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Squaring off

by Nancy Christofferson
OUT ON THE FRONTIER — The 1950s were the time for many peculiar things, like chunky “modern” furniture, boys with duck tails, and car fins out to the neighbor’s driveway, but one of the most singular was the lust for all things frontier.  Television shows capitalized on this love, with enough frontiersmen, cowboys, and sheriffs to fill the entire great state of Texas.  For instance, children could buy, for just 77 cents, a Lone Ranger Holster Set, or an Annie Oakley get-up complete with fringed vest and skirt.  Adults were being encouraged to buy TV sets so as to catch the latest westerns starring the likes of Audie Murphy and Bob Crane.
Since all of us out here in the hinterlands already were “living western”, we just took advantage of the fad and enjoyed the parts we liked best.  One of these was square dancing.
Square dancing gained popularity along with the rising stars of country music in the late 1940s, with 4-H members, at least locally, enthusiastically leading the craze, such as in September 1948 when the Huerfano Valley club under Leader Herman V. Cash, enjoyed a rousing dance after the regular meeting.  The same month saw members of the La Veta junior grange entertaining the P.T.A., teachers and the board of education with their dance skills.  As early as 1951, the annual 4-H Fair and Rodeo featured a “mounted square dance”.  Besides the club members, any rider under the age of 20 was invited to join the fun.
The following winter saw many advertisements in the newspapers offering cowboy and cowgirl boots, squaw dresses and concha belts, western shirts and bolo ties available at the local department stores, or one could even have a “Made to Order” outfit from the Wardrobe Shop in the Fox Theater building.  Because it was a nation wide obsession, these items were no doubt available at the local. J.C. Penney store, which at all times kept a full inventory of petticoats. It was obvious that adult Huerfanos were now fully involved.
The proper attire was key.  For maximum drama, which added to the fun, participants had to have sturdy shoes with hard heels to stomp with.  The colorful dresses with many petticoats made the dancers appear to swirl.
In April ’52, announcement was made of a square dance exhibition to be held in Walsenburg the following June.  The winning square would go to the state competition.  The next week one Rodney Hall, caller, appeared to teach the “small fry” with classes to be held in the Hotel Kirkpatrick.  While the youngsters were learning their steps and practicing for the big competition, the adults were driving to Trinidad for regularly scheduled dances under the auspices of the city’s club.
Trinidad had a secret weapon to draw square dancers.  He was Marvin Shilling.  As a former resident of Clayton, NM, Shilling was popular throughout the area.  In January he came to Walsenburg to call for a Saturday night jamboree for the public in the Huerfano County High School gym.  For the 1952 Spanish Peaks Fiesta Square Dance Jamboree, he again was caller.  More than 200 people participated.
The probable winners of the June contest in Walsenburg were the members of the Carnation Set, who in November went to the National Square Dance Jamboree in Amarillo.  They brought home the bronze, as it were, since they won third place.  Members were Jerry Repola, Jo Elen Zgut, Tommy Michelli, Rose Marie Nigro, Madaline Pavlick, Jimmy Crisp, Patty Corsentino, Fred Meneghini and Margaret Van Schoyck.
In the spring of 1953, Shilling began teaching classes in Walsenburg.  Shilling was not just a caller, he also wrote some of his lyrics and arranged the steps.  That same spring, there were 24 couples signed up in the dance club.  The Swing and Twirl 4-H Club sponsored a huge dance in Knights of Columbus Hall when not only did they invite fellow dancers from Trinidad and Pueblo, they hired a caller all the way from Santa Fe.  That autumn, Civic League ladies sponsored an outdoor square dance on their tennis courts with caller Selmer Hovland.  The year concluded on December 30 with Shilling calling a New Year’s Eve special in the Community House.
Shilling was obviously enjoying his popularity in Huerfano County.  In January ’54, he announced he would open a guest ranch near La Veta with a square dance school.  He would also offer horseback riding, fishing, swimming, pack trips and hunting.  The dance school would include singing sessions, lessons, hamburger fries and “more”.  In other words, he was offering a perfect family vacation.
The headquarters for all these activities was the historic Sulphur Springs west of town, an active resort since the 1870s.  The site already had “cottages” for rent, hotel accommodations and a huge pavilion with a solid maple floor for dancing.  A swimming pool had been added several decades before, and dips in several medicinal springs and creek water were both available.  There was even a playground for children, and stables for those horses.  One Dr. R.E. Windham of San Angelo, Texas, had bought the place in the fall of 1949 and he was pleased to have an offer of a long term lease to Shilling.  Mrs. Dr. Windham was no stranger to the area as she was the daughter of Frank McBride, longtime Las Animas County rancher.
Shilling called his new place Lightning S Guest Ranch.  He scheduled his square dance camps, each of a week’s duration, during June, July and August. He further formed his own recording outfit, Lightning S Record Company.  He featured his own calling but also produced the calls of others.  The records were all the then-popular 45s.  He included in his stock some strictly instrumental music, most of which was performed by the Bluebonnet Orchestra.  He traveled widely to call dances, a task made easier by having his own airplane, hangared at the La Veta Airport which was under construction.
La Vetans were especially enthusiastic about having a square dance venue in their own backyard.  A local club was active, and Saturday night was their time to mingle and, literally, kick up their heels.  Dr. John and Rose Goemmer hosted their Christmas party, and it was no doubt quite a wingding.
Shilling met with great success from the first.  1954 may have been a peak year for the square dance phenomenon.  For one session in July alone, he enrolled people from 11 states in his school and resort.
After the La Veta Chamber of Commerce was reorganized with the energetic Milton Utt as president, one of the first activities it promoted was the square dance.  In cooperation with Shilling, it sponsored a jamboree for several years.  Since they were held in April, and in the high school gym, they were clearly local affairs.
Not all was well, however, at Lightning S Guest Ranch.  Mrs. Shilling either tired of living practically off grid, or her husband’s frequent absences, or something, moved with her daughters Carolyn and Marilyn to California, leaving son Darwin with his father.
Meanwhile, the square dance fad was winding down.  The kids had Elvis, after all.  Shilling relocated and continued calling, but abandoned his lease on the ranch in 1958.
In January 1962, Marvin Shilling died when he crashed his plane near Las Animas.  He was 36.  The “promenade” was over.
The ranch owner, Windham, replaced the formerly lively guest ranch with a Baptist church camp for boys.
Square dancing was revived in Huerfano County in the late 1970s when regular meetings were held in the 4-H Barn and Cuchara Rec Hall, among other places.  Popular caller was Wayne Van Schoyck of Walsenburg.  It returned in 1989 when 4-H-ers again received lessons with Mike Cortes.  In1990 Dick and Shirley Jameson purchased the old La Veta Mall and began hosting large events which were largely attended by out-of-towners as well as some of the local diehards, still enthusiastic, still active.
Forgotten today are the immortal (?) words of Shilling’s own creation “The Square Dance Blues”, ending with “You turn back for an allemande/You take the next and promenade her home now/She’s the sweetest gal in town”.

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