The weekend before Christmas 1885, the owner of the Star Hotel in the sleepy little ranching town of Anson, Texas, cleared out the tables and chairs in his dining room, rounded up some musicians, and threw a wingding to celebrate the marriage of a local couple, and to spread some cheer in the town during the dreary winter months.
Cowboys, ranchers, and their families attended the dance, which became a yearly tradition.
Attending the dances was the nephew of a wealthy ranch owner, Lawrence Chittenden.
Like many of the Eastern scions of wealthy families who came West to invest in the cattle trade, Chittenden fell in love with the land and the lifestyle. Spending his winters on his uncle’s ranch, he regularly attended what become known as the Grand Ball.
Chittenden’s hobby was poetry, and he went on to publish a book, Ranch Verses, which contained the poem, “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”
Chittenden was not the first of the so-called “cowboy poets,” but as Paul H. Carlson points out in his new book, Dancin’ in Anson: A History of the Texas Cowboy’s Christmas Ball published by Texas Tech University Press, he was the first commercially successful one. Ranch Verses was wildly popular and the poem about the ball emerged as Chittenden’s most famous work.
The hotel burned down and the Grand Ball didn’t return until 1934. During the Depression years, the locals again needed something to cheer them up, so the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was revived after almost 40 years. Once again, families and lonesome cowboys from the Jones County ranches made their way to town on the last Saturday before Christmas to celebrate the season. Just as 1950s sockhops became popular in the 1970s, and “Disco Nights” were revived in the 1990s, the attendees came in 1880s dress. The music and dances of the 1800s were recreated.
The ball has been held in Anson every year since with traditional dress, music and dance steps a mainstay of the celebration.
Carlson’s book not only delves into the history of the dance itself, it puts the ball in context. Dancin in Anson provides an excellent history of how the region was developed, from the earliest buffalo hunters to when cotton began to supplant ranching. It has a biography of Chittenden’s life, a good rundown of the cowboy poetry tradition and its origins, and an analysis of the poem itself.
This broader look at the Christmas ball and its roots makes for entertaining and informative reading.
Country music entertainer Michael Martin Murphy, a student of traditional cowboy poetry and music, began performing at the ball in 1993. Murphy provides an informative Foreword in the book. The event is now an all-weekend affair held in a purpose-built dancehall that attracts attendees from all over the world. Cowboy poetry readings are held in the afternoon at Anson’s beautiful Opera House on its town square.
|Anson's Opera House was built in 1907. Photo by Stew Magnuson|
There is an ironic part of this story that Carlson only touches upon.
Anson for decades outlawed dancing within the city limits. Devoutly religious residents believed dancing led to sin, and banned it. The town had to pass a law to make an exception for the Christmas ball, but generations of high school students in the town never experienced a senior prom.
A clash between residents who wanted to lift the ban and those who wanted to keep it broke out in the 1980s, just about the time when a popular Hollywood movie, Footloose — about a similar town that outlawed dancing — was released. The national media’s discovery of a real-life Footloose plot put the spotlight on Anson. Ironically, Anson became known for two reasons: a big yearly dance and not allowing dancing.
The fight to lift the ban was recounted in an equally excellent book, No Dancin’ in Anson: An American Story of Race and Social Change by a University of Texas-Austin professor, Ricardo Ainsle, published in 1995. It is out of print, but worth seeking out and reading.
2014 marks the 80th consecutive year of the “Lively Gaited Sworray,” as Chittenden called the ball in the poem, and the 21st year Michael Martin Murphy has taken part in the festivities.
Dancin’ in Anson: A History of the Texas Cowboy’s Christmas Ball is available at Texas Tech University Press and other book retailers.
Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And coming soon: The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma.
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com. Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com