HISTORY OF THE BALL
The original Ball was held in 1885 in the Star Hotel in Anson. The Hotel’s owner, Mr. M. G. Rhodes decided to host grand ball, under the guise of a wedding party, for the local residents and area cowboys. He naturally thought his hotel would be the perfect venue and the weekend before Christmas was the perfect time. . The word of a much welcomed social event in the isolated, frontier region quickly spread. The event was very well received and continued through 1889. In 1890, the Star Hotel was destroyed by fire and the event ended. However, the lore continued thanks to one attendee, Mr. William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden of New York. Larry Chittenden, an author by trade, was in Jones County to inspect and temporarily oversee his family’s ranching interests located about 7 miles northwest of Anson. Like all guests at the Star Hotel, he received an invitation to the Ball. Larry Chittenden was smitten by Anson, the Ball and the rugged, frontier ranching lifestyle. He briefly returned to New York before he succumbed to the allure of the frontier and returned to Anson to live as a rancher and author. Inspired by the frontier lifestyle and the gala in the Star Hotel, he penned a poem entitled The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball in 1890. The poem was first published in the Anson Texas Western newspaper on June 19, 1890. Subsequently, it was widely published in periodicals of the day and included in Chittenden’s book entitled Ranch Verses Volume I which was published in 1893. Chittenden, “got the Ball a rollin” with his poem, however it was a Texas scholar and folklorist named John Lomax who brought the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball to the national stage. Lomax included it in his book entitled Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads which was published in 1910. The book was dedicated to and includes a hand written acknowledgement from President Theodore Roosevelt.
Lomax was reared on a farm and ranch in Bosque County where he developed a love of cowboy songs. At the age of 9 years, he befriended a former slave, Nat Blythe, who was hired as a farm hand. Lomax taught Blythe to read and write and Blythe taught him the songs, dance steps and culture of the African-Americans. Two factors which greatly influence Lomax’s early life and led to his future career were his exposure to cowboy songs and his friendship with Blythe, “which perhaps gave my life its bent”, said Lomax. Although his early education was sparse, Lomax was a career academic and ardent collector of cowboy poems and songs. While working as a school teacher and then as superintendent at Weatherford College, Lomax desperately desired to further his education. He enrolled in The University of Texas and graduated in 2 years. While following his academic passions, Lomax had multiple stints and positions at the University of Texas and The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, now known as Texas A&M University. He also studied languages at the University of Chicago and attended folklore gatherings in New York state. While teaching English at A&M, he took a hiatus to obtain a Master of Arts degree at Harvard University, which was the center of American Folklore at the time. During his tenure at Harvard, Lomax studied under two renowned scholars, Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge who actively encouraged his interest in cowboy songs. The three men became friends, and Wendell and Kittredge continued to play important advisory roles in Lomax’s life after he left Harvard. Upon completion of his Master’s Degree in June of 1907, Lomax returned to A&M to resume teaching English. In 1908, Lomax became a full professor at A&M however; he was unable to teach from February through August due to a student strike. With time on his hands and the strong encouragement of Wendell and Kittredge he resumed collecting cowboy poems, songs and ballads with the goal of publishing them. Although his collection had been disdained to the point he burned many of them during his first enrollment at the University of Texas, he was encouraged by his Harvard mentors and vigorously renewed his passion of preserving a part of Texas’ culture. Shortly thereafter, Kittredge urged Lomax to organize a Texas branch of the American Folklore Society. Acting upon Kittredge’s suggestion, Lomax and Professor Leonidas Payne, from UT Austin, cofounded the Texas Folklore Society on Thanksgiving Day, 1909. By the following April, there were 92 charter members. Payne served as president and Lomax was the secretary of the fledgling organization. Lomax accepted an administrative position at the University of Texas in June 1910. In November of that year, his collecting efforts came to fruition when his book, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads was published. The book sparked a tremendous surge in interest of all types of American folklore. It inspired a national movement in collecting folklore of all types and transformed Lomax into a nationally renowned figure. Lomax enjoyed near celebrity status and devoted the next several years touring the nation, lecturing as one of the preeminent authorities on American Folklore. In 1912, with the backing of Kittredge, Lomax was elected president of the American Folklore Society and was reelected in 1913. It would be over 30 years before Cowboys’ Christmas Ball would benefit from Lomax’s efforts and the associations he would develop via these provided by these Societies. Unfortunately, beginning in 1917, politics, the great depression and personal tragedy transformed Lomax’s exalted career into a life of uncertainty, sorrow and hardships that would culminate with the death of his wife in 1931. After the death of Lomax’s wife, his son Alan encouraged him to get back on the lecture circuit. With Alan serving as driver and assistant, the 65 year old set out on a new series of lecture tours, sleeping on the side of the road to save money.
In June of 1932, they arrived at the offices of McMillon Publishing Company in New York. Lomax proposed his idea for an anthology of American ballads and folksongs, with a special emphasis on the contributions of African Americans, which was accepted.
In preparation he traveled to Washington to review the holdings in the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress. By the time of Lomax’s arrival, the Archive already contained a collection of commercial phonograph recordings that straddled the boundaries between commercial and folk, and wax cylinder field recordings, built up under the leadership of Robert Winslow Gordon, Head of the Archive, and Carl Engel, chief of the Music Division. Gordon had also experimented in the field with a portable disc recorder, but had had neither time nor resources to do significant fieldwork. Lomax found the recorded holdings of the Archive woefully inadequate for his purposes. He therefore made an arrangement with the Library whereby it would provide recording equipment, obtained for it by Lomax through private grants, in exchange for which he would travel the country making field recordings to be deposited in the Archive of the Library, then the major resource for printed and recorded material in the United States
After the departure of Robert Gordon from the Library in 1934, Lomax was named Honorary Consultant and Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, a title he held until his death in 1948. His work, for which he was paid a salary of one dollar, included fund raising for the Library, and he was expected to support himself entirely through writing books and giving lectures. Lomax secured grants from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, for continued field recordings.
Thus began a ten-year relationship with the Library of Congress that would involve not only John but the entire Lomax family, including his second wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax, Professor of Classics and Dean of Women at the University of Texas, whom he married in 1934. Over the next 10 years, Lomax and his family travelled over 16,000 miles collecting and recording American Folklore on a 350 pound recorder provided by the Library of Congress. Lomax visited countless destinations and recorded over 10,000 folk songs for the Library of Congress.
In 1939, as part of his historic recording tour, Lomax visited an event that inspired a poem he collected early in his career and published in his first book; That Lively Gaited Sworray, The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball in Anson, Texas.
The 1935 reenactment inspired artist Maxine Walker Perini to express her impression of the Ball with a water color painting which is on permanent display in the Grace Museum in Abilene.
Another measure of The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball community standing may be found in the Anson Post Office. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created by the Federal Government in 1935 to help restore the American economy after the great depression. One WPA project involved dispatching artist to adorn public buildings with artwork to celebrate noteworthy activities and inspire the communities where they were displayed. In 1939, Jenne Magafan, who had painted several post office murals for the program, was dispatched to Anson to conduct a survey of potential topics. Once in Anson, she quickly learned of the Christmas Ball and recognized it was the perfect choice. Magafan’s initial pencil sketches were approved and she began working on progressively larger sketches. She completed her mural that covers the east wall of the post office in 1941. The much anticipated mural was a hit and source of great pride; it was literally the talk of the town. The talk certainly escalated when someone noticed that she inserted a crock jug to signify the festivities. Magafan who was used to receiving a multitude of accolades for her work was horrified when she was berated by the local press and citizenry alike. It seems as if she never realized Anson was a staunchly “dry” town in 1941.
Dances were held around Christmas in Anson at irregular intervals with little regard for the poem for several decades following its publication. In 1934 the event was revived under the title Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball when two local school teachers and historians organized the first reenactment of the Ball. It was held in the high school gymnasium and has continued on an annual basis thereafter. The original dances were featured and continue today. Another carry over from 1885 is the dress code. In that era, properly attired ladies wore dresses in public and gentlemen were expect to doff their hats when indoors, meeting or greeting a lady and when dancing with one. These acts were considered to be proper etiquette and common courtesy then, just as they are today. In keeping with these time honored traditions, ladies are still required to wear a dress or skirt on the dance floor and hats are not allowed to be worn when dancing. The only known exception to the dress requirement was in 1949 when ladies were permitted to attend in pants due to extremely cold weather. The gymnasium served as home to the ball from 1934 through 1939 when it moved to its permanent home in Pioneer Hall.
The music at the ball in 1885 was from a bass violin, a tambourine, and two fiddles. Although the music and vocals have changed slightly with concession to time over the years, Ball officials have remained firm that both music and song must conform to the tradition of the original Ball. It still features traditional western music, the original dances and dress code. In 1885, Chittenden watched the cowboys and their ladies dance the Square, the Schottische, the Heel-and-Toe Polka, the Waltz, the Paul Jones and the Virginia reel. These original dances along with some “modern” innovations including the Two Step, Cotton Eyed Joe, Put Your Little Foot and a Christmas Ball Original, the Grand March are still the mainstays of the Ball.
There is an old adage that says, “Timing is everything”, which seemed especially applicable to the Christmas Ball. In 1935, the Ball certainly honored and helped to preserve history, but it also provided a happy and joyful respite for people in an area that had not fully recovered from the Great Depression. The recovering economy provided the perfect environment for the Ball to grow and flourish. Shortly before the Ball in 1941, America was suddenly plunged into war of the likes it had never seen. Everyone knew that the next Ball would occur under totally different circumstances. The Association feared that the number of servicemen deployed, combined with the rationing of gasoline, tires, footwear, food and other items to support the war effort would severely curtail, or completely end the Ball indefinitely. However, a nation at war needed a celebration to lift spirits just as it had been needed 7 years earlier. One group that certainly needed something to smile about, were the soldiers station on Abilene’s south side at Camp Barkly. Being away from home and loved ones during the Christmas holidays, coping with a new, military lifestyle and facing a likely possibility of combat, these soldiers needed some Christmas cheer. Well over 1,000 of them, hailing from 48 states found it in Pioneer Hall. An article in the December 17, 1943 edition of the Avenger a newspaper published by the Sweetwater Daily Reporter “in the interests of Avenger Field”, featured an article informing the Women Airforce Service Pilots (Wasps) of the Ball, its history and that admission was only 75 cents.
Activities at Camp Barkly and Avenger Field had basically ended, however, awareness of Christmas Ball increased nationally when Gordon Graham, a cowboy folklorist from Colorado, set the poem to music in 1946. He sang it at the Anson Ball that year, after which, it became a common practice to have a soloist sing the ballad before the ball.
The Ball faced it next challenge in the 1970s when local religious and political leaders determined there would be no more Dancin’ in Anson and passed city ordinances to support their position. School dances, including proms, and street dances were the primary targets, therefore The Christmas Ball was “grandfathered” from most of the new regulations, however Association members were forced to obtain a dance permit no less than 72 hours prior to the event, post the permit in a conspicuous location and have law enforcement officers on hand for security. Sanity was restored in the mid-1990s when the ordinances were repealed.
In the late twentieth century the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball gained greater recognition through the promotional efforts of cowboy singer, song writer and western historian Michael Martin Murphey. He recorded the classic song, The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball in 1985. Murphy began performing at the Ball in 1994 and continues to perform one night at the annual ball each year. He has structured his Christmas Concert Tour which ends at the National Cowboy Hall in Oklahoma City in a fashion similar to the Anson Ball which he promotes at each appearance nationwide. Michael’s fans have travelled from all over the country to see his performance in Anson. He was elected to the Association as an honorary member in recognition of his support of the Christmas Ball.
Today, as in the past, The Ball is a traditional, highly anticipated event where generations of families and friends gather to socialize in the same manner as their predecessors in 1885. It is also a family friendly environment that continues to prohibit smoking and the consumption of alcoholic beverages in the building. Children are encouraged to attend, normally; it is their family members who bring them to the ball where they learn of the history, traditions and proper etiquette, in the same manner their parents learned before them.
The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball observed its 81st consecutive year in December 2015. In 2010 the Cowboys’ Christmas Ball was designated as a historical event by the Texas Historical Commission and honored with a Texas Historical Marker that is proudly displayed on its home, Pioneer Hall.
Although attendance records are incomplete, we know over 5,000 people visited the Ball from 2005 – 2015. When that number is multiplied over the Ball’s 81 consecutive years, it is safe to say at least 50,000 guests have enjoyed the historic event. Guests have been document from 48 states, Canada, Europe and Asia.
The Ball is well documented by author, photographer and videographer; it has brought dignitaries, historians and visitors from all over the nation to Anson. The dances are still presented in a frontier atmosphere, and the pioneer steps have been preserved, ratifying Anson’s claim to be the “Home of the Western Dance.”