That’s Entertainment: The First Half-Century

Life was hard for the early residents of Fort Worth, of course. Did they have time and energy for entertainment?

Yes, indeed. But their entertainment (song, dance, theater)—like their food, clothing, and shelter—was homemade.

In 1849 there would be no theaters, no concert halls for another quarter-century, no mechanical reproduction of sound and images for another half-century.

Labor and money were in short supply on the sparsely populated frontier. Members of a community would gather to accomplish a goal—raise a neighbor’s house or barn, sew quilts, husk corn, roll logs, pare apples. These clips from the 1870s show that song and dance were part of the entertainment.

Barn-raisings were especially popular. One hundred or more persons might attend a raising. After they had worked hard, those folks wanted to be entertained and fed. And because in sparsely populated rural areas a gathering of one hundred people was significant, barn-raisings were the town hall meetings of the frontier: Political polls were taken; candidates addressed voters in those days before mass communication.

Did the early settlers have musical instruments?

Yes. Fort Worth historian Mary Daggett Lake writes: “Musical instruments were not easily to be had, but a French harp or a common fiddle then went as far as an orchestra goes now.”

And Judge J. C. Terrell, who came here in 1857, said it was not unusual to find a piano in a log cabin with a dirt floor.

In fact, by some accounts the wife of Major Ripley Arnold brought the first piano to Fort Worth in 1850 (when the first census counted only 672 “free inhabitants” in the entire county).

Frenchman Adolph Gounah is said to have given music lessons to the Arnolds’ two children.

Certainly M. L. Woods and family brought a piano with them when they arrived in 1853.

And in 1856 Mr. and Mrs. John A. Mitchell arrived. Mrs. Mitchell had her piano shipped from Memphis, Tennessee, to Shreveport, Louisiana, by water and then to Fort Worth by ox wagon—a trip of three months. She gave piano lessons in her log cabin.

What was the music like?

Some of the early Anglo settlers—and the fort’s soldiers—had been born in Europe (Germany, Italy, France, United Kingdom). These groups sang and played the songs of their heritage—in their native language. As slaves, African Americans were steeped in songs of their own experience.

A generation later the children of these groups sang songs of their American experience. Howard Peak, born in the old Army fort in 1856, recalled some titles: “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “My Darling Nellie Gray,” “When the Roses Come Again,” “My Old Kentucky Home.”

To accompany such songs, more likely than a piano was a fiddle.

Mrs. Lake wrote: “It will never be known just how much the early settlers of Texas owed to the stirring notes of the fiddle. Certain it is that every home, crossroads store, and community had its fiddler, and so much a part of the man was his fiddle that they were scarcely ever seen apart.”

Best remembered of Fort Worth’s early fiddlers was Captain John M. “Uncle Jack” Durrett. Durrett was born in Virginia in 1812, moved to Tarrant County in 1853, living first in a cabin on Sycamore Creek on the road to Johnson Station and later on the bluff behind the courthouse.

Durrett, who listed himself in the 1870 census as an auctioneer, was known for his lively fiddle and his “melodious” voice.

Mrs. Lake wrote that once Durrett’s house caught on fire as he was singing and playing “Arkansas Traveler.” But Uncle Jack, like Nero, went right on a-fiddling. When informed that his house was on fire, he improvised as he sang—”Boys, please go put it out”—and continued fiddling. When asked afterward why he didn’t stop fiddling and help fight the fire, he said, “Damn it, I was in a place where I couldn’t stop.”

Durrett and other popular fiddlers had a wide repertoire and played favorites upon request: “Arkansas Traveler,” “Dilcy Hawkins,” “Dixie,” “Coming Through the Rye,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” “Billy in the Low Ground,” “Money Musk,” “Sally Gooden,” “The Campbells Are Coming.”

Fiddlers were the jukeboxes of the frontier.

Fiddlers played at bees, huskings, raisings, and holiday celebrations such as Independence Day at the Cold Spring.

Another time for celebration was when ox freighter John White returned to Fort Worth with sugar, coffee, salt, flour, seeds, cloth—and whiskey. Historian Julia Kathryn Garrett writes that Durrett played on the town square to celebrate White’s arrival, ending the “whiskey drought.”

Howard Peak recalled that during the Civil War, as residents fretted over the fate of loved ones fighting back east, Durrett would sit in the shade on the courthouse square in the evening and play “sweet musical melodies . . . to his despairing audience . . . relieving their hearts of encompassing gloom.”

Fiddlers played for dances, too: minuets, gavottes, quadrilles, schottisches, reels, waltzes, and, of course, square dances.

Mrs. Lake wrote: “The dance was the one place where the fiddler was indispensable. Dancers were often kept all night and sometimes far into the morning with . . . the old-time square dance. Those were the days of the ‘caller,’ who was frequently the fiddler as well. He was easily the most popular man in the country.”

In 1914 Mrs. Lake’s father, cattleman and square dance caller E. M. “Bud” Daggett, recalled: “Fifty years and more ago, dances in Tarrant County were things of beauty. The steps demanded grace; the ladies and gents bowed without hunching their shoulders; the lady bent her head and curtsied to the floor, while the gent put his right hand over his heart, drew back one foot, and bowed gracefully. Then there were steps. Why, I’ve seen a gent go that high in the air [illustrated by holding his hand three feet off the floor] and come down as light as a feather. No noise at all. Not even his spurs jingled.”

Daggett recalled some of the square dance calls: “First lady and gent forward and back again; four hands ’round, and first gent swing the lady on his right; forward and back again; honor your partners; balance and swing, and promenade outside the ring.”

Mrs. Lake recalled: “Then there was the cowboy dance, which was of a different kind. The increase of the cattle industry in this county brought the cowboys, and with their coming conventionalities were more or less laid aside. Their favorite square dance was characterized as ‘a cross-timber hoedown.’ They disdained to swap their boots for dancing shoes. Pistols, spurs, and chaps were not obstacles.”

By 1873, the year Fort Worth incorporated, people no longer had to wait three months for a piano to be shipped from back east. They could buy a piano locally. By 1873 Dallas had rail service, and pianos destined for Fort Worth probably came as far as Dallas by train. Note that Davis & Crawford, like many early furniture dealers, also “attended to” funerals.

Fort Worth had few large venues for public gatherings. But people who wanted to host a ball or present a concert or recital could rent space in the courthouse. Music also was presented by social clubs and fraternal lodges and taught at the private schools that served Fort Worth until the public school system began in 1882. Song and dance were featured at benefits for organizations such as the volunteer fire department. Note that by 1873 Fort Worth had a cornet band.

And a thespian club.

And a brass band by 1874.

About 1874 merchant B. C. Evans opened Evans Hall. Some historians say the hall was located over his store; others say the hall was over the store of the Dahlman brothers. Regardless, the hall presented everything from phrenologists to minstrels to humorist Josh Billings and Romeo and Juliet. Church congregations without a building also conducted services at the hall. At first the Evans Hall stage was illuminated by kerosene lamps, later by gas.

Calico hops were popular in the 1870s. Young women sewed calico dresses and wore them at the hop. Sometimes the women sewed a matching accessory for their escort. Couples danced, dresses were judged, and prizes were awarded.

Then came July 19, 1876 and the railroad: “At last the day has come.” With a shrill blast of the locomotive’s steam whistle Fort Worth began an economic boom that would turn a town into a city and take that city into the new century, when the packing plants would become the next economic engine.

No aspect of life in Fort Worth, including entertainment, was untouched by the railroad.

The obvious for starters: Because of the railroad the town increased in population. With the increase in population came an increase in cultural diversity. Culture was imported on steel rails: Residents were exposed to new forms of song and dance and theater. Newspapers and magazines from back east revealed the song and dance and theater that were popular in St. Louis, New York, even Paris and London. Books, sheet music, and instruments could be bought more easily. Pianos no longer had to be freighted in by ox wagon or brought by train from Dallas.

In the beginning entertainment was provided solely by local residents. Then by entertainers willing to travel by horse. The train brought entertainers who traveled by rail (or, in the case of Lillie Langtry, in her own custom railroad coach).

Entertainment was not confined to song and dance and theater, of course. Without the railroad, Fort Worth would have missed the “perfect panoply of splendor” that was Howe’s Great London Circus-Hippodrome (“42 R.R. cars”) and W. W. Cole’s “zoological exposition, menagerie, aquarium, aviary, trained animals, etc.” (“30 cars wild beasts,” City of Paris airship) because the two shows traveled only by rail.

Circuses aside, as the town boomed in 1876, people clamored for more formal entertainment. Suddenly Fort Worth needed more performance space than Evans Hall and the courthouse could provide.

The Adelphi Theater opened within days of the arrival of the first train. (The Fort Worth Democrat apparently did not consider Evans Hall to be a “regularly established theatre,” writing that the new Adelphi Theater was due that distinction.) The Adelphi catered to male-only audiences. But it soon closed because of malfeasance by employees.

But the theater soon reopened with new management and a new name: “Theater Comique.” Historian Oliver Knight writes that one old-timer recalled that “the toughest guys used to sit in the balcony at the old Theater Comique and for a pastime they used to shoot the keys off the piano.”

In October 1876 the Centennial Theater opened.

Callender’s Georgia Minstrels performed at “the new hall” over Dahlman brothers’ store. I do not know if this new hall was simply a relocation of Evans Hall.

Also in November 1876 a dance school opened at “the new hall.”

And by the end of the year Fort Worth had two new music stores.

Also by the end of the year “another new dance hall” was under construction, this one located uptown. The ambiance was different a few blocks south in Hell’s Half Acre. There variety theaters, music halls, and honkatonks catering to working-class men (cowboys, buffalo hunters, drummers, farmers) presented low-brow comedy, double entendres, ham-fisted melodrama, rinky-tink piano music, and dance hall girls who performed on stage, danced with the customers, and then steered them toward the bar or a room upstairs.

Meanwhile Evans Hall met the new competition head on with “Can-Can” dancers, “World Renowned Comedy,” and Buffalo Bill.

In 1877 a “Philharmonic Society” and a “Home Dramatic Club” were organized.

Another dance school opened in 1881.

The next year My Theater opened, presenting aerialists, acrobats, minstrels, western-themed plays, and burlesques.

Culture took hold in unlikely places. Colonel J. S. Godwin opened a ballroom over his livery stable at Throckmorton and West 3rd streets. (The livery stable was later owned by T. Witten.)

With the rather, well, lofty name of “Godwin Hall” the venue hosted balls, even skating tournaments. But in 1883 the Gazette reported that some parents were reluctant to let their children attend a ball there because the floor over the livery stable was unsound.

Deutscher Verein Hall was built in 1882 at Throckmorton and West 7th streets by a Germanic society. That same newspaper edition indicates that Fort Worth had a second skating rink. An 1885 map shows a roller rink at West 4th and Houston streets.

By 1883 Fort Worth had enough people of a cultural bent to support an opera house. A syndicate led by Walter A. Huffman built the opera house at Commerce and East 3rd streets. Now Fort Worth could experience the people and performances it had only read about: Langtry, Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt, famous comedians and dramatic actors, opera, Gilbert and Sullivan, Shakespeare (Thomas Keene, Edwin Booth).

Another music store opened in 1883. Max Elser was manager of the opera house.

In 1885 Fort Worth’s first trolley park, Rosedale Pavilion, opened as yet another venue for song and dance.

By 1889 Fort Worth’s population had multiplied tenfold since the railroad arrived. Fort Worth yearned to take its place along the sure-nuff cities of Texas. So, Fort Worth celebrated its coming of age with the Spring Palace exhibition. Entertainment included singing and dancing, concerts by the Mexican National Band and the Elgin Watch Factory Band. One local chorus performing at the exhibition consisted of five hundred children.

To complement the palace and its exotic Asian trappings, Fort Worth even produced two plays. For the first season in 1889 The Capitalist, or the City of Fort Worth (The Texas Mikado), a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s play, extolled the virtues of Fort Worth and downplayed its wild West beginnings. For the second season in 1890 the city presented The Texas Spring Palace City, Fort Worth, a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore.

How the town had grown! Here is Fort Worth’s population as estimated by various sources:
1870 500
1872 300
1873 3,000 (in anticipation of the railroad arriving that year)
1874 600 (decline after the railroad did not arrive)
1876 2,000 (the railroad arrived)
1877 8,000 (one year after the railroad arrived)
1890 23,000 (now served by ten railroads)

By the end of the century most of the theaters born of the 1876 railroad boom were gone. Of these four theaters in the 1899 city directory, three were located in Hell’s Half Acre. Theaters such as the Standard now presented vaudeville. Henry Greenwall’s opera house (Greenwall had taken over Huffman’s house) and a few other uptown “legitimate” theaters aside, the Acre would serve as Cowtown’s theater district into the new century.

The technology of the new century would bring more change in how Fort Worth entertained itself. Oh, people would still sing and dance and play instruments and perform plays and listen and watch as others did the same, but technology was giving people entertainment options:

By 1897 Fort Worth residents could see Edison’s Vitascope motion pictures at Greenwall’s opera house.

And by 1899 Edison’s phonograph was marketed. Now music could be stored at home, like a can of beans or a cord of firewood.

Old-timers who a half-century earlier had heard a piano played in a dirt-floor log cabin or had listened to Uncle Jack Durrett play “Arkansas Traveler” might live to listen to the radio, maybe watch “talkies” in a movie theater.

And as the century ended Louis Glass had invented the “coin-in-the-slot” phonograph, which would evolve into the jukebox.

Yes, Uncle Jack Durrett, the jukebox of the nineteenth century, would be replaced by a mechanical jukebox in the twentieth century.

Like Durrett, a mechanical jukebox would take requests.

Like Durrett, a mechanical jukebox would play “Arkansas Traveler.”

Ah, but would a mechanical jukebox continue to play “Arkansas Traveler” as its cabinet burned?

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