Anson, Texas’ Cowboys’ Christmas Ball

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This drawing is used annually in Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball promotions. It depicts the instrumentation described by Larry Chittenden in his poem, as well as depicting dancers performing a quadrille.

The Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball is a nearly unbroken Texas musical tradition held every December in Anson, Texas (in Jones County, roughly 25 miles northwest of Abilene). The event began with a grand ball thrown at Anson’s Star Hotel in 1885 in honor of the cattlemen of the region. William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden attended that night and was so impressed by the festivities that he immortalized them in poetry. “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” was first published in the Anson Texas Western in 1890 and subsequently in his Ranch Verses of 1893. He describes his Ranch Verses as being “born in the idle hours on a Texas ranch.” Chittenden’s ranch on which he lived for almost two decades was located seven miles outside of Anson. For more information, check out the Texas State Historical Association’s biography of Chittenden.

Chittenden’s “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” was dedicated “To the Ranchmen of Texas,” and paints a vivid picture of a holiday celebration. He describes the hotel as being “togged out gorgeous” and decorated with candles, mistletoe, and “shawls” (which many have interpreted as blankets placed at the windows to insulate the hotel better). Lead by “Windy Billy,” who sang and called the dances, the crowded Star Hotel saw a very “lively gaited sworray” that evening in 1885. Chittenden even describes the original instrumentation: bass viol, fiddle, guitar, and tambourine.

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Larry Chittenden

Though the hotel would be lost to a fire in 1890, Chittenden’s poem immortalized the spirit of a cowboy Christmas celebration for generations to come. Many folklorists reprinted his words through the years (including John Lomax first in his Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. Lomax eventually attended the Ball in 1939). Even to this day we see the Chittenden’s poem in pop culture. Anson Texas would see some Christmas celebrations similar to the ball held irregularly in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1934 that the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was reborn.

In 1934, an Anson schoolteacher and local folklorist named Leonora Barrett helped stage the first re-enactment of the 1885 ball in the school’s gymnasium. Once again, people from Anson and surrounding communities joined in to celebrate the Christmas season. Sadly, Chittenden passed away in September of 1934 and would never get to see the ball reborn. Barrett insisted that the reincarnation of the ball retained the original dances, music, and customs of the first ball. This tradition, which includes men removing their hats on the dance floor and women only allowed to wear skirts, is kept to the present day.

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Photo from the Frank Reeves Collection (http://ow.ly/rOf5t). We believe this to be a rare image of Cowboy Christmas Ball founder, Leonora Barrett at one of the 1930s balls.

Barrett, along with Hybernia Grace (another local historian), meticulously researched the conditions surrounding the original ball and worked diligently to preserve as much local history as possible. For example, another tradition kept to this date is one suggested by Mrs. Ophelia Keen nee Rhodes, whose father owned the Star Hotel in the 1880s. She wrote a letter to Barrett that was then published in the Anson newspaper Western Enterprise of December 19, 1935. Keen remembers that one of the early Christmas balls celebrated a wedding, and so at the ball each year, you will see a newly-wed couple lead the grand march at the beginning of the ball. The grand march is one of eight dances that are traditionally performed at the Ball; others include the Paul Jones, the Virginia Reel, a polka, Schottische, two step, waltz, and ‘put your little foot’.

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Several couples dancing at the Ball in the late 1940s or early 50s. The Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association members emphasize that the event is a recreation of an 1885 celebration, and therefore have rules about dress. Men must not wear hats on the dance floor, nor should they wear spurs. If women are on the dance floor, they must be in skirts but no split skirts are allowed. Because of the spirit of the event, many participants attend in period attire. Notice in this picture the attempt for historically accurate western clothing. But also notice the many onlookers in the background; pioneer hall has plenty of seating for those who just want to watch the festivities and not dance or dress up.

Soon after its rebirth, the Ball became part of the Texas Centennial festivities in 1936, and in 1938 Anson residents danced on the lawn of the White House during the National Folk Festival. The Ball was expanded from one night to three, with a parade of historic vehicles even being featured in the late 1930s. Because of the Ball’s continued success, Barrett helped to copyright the reenactment, as well as creating a board of directors, who are now known as the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association. Pioneer Hall was built in 1940 as a permanent home of the three day festivities. The Hall was designated a historic site (and the Ball a historic event) by the Texas Historical Commission in 2010, after 75 years of re-enactments.

From the 1940s up until the 1990s, few records exist of the ball. We know it was a successful event based on newspaper articles, as well as the few surviving photographs, film reels, and one amazing ledger. The Southwest Collection is proud to house the original ledger started by Leonora Barrett in 1934 on the occasion of the first re-enactment. Each year she details noted guests, hosts, broadcasts made by radio stations, the leaders of the grand march, and other pertinent details. The ledger was kept updated until 1994 and is one document that allows scholars to see the completely unbroken tradition.

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The ledger that Leonora Barrett started with the first re-enactment of the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball in 1934 and was kept until 1994. This is the first page of the ledger, which details some of the earliest Cowboy Christmas Ball activities and participants. The original ledger is kept in the Southwest Collection, and the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association displays a facsimile copy at the ball each year. (Click on the image for a larger version!)

The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was reborn in a sense in the early 1990s, when Michael Martin Murphey began performing in Anson as the annual headliner. In 2010, Murphey began donating his materials to the Southwest Collection’s Crossroads Music Archive. It was also at this time that he put the archive in touch with the organizers of Anson’s Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball. In 2014, Texas Tech professor emeritus Paul Carlson’s book on the Ball will be published through Texas Tech University Press.

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Cowboy singer and songwriter Michael Martin Murphey has been the annual headliner at Anson’s Cowboys’ Christmas Ball since 1993. Here he performs one of tunes with his daughter, Sarah.

Though the music has been electrified and grown beyond four instruments, and historical dress is not required, attending the ball is still a festive step back into an older tradition. Each year, the ball is held on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday prior to Christmas. If you would like to attend this year’s Cowboys’ Christmas Ball, it is this weekend! December 19th, 20th, and 21st. Michael Martin Murphey will be performing on the final evening.  For information on tickets, times, and directions, visit the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball website.

by Elissa Stroman, Southwest Collection Audio/Visual Department

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Cook Bookery!

Cook Bookery!

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Junior Welfare League of Amarillo. Junior Welfare League Recipe Book. Amarillo, Tex.: Russell Stationary Co., 1942. (Published for the benefit of the Junior Welfare League, Free Clinic for Children).

The Southwest Collection contains a lot of books. Thousands, in fact, collected over several decades. They range in topic from ranching to the JFK assassination to sports history, with generous helpings of Texas, western, and United States history thrown in. A portion of that library contains over 800 cookbooks! That may sound a little surprising at first, but upon closer examination it makes archival sense.

SWC’s cookbook collecting began as a supplement to the history portion of the archive. There was, at that time, no real historical information about many of the organizations that produced cookbooks. Why did the group start? Who were its members, and why? The answers lay within. Many of our cookbooks come also come from small communities that used to be much larger, or which in some cases no longer exist. These contain not only recipes (which unfailingly sound delicious,) but also often relate stories about the community. Some tell of the founding of the town, while others contain recipes passed down through families. This might bring to light otherwise undocumented genealogical information such as a family’s roots in other parts of the country, or even the world. As a result the publications were collected more for their historical value than for the recipes inside. Now, while we still collect the cookbooks of many organizations, the SWC also acquires the more traditional, professionally published cookbooks.

The cookbook above was an early publication of the organization now known as the Junior League of Amarillo. As indicated in its bibliographic information, the sale of the cookbook helped to support the Junior Welfare League’s Free Clinic for Children in 1942. It also contained some historical information about the League. Perhaps most interesting are the illustrations that accompany each recipe. Many are humorous, while others simply depict an interesting aspect of its corresponding recipe. There were many contributing illustrators to this publication listed in the back of the book.

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Baptist Workers’ Band of the First Baptist Church, Bay City, Texas, eds. Baptist Ladies Cook Book. Bay City, Tex.: Excello Printing Co., 1911.

This particular book was donated to the Southwest Collection, and we are always grateful for such gifts. This rare and out of print item is owned by only three libraries in the United States. If not for the generosity of the donor, this item would not be available to researchers at the archive. It was authored by the First Baptist Church in Bay City, Texas, in 1911. The book contains recipes submitted by members of the church, but the book also serves as a historical reminder of past church members. Genealogists and researchers alike may see a relative’s name next to one of the many recipes. It is truly a source of both food recipes as well as a historical resource.

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National Guard Auxiliary of Austin. Ready to Serve: A Texas Cookbook. Austin: The Auxiliary, 1984.

This cookbook was compiled by the National Guard Auxiliary of Austin. Once again, it gives a short history of the group along with excellent recipes. Much like the First Baptist Church cookbook above, its recipes come from the National Guard’s members. The purpose of this cookbook is to ‘reflect the diversity of the state’s heritage’ as well as the heritage of the Texas National Guard. The cover of the book is particularly interesting because it illustrates a soldier going off to serve even as his wife and child offer him a final home-cooked treat.

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Barbour, Judy. Cowboy Chow. Bay City, Tex.: Barbour Books, 1988.

Some of our books have been acquired simply for the charm of the book itself, such as Cowboy Chow, which was produced in the shape of a cowboy boot and serves as a tribute to the American cowboys of the past and present. The cookbook contains many typical food and drink recipes that cowboys used such as beans, sour dough bread, and strong, hot coffee; just a few among many foods available at the chuckwagon. The cookbook shows that while the foods that cowboys ate were not fancy or complicated, they were always there to keep trail drivers going during the rough days that they often encountered.

These cookbooks are just a sample of the hundreds at the SWC. For a peek at these, or any of our other books (which can be searched for here or here), please contact our Reference Department.

By Freedonia Paschall & Austin Allison, Southwest Collection Cataloging Department

Hanukkah, History, and Lubbock, Texas

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This year Hanukkah, an eight-day Jewish holiday also known as the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication, began on November 27th and will continue until sundown December 5th. The Jewish community of Lubbock, Texas (the city in which the Southwest Collection is located) has been celebrating this holiday at its Congregation Shaareth Israel since 1934. From 1960 to 1980, Rabbi Alexander Kline presided over this event, and his papers at the Southwest Collection contain a tremendous amount of his research into and personal thoughts about the holiday. These culminated in the sermons he would share with the congregation.

An art historian well as a rabbi, Alexander S. Kline was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1903. He emigrated to the United States in 1921 to study art history at the University of Cincinnati, and was ordained as a Rabbi in 1933. He received his Doctor of Divinity from the Hebrew Union College in 1958. While Rabbi of Congregation Shaareth Israel, Kline was known for his art lectures at the Museum of Texas Tech University. But his thoroughly-researched, scholarly sermons were what touched the heart of the Lubbock Jewish community. Each piece was written by hand on the back of memos, bulletins, correspondence with other religious groups, and a host of other documents that are an interesting set of research materials unto themselves! The image above is the first page of his sermon on Hanukkah delivered in 1978.

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Before composing his sermons, Rabbi Kline would review all of the information he had gathered throughout decades of rabbinical service. The sermon about Hanukkah was no exception. One of its themes addressed ignorance. During the holiday season, Jews often found themselves being asked about their Christmas plans. At the bottom of the image above, taken from the December, 1978 issue of Amarillo, Texas’ Temple B’Nai Israel Bulletin, an anecdote that Kline cited to address this phenomenon can be seen (although the explanations of Hanukkah by 2nd and 3rd graders, located along the side of the paper, deliver their own amusing message.)

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This image is not only a great example of why none of us should store newspaper clippings atop other documents (they emit hydrochloric gas, resulting in the brown rectangles across the middle of the paper,) but is also one of the bases for Kline’s other theme: tolerance. This is the first page of a document describing an incident that occurred in White Plains in 1950. Although the event transpired nearly three decades before Kline’s sermon, examples like this helped Kline outline the historical tension between two religious groups that had long struggled to negotiate a relationship within the bounds of the freedom that America provided.

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What then could Jews do to combat ignorance and encourage tolerance? Rabbi Kline proposed many answers, but above excerpt from The Southern Israelite on November, 30, 1956, was one that he adhered to closely. Take pride in your Jewishness, he counseled, and emphasize the magnificent holidays in the Jewish calendar, namely Hanukkah, that young Jews could enjoy while surrounded by Christian’s festivities.

Rabbi Alexander Kline’s papers are full of intriguing lectures granting insight not only into his rabbinical mind, but also into the unique needs of a West Texas Jewish congregation. We’ve published other blogs about the Congregation Shaareth Israel as well as our other Judaic materials, and we encourage you to take a look at those as well. And, as always, curious researchers may contact our Reference department to arrange to view any of our collections.