It’s that time of year: the ol’ holiday season, and that means that folks from the Southwest Collection will be headed south to Anson, Texas, for the annual Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball. Down in Jones County, roughly 25 miles northwest of Abilene, the event has been held almost-annually since the first grand ball thrown at Anson’s Star Hotel in 1885. That night, attendee William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden was inspired to compose his poem, “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball,” promptly published in Anson’s Texas Western and, subsequently, in Chittenden’s Ranch Verses of 1893. “Born in the idle hours on a Texas ranch” where he lived for almost two decades seven miles outside of Anson, the poem is still a hallmark of the event today.
The poem was dedicated “To the Ranchmen of Texas.” It captures the spirit of the occasion, with its “togged out gorgeous” hotel festooned 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.
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. People from Anson and surrounding communities gathered in the school gymnasium for the event. 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.
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, suggested by Mrs. Ophelia Keen nee Rhodes, whose father owned the Star Hotel in the 1880s, wrote a letter to Barrett that was then published in the Anson newspaper Western Enterprise of December 19, 1935. In it, Keen remembers wedding at an early Ball. As a result, each a newly-wed couple leads the Ball’s opening grand march. Several other dances follow, including the Paul Jones, the Virginia Reel, a polka, Schottische, two step, waltz, and ‘put your little foot’.
Soon after its rebirth, the Ball began to gain attention. It was part 1936’s Texas Centennial. In 1938 Anson residents danced on the lawn of the White House during the National Folk Festival. Soon after, it expanded from one night to three, including a parade of historic vehicles (although that tradition has since passed.) Because of the Ball’s continued success, Barrett helped to copyright the reenactment and created a board of directors, who are now known as the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball Association. Pioneer Hall, its current residence, was built in 1940 and was designated a historic site (and the Ball a historic event) by the Texas Historical Commission in 2010.
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 housed at the Southwest Collection. Started by Leonora Barrett in 1934 on the occasion of the first re-enactment, the ledger details yearly guests, hosts, radio broadcasts, leaders of the grand march, and a myriad of other facts. The Ball kept the ledger updated until 1994, ensuring that future scholars can appreciate this unbroken tradition.
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. At this time he also put the archive in touch with the Ball’s organizers. As a result, in 2014 Texas Tech professor emeritus Paul Carlson published Dancin’ in Anson, a definitive account of the Ball’s rich history.
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. This year’s ball will be held December 17th, 18th, and 19th. Michael Martin Murphey will be performing on the first evening. For information on tickets, times, and directions, visit the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball website.
by Elissa Stroman