and meet their friends, promise moms they’ll stay close, then run off to play. “There was a bed in one corner of the hall,” Lenora told me, “where babies could sleep.”
Dutch Hall was a tall community building made of overlapping frame lumber. It might’ve been 30 by 50 feet, though lonely brown foundation stones and a few wooden pilings are all that remain. Dutch Hall was used for dances, lodge meetings, and other community get-togethers. Night school for adults happened here. People came from all over for those Dodson Prairie dances – from Thurber, Mingus, Gordon, Palo Pinto, even the country across the Gap west toward Caddo.
We start to hear painfully brittle sounds inside the wood-heated hall – trumpets, sousaphones, a bass drum, and fiddle strings all looking inside the growing cacophony for a key they can all agree on. Finally, the band starts playing and the silent prairie comes to life with the joyous dancing, stomping and hand-clapping of hard-working farm families, taking a break from their tough frontier.
Cap Foreman yells loud across the heads of couples circling the floor. A square dance is called, couples circle up, his loud voice centers all:
Meet your partner and meet her with a smile,
Once and a half, and go hog wild.
Treat ‘em all alike,
if it takes all night.
Married couples and still-shopping young singles answer his call, with doe-see-does, and promenade rights. That morning’s broken plow and the calf that ran away fade in importance to these farmers and their wives.
Lenora’s father C. A. “Charlie” Teichmann led the Dodson Prairie Band. He taught friends and relatives to play brass instruments, and in one case a drum. At midnight, the wooden dance floor is cleared and large tables are spread deep with fine native foods prepared by the Prairie’s Germanic mothers and maidens. Families gather into Community here, from the oldest great grandmothers to the youngest newborns, rock fences built to keep in cattle, not to keep people out.
Dodson Prairie families were in many cases only one generation removed from their European homelands. The Herman Riebe family came here along with Joseph and Carl Teichmann, then the Ankenbauers, Bergers, Beyers, Dreitners, Holubs, Kainer, Kaspers, Nowaks, Popps, Schlinders, Telchiks, Thiels, and others.
One time “wild cowboys” interrupted the dance’s fun after one too many snort from the bottle. Poor planning on their part became apparent as lawmen were in attendance. The offenders were congratulated, then handcuffed to oak trees outside until morning. As the years progressed, fiddles, guitars and banjos replaced the brass-centric nature of Teichmann’s original Dodson Prairie Band.
I asked Lenora about moonshine, knowing it flowed liberally (I’m sorry, “freely”) to the south of here. “There was no moonshine,” she tells me, and I believe her. “Well, there might have been wine,” she finally admitted, these being upstanding Germans after all. I’d been told elsewhere that no one partook inside. During breaks men might wander outside for some light inebriation, I mean conversation. Many of these German families had their own small vineyards at home, home grown mixed with wild grapes from Lake Creek thickets down the hill. Do the math.
When the dances were over late on star-speckled nights, Lenora’s family would walk through the dark about a quarter mile to their home. Lenora remembers being carried. She couldn’t have been more than three. Lenora remembers.
“Was downtown Dodson Prairie right here back then?”
“No, it was spread out. St. Boniface was to our south. The first schoolhouse to the south of that, then the new schoolhouse was built north of the church. Over toward Highway 180 there was a cotton gin, west side of the road. Past that fell the store, the post office inside. The Poseidon post office. And a filling station. The county farm (poor farm) on the east, but that came later.”
The Teichman Family (the second “N” dropped through the years) came from Austria and Germany to Galveston, then to central Texas. They must’ve scored down there, because they bought two full sections of land when they reached this prairie. They paid between $2.50 and $4 an acre.
“Why did they buy here?” I asked.
“Because it was for sale,” Lenora answers.
It might have been because the black soil at Dodson Prairie mirrors that found where the Teichmans farmed down south, her son Charlie later tells me. Clearing these wide fields of rock, they built stacked, drift rock fences by hand. The two fences I saw to the southeast were two to three feet thick. A vintage photo shows another farther east rising in height above a horse’s head.
Dances moved to the “new” schoolhouse around 1950s. They occurred off and on there until four or five years ago. The bands finally got too expensive.
When Lenora was born in 1915 Woodrow Wilson was president. The Ranger oil boom was still two years in the future. Dodson Prairie was a thriving, peopled settlement.
Back to that German factor I mentioned earlier. Son Charlie and his friend Ann kindly loaded me in their pickup to show me around the Prairie. I’d made a quick tour before, not finding a lot. I wasn’t looking close enough.
Though their early houses were mere box houses (no internal framing), both original Teichman brother’s homes are still standing. From around 1900. One is being lived in, standing in proud testimony to the hard labor and attention to quality that these men and women nailed into place. The old school house, the new school, several thick rock walls, the church, and several county poor farm buildings are all standing. Those Germans built straight and true, though their local population continues to wane.
Teichmann and Schoolhouse Roads are two of the few roads in this area one can still travel down and read many of the same family names that settled that land 100 years ago. This too, is changing. If you stand respectfully in a quiet spot out Dodson Prairie way, I have to believe the old dance is still being held. Couples twirl, long lost love still beating hard and true. Invisible dance floors and midnight dance callers invite the distant past into the prayed-for future. If you stand quietly. If you believe.