Ranch Dances Recalled
How Cow Hunts Were Celebrated in Texas
By Branch Isbell
As I grew up in Sumter County, Alabama, I participated in various dancing parties before emigrating to Texas to become a cowboy. Then I reached Nueces County, Texas, in company with Frank Byler, who had “been east” with horses to sell and who had promised me a job if I would return with him, I was just 19 years of age. Mr. Byler lives at “The Motts,” or Nuecestown, 14 miles up the Nueces River from Corpus Christi. I arrived in January 1871, and soon became acquainted with everyone in the little village. I learned that all over Southwest Texas the people outside of the few larger towns lived in similar villages or “settlements” for mutual protection against raiding parties of Mexicans or Indians.
At that time dancing was the most common amusement, and before and after each big cow-hunt it was the custom for some family to give a dance to speed the parting cowboys or to welcome their return. The music employed often consisted of a single fiddle or accordion, but sometimes two or three other stringed or wind instruments were added. Most of the dancers danced only old Virginia reels or cotillions, but some of each sex were experts in jigs and the so-called “round dances,” polkas, waltzes, schottisches, and the like.
Sometimes very amusing and near tragic episodes were enacted at these gatherings. In 1872, just before starting on a cow-hunt, I got a companion to trim my hair, which had grown so long that I was afraid it might hang me up to a mesquite limb and cause me to share the fate of Absalom. [Biblical reference to a son of King David who led an attempt to usurp his father’s throne. He was caught and killed when his long hair became entangled in a tree branch.]
My companion proved his tonsorial capacity by making my head look like a cross between an armadillo and a porcupine.
That night we attended a dance, and as soon as we arrived, our host, noting my appearance, said to me: “Come, I want you to meet my daughter. That head will be a curiosity to her.” Sure enough, when I was presented to the young lady with all the formality of the times, she seemed to view me not only with curiosity but with alarm.
I sauntered on around the room and became “the observed of all observers.” After a while I returned to the girl and asked her if she would dance the next cotillion with me.
“No,” she replied, “not looking as you do.”
Thinking to retaliate with a cute answer, I said: “Thank you. I’ll seek another partner, and please remember that there are as good fish in the sea as were ever caught out of it.”
“Yes, sir, I’m familiar with that old saw,” she fired back at me, “but unfortunately for you those wise fish have quit biting at toads.”
I slunk out of the house and sat on the woodpile in the dark, morosely reflecting upon the futility of talking back at the feminine gender.
At a later dance a large wash-pot of coffee, surrounded with ample tin cups, was kept boiling under a live oak tree in the yard, so that the guests might refresh themselves whenever they desired to do so. While the cowboys and their partners danced inside the house, some tree lizards also engaged in dancing among the branches of that live oak tree.
Boiled Lizard in Coffee
Along toward morning a lady asked me to get her a cup of coffee. The supply being almost exhausted, I had to scrape the bottom of the pot to get it. Now, as it turned out, an awkward tree dancer had fallen into the pot and, all unaware of its presence, I scooped up the corpse with the liquid. Imagine the situation when the lady, after drinking the coffee, discovered that boiled lizard in the bottom of her cup. She almost fainted and she vomited copiously, while I, in the presence and hearing of the congregated dancers, condemned the lizard tribe to Hades in language that was not altogether Scriptural.
Well, those old dances were long since “broken up,” and the dancers, most of them, have danced away after that “Caller” whose last “call” we all must follow. But before I hear that last “call” I want to try my hand at — or, rather, shake my feet in — an old-time reel or cotillion or both, for in spite of my seventy-five years, they “linger in my memory like a pleasant dream.”