Cowboys’ Christmas Ball

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 3, 2009

In a crowded, cavernous dance hall, Kaytlyn Shahan, 2, perches on the linked arms of her mom and dad, Jennifer, 34, and Brandon, 31, as they dance to "Waltz Across Texas." It's the Friday before Christmasthe highlight of the three-night Texas Cowboys' Christmas Ball, a tradition in Anson, Texas (pop. 2,556), that dates back to 1885.

It's the second time Kaytlyn has attended the ball with her parents and grandparents, all from nearby Abilene. "Kaytlyn loves to dance and comes by it naturallyher mother is a ballet dancer," says Ginger Shahan, 59, the child's grandmother.

Later in the evening, the FaulksPearl, 85, and Chester, 87, of Ansonjoin seven other couples on the dance floor as the band plays "Two-step 'Round the Christmas Tree," for a dance dedicated to pairs wed 50 years or more. "We've come every year since 1972," Pearl says.

The Faulks are among 22 members of the Texas Cowboys' Christmas Ball Association, which sponsors the affair and owns Pioneer Hall, where the ball takes place. The social event, which will mark its 75th consecutive re-enactment of the original ball Dec. 17-19, appeals to all ages, especially those who want to experience Christmas like it was celebrated on the Texas frontier.

The hall is decorated simply; quilts and beribboned cedar boughs adorn the walls. Most guests dress in 19th-century attire. Matching outfits are mandatory for association members; the men wear black vests and cowboy duds, and the women wear white Victorian blouses and voluminous burgundy taffeta skirts over hoop petticoats. "Our skirts have six to eight yards of fabric," says association secretary Suanne Holtman, 64, of Hawley (pop. 646).

Except when twirling skirts reveal modern athletic shoes, the scene looks like it must have in the 1880s.

Home of the Western dance
The first Texas Cowboys' Christmas Ball was the brainchild of M.G. Rhodes, operator of the Star Hotel in Anson. Cowboyssome washed of trail dust, others notand ladies came from miles around to attend the shindig. In those days, it wasn't a party without at least a fistfight; so to impose a bit of decorum, Rhodes made the men check their hats, spurs and guns at the door.

After the hotel burned in 1890, the ball was held sporadically, then died out altogether during Prohibition. But the legend lived on thanks to a poem penned by William Lawrence Chittendon, an Easterner who attended the first ball while visiting his uncle's ranch. He wrote "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball," published in 1890.

In 1934, teacher and folklorist Leonora Barrett revived the event, and in 1940, Pioneer Hall was built as a project of the Works Progress Administration, the government program designed to provide jobs to the unemployed during the Great Depression.

Maintaining the venue requires year-round, hands-on labor, and good use is made of the plumbing, electrical and carpentry skills of association members. Scheduled workdays, such as when the men cut and hang cedar boughs that the women decorate, bring members together for a common cause and a potluck meal. "We're a Christmas Ball family," Holtman says.

The small community's efforts to preserve history have earned Anson the title "Home of the Western Dance."

A musical tradition
A special member of the Cowboys' Christmas Ball family is Grammy award-winning recording artist Michael Martin Murphey. He and his band have performed at the ball nearly every year since 1993. "The first time I came here I was floored that the community worked so hard to keep it going," Murphey says. "I fell in love watching the older couples dance and the dances being passed on to the younger people. It reconnected me to the tradition."

Murphey and his band work for a portion of ticket sales and a meal, a potluck prepared by association members. Murphey's presence almost always generates a sellout crowd of 850. His recording of "The Cowboy Christmas Ball," the poem set to music by Gordon Graham, and a video he made for CMT have helped publicize the event, which has no promotion budget.

It's mostly word-of-mouth that brings people to the family-friendly ball. Held in dry Jones County, the event is free of alcohol and tobacco. And cowboys still check their hats, spurs and the occasional gun at the door. "As a re-enactment, we stay true to the original as much as possible," Holtman says.

Authenticity includes traditional dances, such as the schottische, cotton-eyed Joe and polka, as well as a lively mixer called Paul Brown, in which couples change partners six or eight times when an association member blows a whistle. "There's an art to blowing the whistle," Holtman says. "Michael says our whistle-blower needs lessons because he doesn't give guys enough time to get a phone number."

A highlight each night is the Grand March, led by a newlywed couple. It's a spectacle, featured in the John Wayne movie Fort Apache, in which couples promenade in two adjacent circles.

Another tradition is that women are not allowed on the dance floor in pants. Some years ago, Nicki Rippee, 62, who then lived in Nevada, arrived at her first ball wearing her best jeans, only to discover she'd have to spend the evening on the sidelines. "Suanne rescued me," Rippee recalls. "She said if my husband would stand in her parking space, she'd go to a friend's house and get me a denim skirt."

Rippee and her husband, Pat, 62, moved to Anson and eventually joined the association. Pat is the group's past president. "I get to play Santa on Saturday night," he says, "but the best part of my job is I have to dance with every woman in the association."

West Texas roots
Most of the ball's attendees have deep roots in Anson or nearby Hawley. Tommy Spraberry, 46, a rancher decked out in flashy pink cowboy boots, traces his ancestry to Anson's first settlers. "I had to go 25 miles to Abilene to find a bride because I was kin to everybody here," says Spraberry, attending with his wife, Cindy, 46, and daughter Molly, 14. "Molly has been coming to the ball since she was a little squirt."

Association member John Milsap Compere, 67, has the distinction of having a great-grandfather, John Milsap, who not only attended the first ball but also is mentioned in the poem about the inaugural event. Compere and his wife, Dolores, 66, of Anson, attend the ball every year. When John danced with his baby granddaughter in 2003, she represented the sixth generation of Milsaps to attend the Texas Cowboys' Christmas Ball.

One man who isn't local stands out. With his black frock coat, silk vest, bolo tie, watch fob, square-toed boots and long, wavy hair, first-time attendee Jim "Catfish" Chapman looks every bit the part of a frontier gentleman. The lawyer, who drove 200 miles from Fredericksburg, Texas (pop. 8,911), has perhaps the most unusual reason for attending: "It's been on my 'bucket list'something I wanted to do before I kick the bucket."

Chapman, 63, came to the ball with high expectations and wasn't disappointed. "It was absolutely dead solid perfect," he says. "I'd recommend it for anyone who wants to experience a true Western Christmas."