"Wonderful Old Lawrence" by Elfriede Fischer Rowe

Christmas Vacation Times

Drawing of a house on a steep hill

     ARE STUDENTS TODAY AS frivolous and carefree and gay as they were 50 years ago? Every year when the holiday season is at hand and Christmas vacation starts at Kansas University, one is reminded of those past times. When the last class was dismissed, all thoughts of school were put aside for two weeks. No one planned to catch up with reading at the library or sought to complete lab work. There were too many more "important" things going on. No trips to Mexico, or to Colorado for skiing, were in the picture. No one wanted to leave town for the holidays because you had too much fun in Lawrence. Besides, holiday diversions were unheard of then.

     Two weeks before vacation time, fraternities and sororities set the pace for things to come. Dances, either at the house or in Ecke's or Fraternal Aid Union Hall, were held. The Betas had their "German", the Phi Gams their "Pig Dinner", and the Phi Psis their Christmas party. Formal, engraved invitations were sent out. Elaborate five and six course dinners were served. Menus were printed, as were the dance programs. At one such party, a song was sung between each course and the song to be sung had the words printed on the menu.

     The menu: Oyster cocktail -- song -- Cream Tomato Soup -- celery, olives, cheese straws ---- song -- Roast Turkey, oyster dressing, June peas, Mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, Sandwiches (?) -- song -- Waldorf salad -- song --Cafe Parfait, Cake, Candies -- song -- coffee --song. At that time, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity had 18 actives and 8 pledges and the party was at the Fraternal Aid Union Hall. A good many of the fraternities gave favors at these parties. What they were was always kept a secret until the big night. It might be a lavaliere of the fraternity crest, or a silver mesh purse.

     Christmas tree parties the Sunday before vacation recess were held at the houses, too. At the Sigma Chi house an informal supper preceded the gift distribution. Mrs. Petty was the housemother. The gifts were always jokes on the receivers, with a poem that had to be read aloud to the group. After that, the evening was spent sitting on the floor around the tree and singing Christmas songs.

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     After the out-of-town students had left Lawrence, it was time for the Lawrence young people to get together.

     During school time, you were busy with your own particular groups, but vacation time brought everybody together again, regardless of club affiliations. Dancing, skating, and coasting were the main activities. There were "tea" dances or "matinee" dances in Ecke's Hall, (above where Duckwall's downtown store is now). That dance floor had two springs under it so that when you danced, or even walked across it, it would "give" in rhythm. Fraternal Aid Union Hall had three springs under their floor. These matinee dances were subscription affairs, as were the "varsity" dances in the evenings. The boys usually paid 50 cents a couple. If the group was to be small, sometimes the dance would be held in IOOF Hall (upstairs and across the street from the Fire Department on 8th and Vermont). Sometimes the boys engaged Eagles Hall on East Warren.

     The music for the dances in the halls, was always "live" and consisted usually of a piano and banjo. One popular pair to play was "Swede and Eric", (Swede Wilson and Eric Owens). Swede played the banjo and Eric the piano. They were paid around $5 for the evening. If the dancers wanted to dance after midnight, the boys would chip in and collect a dollar or two more, for an extra hour's music. The players always seemed to enjoy their work as much as the dancers enjoyed it. And if you asked them to play a special favorite number, they always obliged willingly. Sometimes the orchestra was increased to three by adding Swede's brother, Al Wilson, who also played the banjo. Then there was "Shanty" Newhouse and his orchestra. He always had at least three in his group, and one would be a violinist.

     At smaller functions and at fraternity houses, Baldwin Mitchell, the late A. B. Mitchell), former attorney general of Kansas, and father of Dr. Alex Mitchell) was a popular piano player. He would get $3 a night and sometimes only $2. "Honey" Warfield, a happy-go-lucky Lawrence Negro, was also a popular piano player.

     If you were at a dance downtown, at intermission you usually walked to Chris Epley's on the east side of Massachusetts Street in the 700 block, for oyster stew for which you could have a small bowl for 15 cents, or a large one for a quarter. Or you would go to Wiedemann's (about where the Jay Shoppe is now), and eat chili for 10 cents or drink hot chocolate with a marshmallow on top, for 5 cents, or an ice cream soda for 10 cents. The rich ice cream, of course, was made by Wiedemanns.

     Sometimes parents would give formal dances for a son or daughter, and these would be held in Ecke's Hall. You walked to these functions, your date carrying your dancing slippers in your velvet slipper bag, or one that matched your party coat. Very rarely did you take a hack (horse drawn) for 25 cents. There

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were several livery stables to choose from; Donnelly's at the corner of Seventh and New Hampshire; Moak's, back of the Eldridge Hotel; Francisco's, about the middle of the 800 block on Vermont Street on the east side; and Chris Hunsinger's place of business at 922 Massachusetts, where it was established in 1901.

     When you arrived at a formal party, there was always a receiving line. The Grand March started at 9:30 and there was a five-piece orchestra. At 11 o'clock, a light lunch was served.

     The big event of the holiday season, was the annual "bunch" dance held in Ecke's Hall on New Year's Eve. We believe it was originally started by a group of high school boys belonging to a high school fraternity called the "Delts", (Delta Omicron Omicron). Each year the same boys promoted it. It was a money making deal for them, but you had to be asked to come, even if you had to pay your dollar to get in. It later became so popular, it finally was held in Fraternal Aid Union Hall. This was the largest hall in Lawrence. It was where the present Standard Life building now stands. With three springs in those floors, we wonder what the twist and some of the newer dances would have done to the resilient wood surface. Someone recalled that one night they were dancing the barn dance and the floor was swinging. The janitor came in and asked what was going on and they told him they were dancing the Barn dance. He expostulated -- "Hell, this ain't no barn".

     Most of the dance programs listed the names of the dances that were to be played, such as: "1-Waltz -- You Dear Heart"; "2-Two Step -- Mr. Moon Turn Off Your Lights". The last number (there would be 18 or 20 listed, and sometimes a place for "extras"), was always "Aloha" or "Good Night Ladies".

     Waltzes seemed to be the most popular. One program shows 12 waltzes and 6 two-steps. On a 1915 dance program, the new steps were coming in and were reflected on the programs; such as: One Step; Canter; Fox Trot; The Boston; Castle Walk; Fish Walk; Hesitation Waltz. And you danced only the type dance designated for that particular number.

     The "Phi Gam Corner" was a popular variation, originating at the local Phi Gam frat house. P. J. Cubbison was one of the best dancers for that improvised step. You could dance it either with a waltz or two-step. All you did was when you came to a corner, the boy backed the girl in and hesitated a beat or two, then she came forward and the boy backed out.

     In the daytime, you went skating on the river, or maybe there was a tea dance or matinee. Interspersed with all this, would be coasting parties and Victrola parties at two of the most frequently used and open fraternity houses; the Phi Psi house, then at 1140 Louisiana and the Alpha Tau Omega House at 1633 Vermont. Everybody went, regardless of their affiliations. You always had

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to make sure there were to be chaperons before you were allowed to go. No food was served. You always walked to town for that.

     The Betas and the Phi Psis had the two biggest bob-sleds for coasting. They would hold from 16 to 18 people. There was always a big husky boy to guide, usually "Lefty" Sproull, or Ray Folks, or "Stuffy" Dunmire, on the Phi Psi sled. One boy always sat on the end in case of a spill. Indiana Street was the most popular hill for the Phi Psis and the Betas used 14th Street, then called Adams. You yelled all the way down to warn sleighs and hacks to clear the intersections. After several serious spills with resulting broken bones, skull fractures, and a fatality, and before the City passed an ordinance prohibiting coasting down the hill, one boy was posted at the intersection of 9th and Indiana to stop traffic until you coasted by. By the time you reached 8th and Indiana, you had gained tremendous speed and could make it, with a full load on the sled, to the Water-Works at the foot of Indiana. The boys clocked it once and the sled gained a speed of 60 miles an hour. If you coasted down 14th Street, you ended up at the cemetery -- alive. A boy was posted at the intersection of 14th and Tennessee, as this was the most dangerous intersection.

     You didn't mind the long, cold, slippery walk back up the hill, because it was so exciting. You were warmly dressed in several sweaters, long stockings, skirt (no slacks in those days), a stocking cap down over your ears, long winter "undies", a long warm coat, high leather boots that had been vulcanized, or galoshes over high-top shoes, and of course, warm mittens, and sometimes two pairs of those. However, after two or three trips down, you were ready to walk over to the Phi Psi house to get warmed up, and to dance to Victrola records. If not enough couples showed up to fill the bobsled, you walked to town to the "Nickel" or Patee's movie theatre (about where the J. C. Penney store is now) and paid a nickel admittance.

     When you went skating on the river, you wore about the same type and amount of clothes you did for coasting. The snow was swept off the ice and a rink formed, usually near the foot of Ohio Street. Our skates were the clamp-on kind. "Shoe" skates were unheard of then. Sometimes the channel of the river was next to the shore and the water would be running swiftly. Then a narrow plank would be bridged across to reach the ice rink. One memorable Sunday afternoon, one of the girls lost her balance and toppled over into the icy water. The boy next to her, grabbed her by the hair and held her up until she could be lifted out by the others. It didn't mar the afternoon's sport, however. She ran on home a couple of blocks away, changed, and was ready to greet us when we stopped in for tea and Christmas cookies on our way home.

Printed in Journal-World Dec. 19, 1964

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