In 2015 many readers of the Star-Telegram might have passed over the yellow-highlighted phrase in this article about the Fort Worth city council:
“Once the site of a dance hall” indeed.
Eighty years ago that location—5336 White Settlement Road near the West Fork of the Trinity River four miles northwest of downtown—indeed was the site of a dance hall. There on a summer night one could have heard a fiddle, a banjo, a piano, the voice of Milton Brown (photo from Wikipedia), and a few hundred people trying to forget the Great Depression one two-step at a time. Many people even say the dance hall was the cradle of western swing music.
That was Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion.
The cradle of western swing had humble origins. In 1918 (the year Milton Brown’s family moved to Fort Worth from Stephenville), these five acres by the river were just “Papa” Sam Cunningham’s sand and gravel pit. Papa Sam was excavating sand and gravel for the Army’s nearby Camp Bowie when he discovered the springs. Crystal-clear water filled a hole as fast as he dug it.
By 1920 Milton Brown was sixteen, and his family lived on Morton Street just off Burleson Avenue, now University Drive.
Out at Papa Sam’s sand and gravel pit by the river, in 1925 (the year Brown graduated from Arlington Heights High School) Cunningham decided to turn a bother into a boon: He let the springs have their way. Their water turned a hole in the ground into a small lake for swimming. Then he built a concrete swimming pool (the springs kept it, too, filled). He added some picnic tables. He moved in a wooden building that had been a store at Camp Bowie and turned it into a dance pavilion. Nothing fancy: The pavilion had ceiling fans for summer and a coal-burning stove for winter. As business grew Cunningham added an open-air dance floor.
And he named his resort, appropriately, “Crystal Springs.”
Crystal Springs offered fishing (Papa Sam also sold minnows), swimming, dancing, and picnicking. Papa Sam stressed a family atmosphere. Children were welcome, even on the dance floor. Papa Sam tried to control drinking and fighting. His bouncer was his two hundred-pound son, Henry.
But Crystal Springs struggled through its first five years. Then, in 1930 Cunningham hired a western string band whose members included Bob Wills and Milton Brown. That band would soon have divided loyalties after W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel hired the band to promote his Burrus Mills and its Light Crust Dough. The band became the Light Crust Doughboys and was sponsored on radio by Burrus Mills.
Milton Brown’s baby brother, Roy Lee, recalled in 2013, “Bob [Wills] and Milton and Herman [Arnspiger] were original members of the Doughboys. O’Daniel didn’t want the band just sitting around when they weren’t performing on the radio. So he gave them jobs at the mill. Milton was a salesman, Bob drove a truck, Herman worked on the loading dock. O’Daniel also didn’t like the Doughboys to play out at Crystal Springs.”
That didn’t dissuade “Papa” Sam Cunningham. Author Gary Ginell, in Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing, wrote that Cunningham had printed a flyer promoting Crystal Springs and the Light Crust Doughboys:Crystal Springs the place to play Join us friends and help us stay . . . Bring your friends and family here Dough Boys Band you will like to cheer.
(Photo from Roy Lee Brown.)
Roy Lee Brown recalled that Milton left the Light Crust Doughboys in 1932 and formed his own band, the Musical Brownies. Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies played at Crystal Springs almost every week from 1932 to 1936.
Crystal Springs was part of the Brownies’ livelihood but also their musical laboratory. Brown continued to experiment with the band’s sound. In 1932 he added a piano to his “string band” when Fred Calhoun joined the band.
With Calhoun’s lively playing, the Brownies were a “string band” no more.
Roy Lee Brown, who joined the band in 1935, recalled: “Fred improvised. That’s what western swing is: improvisation. Just like jazz. Milton was the first to have a jazz piano, the first to have double fiddles, the first to use amplified instruments in a western swing band.”
From about 1933, standing from left: Fred Calhoun, Cecil Brower, Jesse Ashlock, Wanna Coffman, Derwood Brown, Ocie Stockard. Sitting: Henry “Babe” Cunningham, Milton Brown, “Papa” Sam Cunningham. (Photo from Roy Lee Brown.)
But western swing did not easily find its niche. In the early 1930s many people considered western music to be “hillbilly music,” especially people in Fort Worth who wanted to distance Cowtown from its cow town past.
Eventually Crystal Springs caught on, even though in the 1930s it was located out in the country. To reach it, people walked, hitchhiked, and arrived on bicycles and in Cadillacs.
“Papa” Sam even added shuttle service. Son Henry would drive an old bus downtown to the streetcar line, pick up passengers, and carry them to the Springs for ten cents. The Brownies also used the bus for their tours. (Photo from Roy Lee Brown.)
Posing at Crystal Springs with the band’s bus: Henry “Babe” Cunningham, “Papa” Sam Cunningham, Milton Brown, Derwood Brown, Jesse Ashlock, Ocie Stockard, and Wanna Coffman. (Photo from Roy Lee Brown.)
Soon, when Milton Brown and the Brownies played at Crystal Springs, as many as one thousand people filled the pavilion to dance to a sound that was evolving before their very ears: western swing. Bonnie and Clyde, despite being wanted by the law, would drive out to Crystal Springs to dance.
After the Brownies began broadcasting by radio from the Springs, Bonnie and Clyde also listened to broadcasts on the radio in their car. Musician J. B. Brinkley recalled in Ginell’s book: “Clyde Barrow had an old Ford which had a radio in it and they always listened to Milton’s broadcast when they were in town. Clyde’s favorite tune was ‘My Mary’ and he’d call Crystal Springs and get Papa Sam on the phone and say, ‘Hey, Pop! Tell ol’ Milton to play “My Mary” and dedicate it to “you-know-who”!’ He’d never say who he was but Pop knew his voice. And Milton would go on the air and say, ‘OK, here is “My Mary” and we want to dedicate it to “you-know-who.”’”
Brinkley’s father was “Blackie” Brinkley, a bouncer at Crystal Springs in the early 1930s.
J. B. Brinkley recalled: “We didn’t have a car, but my daddy knew that all he had to do was walk down to the corner of University and Seventh Street and stand there and before long, somebody would drive by that he knew and say, ‘Hey, Blackie! You going to Crystal Springs? Well, get in!’ Well, one time, here comes Bonnie and Clyde. She was driving and he was on the passenger’s side with a machine gun on his lap. They were going real fast but they stopped when they saw my dad. They knew each other, see. So Bonnie slams on the brakes. SCREEEE! She leans out and says, ‘Hey, Blackie! You going to Crystal Springs?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ She says, ‘Well, we’re a little hot right now but you’re welcome to ride with us if you want to.’ Daddy looked in there, saw that machine gun, and just waved them on: ‘No, I think I’ll wait for somebody else. Thanks just the same, you go ahead.’”
Ginell writes: “The dance hall developed a reputation as being a rough place, especially when word got out that Bonnie and Clyde were regular dancers. There was always an abundance of fistfights at Crystal Springs but never a report of a killing.”
Roy Lee Brown recalled: “Nobody ever got killed, but once in a while somebody pulled a knife. People like Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Raymond Hamilton, they were killers all right, but they never caused any trouble when they came out there. They just wanted to dance like everyone else. One reason there was never any real violence at Crystal Springs was Henry Cunningham, Papa Sam’s son. . . . Henry was called ‘Baby Henry’ or just ‘Babe.’ He was about six feet one or two and must have weighed about 250 pounds. . . . Papa Sam had Henry act as bouncer, and if a fight started, he’d jump right in. They had as many as four or five bouncers working there at one time. Henry wore a big .45 caliber pistol. He got a permit as a special deputy sheriff from the Tarrant County sheriff’s department and was allowed to carry a gun. He wore it on the outside of his trousers. It wasn’t concealed or anything. I never saw him pull it, but I’ll tell you one thing for sure: it was loaded.”
By 1934 the Brownies were perhaps the most popular western swing band in Texas. That year the band also began to record on the Bluebird label.
By 1935 Brown and his band were still playing at Crystal Springs on Saturdays but now recording for the Decca label. Brown’s star was rising in parallel with that of Bob Wills, who had formed the Texas Playboys band.
Wills and his Playboys continued to play at Crystal Springs.
By 1935 both the Musical Brownies and the Playboys were heard on radio stations WFAA and WBAP. Clip is from the November 27 Dallas Morning News.
By April 9, 1936 “good string music” was in the air everywhere. Papa Sam’s Crystal Springs Ramblers performed on radio station KTAT. Flour companies were popular sponsors of western bands: the Gladiola (milled by Edna Gladney‘s husband Sam) Gentlemen on WFAA and the Burrus Mills Light Crust Doughboys and Bewley‘s Chuck Wagon Gang on WBAP. Also on WBAP were Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies.
But four days later, about 3 a.m. on the night of April 13, 1936, Brown was driving on Jacksboro Highway after his band had performed at Crystal Springs. He was giving a ride home to a teenage girl who had slipped out of the house to go listen to Milton and his Brownies.
His 1936 Pontiac Silver Streak hit a telephone pole across from the Avalon Motor Court. Brown may have fallen asleep at the wheel. He had a history of narcolepsy.
Passenger sixteen-year-old Katherine Prehoditch was killed. Note that the report refers to Jacksboro Highway as “Northwest Highway.”
The show must go on: This listing appeared in the Star-Telegram radio schedule on April 16. And note that Ozzie Nelson and Orchestra closed the broadcast day at 11:30 p.m. on CBS.
On April 18, 1936—eighty-six years ago today—Milton Brown died of his injuries.
Crystal Springs’s Milton Brown is buried in another springs: Smith Springs Cemetery outside Stephenville. He was thirty-two years old.
After Milton’s death, baby brother Roy Lee formed the Junior Brownies.
As for Milton’s original band, brother Derwood took over as bandleader. The band, now just the “Musical Brownies,” performed on KTAT and KRLD, but for many Crystal Springs patrons, Milton Brown was the Brownies, and the Brownies were a big part of Crystal Springs. When Milton died, part of Crystal Springs died, too. The Brownies disbanded in 1937. Patronage declined at Crystal Springs. Establishment of Tarrant Field (later Carswell Air Force Base) and adjacent Air Force Plant 4, operated by Consolidated Aircraft, in 1942 provided some new patrons into the 1950s. But eventually the pavilion was open only on Saturday nights.
By 1952 the Ramblers still played, but now Crystal Springs was billed as a “night club.”
After “Papa” Sam Cunningham died in 1955, son Henry ran Crystal Springs and added a mobile home park.
By 1960 Crystal Springs was owned or at least operated by Mrs. Edna Amlotte. Sam’s son Henry ran the mobile home park.
In 1960 Crystal Springs still offered “western swing music at its best.” And Crystal Springs had plenty of competition from other ballrooms: Casino, Covered Wagon, Hi-Ho. (Or you could watch the World Series at Zuider Zee or hear Bo Diddley at Jack’s Place.)
In 1961 one of the legends of western swing was back at Crystal Springs thirty-one years after his first performance there.
In 1963 the ballroom was briefly “Mom’s Crystal Springs.” Note that elsewhere around town you could hear Sandy Sandifer, Bo Diddley, Ray Sharpe, and Bruce Channel at Casino Ballroom, the Drifters at the Skyliner on Jacksboro Highway, or Freddie King and Ray Sharpe at Club Linda Lou.
Later in 1963 the ballroom became Ray Chaney’s Stage Coach Inn.
The Stage Coach Inn closed out the year 1966 with Tommy Duncan, a founding member of the Texas Playboys.
The year 1967 dealt a double blow. Tommy Duncan died. And the Stage Coach Inn, originally “Crystal Springs,” the dance hall that had been born of water, was destroyed by fire.
(Trivia: One of the passenger cars of the Forest Park miniature train was named for Mary Helen Hames, a daughter of train concessionaire Bill Hames. She was married to Milton Brown, Brown pianist Fred “Papa” Calhoun, and Bob Wills.)
In 2011 the Texas legislature designated western swing as the “official state music of Texas.” Today many people consider Milton Brown to be the father of western swing (but “Bob Wills is still the king”).
As for Crystal Springs on the River, today it is a reality, and a historical marker there commemorates the dance hall that, many say, gave Texas that official state music.
A documentary film: The Birth & History of Western Swing (2021)