Mike Vouri: Dancing the Night Away on San Juan Island
- Written by Mike Vouri
“Say Herman, you want to get a pair of those fine dancing pumps at the Blue Front store before the next dance? Like everything else they are sold away down at the Blue Front.”
Advertisement in The Islander, October 1895.
There was a time here in the 1890s when, after dark, the fields surrounding the old Union Grove Hall in San Juan Valley would be filled with wagons and carriages. The horses in their traces patiently waited for their owners, who were literally dancing the night away under a blaze of kerosene light.
Also known as the San Juan Public Hall, the venue, built in 1891 where The Oaks Manufactured Home Park is located today, was much like a senior center and community theater combined. Lectures, holiday parties, quilting bees and lodge meetings could be booked for a modest fee. But the hall’s gleaming hardwood floor was made for dancing, which was by far the most popular activity held throughout the year.
“It’s no use, the people of San Juan island will dance at the drop of the hat, and on any and all occasions,” wrote Herbert L. “Bert” Coffin, co-proprietor of the general store on the dock in Argyle, the now-extinct village on Griffin Bay that once had pretensions of rivaling Friday Harbor.
Coffin and his cousin and partner, Elijah Hamlin (”Ham”) Nash, had arrived on the island in June 1892. They left their native Maine a couple of years before, riding the railroads that had spurred the new state’s economy and population. It was a golden opportunity to make a life, though they had quickly realized it would be easier to engage in retail rather than prospecting with packs on their backs in the Olympic foothills—their most recent venture. Bankrolled by Port Townsend interests, their store, located next to the island’s only flour mill, carried everything from canned peaches and boot black to sacks of potatoes that had frozen in the crawlspace by December.
Andrew and Jenny Anderson watch from the porch of their home in Argyle, which was founded in 1873 and boasted a gristmill (at right), store, and post office (out of view) through the 1890s. Bert Coffin and E. H. Nash arrived here to manage the store in June 1893. (San Juan Historical Museum)
An aspiring journalist and storyteller, Coffin kept a diary in a large 1878-vintage ledger that my wife Julia and I transcribed while writing and compiling photographs for the books, “Images of America: Friday Harbor” and “San Juan Island” in 2008 and 2009. Coffin’s entries include lucid reportage of current events: the grounding of the steamer Twickenham on the west side of San Juan, the periodic wipeout of the Argyle dock by the steamer Evangel, the island’s first murder trial at the Odd Fellows Hall, the opening of the new cannery in Friday Harbor and the daily shipping news. There are also chatty, tongue-in-cheek accounts of stalking chickens, “Ham’s” maddening silence about his visit to the World’s Fair, details of his assemblage of a plank bed and, of course, his personal experiences with island hoedowns, masquerades and fancy-dress balls.
A scan of the old San Juan Islander newspaper reveals more than a dozen such dances in 1894 alone, which doesn’t seem excessive on the face of it. The island’s population had doubled to more than 2,000 residents between 1880 and 1890. But San Juan was still essentially rural, with miles of primitive road or trails between amber-lit farmhouses dotting prairie and forest. Consider harnessing your team, saddling your horse or lacing your walking shoes, negotiating those roads in all weathers and then staying out until dawn, rather than getting lost in the pitch dark (as Coffin once did on his way home from the Merrifield farm). It was an investment in fun.
Argyle lies across the cove from Jackson Beach, looking down from Bald Hill, now the Gravel Pit. The gristmill ia the tall building at center, the store and dock are to the left. Today’s airport would be center left in the forest. Those going to dances at Union Grove Hall would have to hike or take a wagon or carriage over the far ridge to reach San Juan Valley.
Six months after the duo’s arrival, Coffin reported that he had attended a New Year’s dance at the Union Grove in 1893 with a Mrs. Stevens “…furnishing a fine supper at 11:30, plenty of cake and pie too and good coffee.” Meantime, Ham kicked up his heels at a “masquerade ball” in the Odd Fellows Hall in Friday Harbor. All this fun despite the fact that one of the island’s earliest European pioneers, Catherine McGeary, had been laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery earlier in the day, a mile away on Madden Lane overlooking the valley.
“I went to Mrs. McGary’s (sic) funeral and also to the New Year’s dance in the evening and I thought that this is the only country in the world where a person could go to a funeral and dance on the same day without causing a good deal of comment,” Coffin wrote. “But I don’t think that I was at all out of place at either, for I am sure that I saw at least twenty persons at the dance this evening who were at the funeral this afternoon as late as three o’ clock.”
That was probably OK because Catherine was Irish (born 1828) and knew a thing or two about wakes, not to mention drinking and dancing. She had arrived on San Juan Island as a laundress with Capt. George Pickett’s U.S. Army company, which landed in July 1859 to protect that pig murderer, Lyman Cutlar, from the bloody British.
Englebert Bailer hosted barn dances at his farm in San Juan Valley, even on a Sunday, as Bert Coffin was pleased to point out. (San Juan Historical Museum)
A week later, the young storekeeper either hiked cross-country past the cemetery, through the fields and over the creek, or hitched a ride on the road to Hannah Heights for a barn dance at Englebert Bailer’s farm on the southwest end of San Juan Valley (Two Barn Farm Lane today).
“I must say it was a very social dance indeed,” he enthused. “They had, I should judge, about 20 people of various ages and although I have heard many of those same persons say that they didn’t believe in dancing on Sunday I notice that they, or rather we, kept it up pretty lively until 4:00 o’clock in the morning and then didn’t stop from any stings to our conscience, but because we were tired and actually couldn’t dance anymore.”
This paragraph recalls “Rodeo,” the ballet composed by Aaron Copland during World War II for the choreographer Agnes De Mille. As he did with his other dance pieces, “Appalachian Spring” and “Billy the Kid,” Copland drew heavily on Euro-American folk ballads and reels, but also on waltzes, quadrilles, polkas and schottisches to create a distinctive American sound. This was the music found on dance cards in places like the Bailer, Rosler and Sandwith farms, and the public halls on San Juan Island. Here is an example from a “ball” held in Austin, Texas:
Grand March: Willowdale
Waltz: Nobody's Darling
Schottische: Silver Cloud
Mazurka: Twilight Thoughts
Coffin’s diary entries echo and sometimes fatten the notices and reports that appear in the Islander from 1894 to 1896. Among them the Hard Times dances, Harvest Home Ball, Basket Social and Dance, Necktie Party (not what you think), Grand Masque Ball (at Mardi Gras time) and especially the big New Year’s, Christmas and Fourth of July bashes, which featured fun and games and a ton of food in addition to the dancing. The Islander went beyond posting notices and started reporting on the dances in earnest in 1894. One of the most extensive was about the “Hard Times Dance.”
“The ‘Hard Times Dance’ at the Union Grove Hall last Friday night (Sept. 28) was well attended and was a decided success. The most noticeable feature about the ladies was the predominance of "Bran New" calico and denim dresses neatly and tastily made, thereby giving an unusual air of freshness and vivacity to our pretty girls and stately matrons. (Girls do you like taffy?) Some of the men appeared in genuine ‘Hard Times’ clothes. (Editors and other people who were too poor to buy overalls, wore the only clothes they had, and were accused of being ‘High toned’ for so doing.) The supper, a really "Hard Times" one, consisted of coffee and doughnuts and crackers and corned beef. As the coffee was excellent and the doughnuts good we think that there were fewer sour stomachs than is usual after the regular ‘Pie and cake suppers.’”
Evidently the “Hard Times” denim was so popular that a “Necktie Party” hop was thrown two months later, according to the newspaper. The women made ties from the same material as their dresses or aprons, then sealed them in envelopes, which were deposited in a box. For a dollar a head, each gentleman blindly drew an envelope, slipped on the tie and the manufacturer was his partner for the evening. A variation on this theme was arranged later in the month with a “Basket Social and Dance” sponsored by the Valley Literary Society, cofounded by Coffin. The baskets were auctioned off to the highest bidder, again to determine a partner for the evening.
Friday Harbor around the turn of the century. The Odd Fellows Hall (now Whale Museum) stands tall on the bluff at far right. The town had this hall while those in San Juan Valley danced at the Union Grove Hall.
"In spite of the very bad weather, which was by far the worst we have had on any evening during the winter, raining in torrents from 6:30 until 9:30,” Coffin reported. “We had a good crowd, clearing above all expenses $22.25 which will go towards buying an organ for the hall…and at the dance which followed the very best time according to my opinion that we have had during the winter and one that I at least am not likely to forget very soon.
The same could not be said for the Literary Society’s meeting and dance in February 1895, which included the following debate: "Resolved: That the life of the single person is happier than that of the married person; Affirmative Messrs. Norman Frazier, James J. Doyle, and George Stewart; Negative, Herbert L. Coffin, Edward W. McGeary (son of the laundress) and John H. Boyce (son of Stephen and Lucinda).” No report was forthcoming on the debate result, though we do know that Coffin did not marry for another 20 years, never mind the baskets and neckties.
The debate was upstaged in print by the Masque Ball later that month. Held on a particularly soggy February 22nd evening, the rain starting at 5 p.m. and continued through morning when the revelers returned to their wagons and headed home through the puddles to do the milking and feed the animals. (In later years the women would remain at the dancehall and have breakfast ready when the men returned to bring them home.) Even after two years in the Pacific Northwest, Coffin was struck by the region’s liquid winter climate.
“(At) no one time did it rain hard and for the whole 24 hours I doubt if the rainfall would have measured 120th of an inch,” Coffin said. “Yet all the time the air was full of dampness and misty and drizzly enough to make a person feel uncomfortable if he had to remain in it for any length of time.”
But the storekeeper’s enthusiasm was hardly dampened. The effusions in his diary exceeded anything the Islander could muster, and then some.
“This year  they fairly outdid anything of the finest that was ever held within the limits of this county,” he gushed. (Had he one too many beers, or perhaps a romantic encounter?) “In fact, this particular masquerade ball went so far beyond everybody’s highest expectations that everybody was agreeably surprised and so nearly astonished that it was the only event talked of from the first day of the new year up until the night of the 22nd and every once in awhile for weeks afterward you could hear someone say, yes, that was a fine dance you bet…”
Coffin’s dance euphoria had evidently been restored following an ill-conceived catering venture in the summer of 1894. He doesn’t explain the hows or whys, but he and Nash evidently saw a business opportunity and had decided to employ the resources of the store and local farmers to cater dances, picnics and other community events. Their first outing was the July 4th extravaganza at the Union Grove Hall and grounds, which for them was roughly akin to a novice swimmer attempting to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the dead of winter.
The newspaper reported the glorious Fourth dawning “bright and clear” and people “early astir.” That would have been Ham, Bert and their friend and neighbor Andrew Anderson in the kitchen. Expecting a crowd, they baked the cakes and pies on the 2nd, roasted chickens, beef and mutton and boiled hams on the 3rd Then on the 4th our real work commenced. [We] set the table and began to feed the people about 12:30 and kept at it pretty steady until past seven o’clock when they let up a little and we began to prepare for the grand supper at midnight, “ Coffin wrote. “The first table was ready a little before 11 and from that time until past four o’clock the next morning we had a rush and such, washing dishes, cutting meat and bread and cake and pickles and pouring coffee [like] I never endured before.”
But they missed out on Judge Hackett’s patriotic oration and some “very nice singing by the Glee Club, followed by the athletic contests. These were dominated by Henry Hannah, who won the 100-yard dash, and the “ladies race,” with “Miss Mamie [Manie] Firth finishing first and Miss Abbie Nichols second.” The "Tug O' War" between the Valley and Harbor was captured by the Valley boys “after a hard struggle.”
And the dance? The Islander reported the hall “…so crowded that dancing was almost impossible until after midnight.” That was when the revelers crowded the tables for the supper served by Messrs Nash and Coffin, which was “splendid and there was plenty for all.” There were also gallons of beverages provided by William Douglas, who ran a saloon in the rear of his dry goods store (directly across the street from his “Douglas House Hotel,” (now real estate offices) on Spring Street and was “well repaid by the liberal patronage of the people.”
By Coffin’s accounting, the partners fed nearly 200 people at the midnight supper alone and that combined with lunch and dinner netted the partners a little over $16 each—about $510 today. Hardly the fortune they envisioned for three full days of work.
And what about the fun?
“I have spent the 4th of July in various ways, pleasant or otherwise, at different times, but I have never put in one just like this of course being tied down to our tables as we were we could see nothing of the sports and only know what others may tell us, which is very unsatisfactory.”
It was the same following another catering event at the hall the next month, when they were paid 30 cents a couple for a midnight supper and only 30 attended the dance. “I did not make my fortune clearing just $2.50 ($48),” he wrote. “I think that is rather small pay for a nights work besides losing the good time at the dance, and hereafter think I will let somebody else get up the supper.”
And so they did. Coffin’s next midnight supper was on the occasion of a dance and turkey dinner that November at the Tourists Hotel in Friday Harbor, although he was a guest, did not arrive until 1:30 a.m. and was relegated to eating the dark meat and giblets with the hotel staff. His own catering enterprise was at an end (a year later they would sell the store and move on to other pursuits). Therefore, it was a different story on the next Fourth of July when Coffin gloried in the fun:
“…Thanksgiving and Christmas are the dates on which we have the big dances, with numerous smaller affairs in between,” he wrote. “But it is on the glorious 4th that we have all the outdoor sports, and the field is open for all competition when the running and jumping and all kinds of races and all sorts of sports are the order of the day.” There was also “…free beer for all who cared to drink that beverage and lemonade and pop and soda at 10 cents a glass for all who do not.”
Coffin concluded this entry by extolling the community’s sobriety—14 years before the Friday Harbor electorate, alarmed by a proliferation of saloons and back-room whisky bars, voted itself dry and “Blind Pigs” (emergency saloons) were established in tents on the outskirts of town.
“Even with five kegs of beer tapped on the grounds, as was the case this year, you hardly ever see more than two or three drunken persons, which I think is doing fairly well when we consider that there are from 2 to 400 people on the Grounds all day,” he marveled.
Time goes about its work.
The Union Grove Hall burned down in late 1898, leaving the Valley people without a venue. As late as February 1901, a notice was posted in the Islander announcing a meeting at the Madden’s Corner store to consider a new Valley hall. But it wasn’t until February 1905 that the Woodmen of the World Hall—a two-story barrack with an upper floor for lodge meetings and an open ground floor for dancing—was completed next to the store at the Corners. The first dance was a masquerade ball and “largely attended,” according to Coffin.
San Juan Valley residents held a meeting in 1901 at the store on Madden’s Corner to consider building a new hall to replace the one that burned down in Union Grove (The Oaks today) in 1898. It would be another four years before the Woodmen Hall opened adjacent to the store.
The Woodmen Hall, built by the local chapter of the Woodmen of the World fraternal organization, hosted its first dance in February 1905. It stood adjacent to the store at Madden’s Corner until it was torn down in the 1940s. The hall was the successor to the Union Grove Hall, once located at where The Oaks Manufactured Home Park stands today in the edge of San Juan Valley. Dances were an essential part of island life and great excuse to stay out all night. (San Juan Historical Museum)
That building developed its own lore over the next 40 years until it was dismantled by Al Sundstrom for its elegant milled lumber for a price he considered “pretty spendy.” There are stories about the children who slept upstairs while their parents danced on the ground floor; the teenage boys who slipped out of the hall and crossed San Juan Valley with stolen chickens; and the cake that no one wanted to eat that appeared on the potluck table, dance after dance, year after after year.
All this, even into the new century with all its conveniences such as consistent electric lighting, refrigeration, phonograph records, gravel and macadam roads and the cars and trucks that replaced the wagons outside the hall. The dances continue to this day, the old-time music rekindled in the form of the Monday night contra dances led by Michael Cohen, which will hopefully resume once the pandemic is over.
San Juan Island, will then, once again, kick up its heels and dance the night away.
Following his tenure at the store, Bert Coffin’s working life followed a pattern that would be familiar to islanders today. He found employ as a laborer, clearing land, splitting rails, building fence and harvesting potatoes and carrots, in addition to crewing on a steam sloop throughout the islands. At the turn of the century he moved to Friday Harbor where he worked for Ham, who by 1905 was managing the cannery. Coffin’s duties were varied, from working the winter line processing clams (for which he received a raise from 15 to 20 cents an hour) to keeping the books. The processing crews, including Indians who tied up their canoes at the wharf, suffered terribly as the building was not heated. Meanwhile, a falling out with his landlord in Argyle forced him to sleep for a time in the cannery office, where he constructed and slept on a portable plank bunk. By 1906, he was employed by Capt. Robert Newhall, moving his homestead from Orcas to Friday Harbor, at which time he returned to sea aboard the steamer “Buckeye” for Newhall and the little “Dolly D” for Jack Douglas, owner of the Saloon Best. He also mentions keeping books for Jensen’s store. By then he was living and, when he could afford it, taking his meals in the Douglas House or Tourists Hotel. Later entries, beginning in 1915, indicate that he was surveying as an independent contractor and for San Juan County, mainly doing road right of ways and fish trap sites.
Bert Coffin (standing) and Elijah Hamlin Nash kept store and catered dances on San Juan Island in 1894. They then went on to serve their community in variety of ways from Coffin crewing the steamers plying the island waters or packing clams to Nash managing the cannery and serving in the state legislature. The photo was taken at the wedding of Nash and Debrah Julia Kelly. Coffin stands with his future bride, Florence Hankinson, who was Debrah’s aunt. (San Juan Historical Museum)
Ham Nash, meantime, enjoyed a more conventional career path. His attendance at the dances paid off, as in February 1896 he married Deborah Julia Kelly, daughter of John and Mary Ellen Kelly. John was a former American Camp sergeant, as was Mary Ellen’s father, John Hankinson. They had eight children. Coffin would later marry Florence Hankinson, Deborah’s young aunt. In addition to managing the cannery, Nash became a tower of civic affairs as well, serving as county clerk, postmaster, mayor of Friday Harbor and finally three terms in the Washington State Legislature. The home he and Deborah built at Spring and Caine streets survives as Spring Street International School, and their many descendants thrive on San Juan.
For further reading: “Images of America: Friday Harbor” and “San Juan Island,” by Mike and Julia Vouri. Many thanks to Boyd Pratt, Mary Jane Anderson, Gretchen Gubelman, Kevin Loftus and Andy Zall. But most of all to Al Sundstrom, Jim Cahail, Nordine Jensen, Kitty Roberts and Al Nash, who were instrumental in bringing the island’s formative days alive. They are no longer with us, but their memories live forever. —MV