Historic dance halls on the Prairies – gangs, fighting, vikings and love

Hello Flatlanders,

Good newsThe days are getting longer again and 2022 is almost here, for better or for worse. The pandemic has been a real lesson in taking life one day at a time.

A quick year in review. The Flatlander launched its first newsletter on Nov. 16 and over the last seven weeks I covered droughtchild povertybison conservationhuman traffickinglong-term care and euthanasia through a Prairie lens. Each issue takes me on average about 14 hours to research and write. In doing so, I always learn something new, and I hope you do too.

This week’s issue is a little more fun, since it’s the holiday season. We’ll look back to a time, when Saskatchewanians and Manitobans hung out in dance halls that have since become popular landmarks.

Dance halls on the Prairies were:

  • Where many people met their future husband or wife;
  • Fights broke out surprisingly often;
  • Rowdy military members frequented them;
  • Elvis and Al Capone allegedly visited.

I was shocked to learn what went on in them, especially at The Normandy in Winnipeg.

All of these sites are road trip worthy if you’re thinking ahead to summer.

First some background – Dance hall culture

The affair or a racket is what dances for the working class were called in the late 1800s. These dances were held in multi-purpose halls in neighbourhoods everywhere. And by 1910, commercialized dance halls began popping up everywhere, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba were no exception.

Known as the Jazz Agethe 1920s continued to see the dance craze grow, as both music and dance became fast and celebratory. Waltzes and the foxtrot, became popular alongside the Charleston and the shimmy.

Dance was a celebration coming out of the First World War.

Swing music was all the rage by the 1930s and the jitterbug became a go-to dance. Swing dancing carried on into the 1940s and carried on through the rock-and-roll era in the 1950s.

Dance halls fell out of popularity in the 1960s as rock became heavier.

A notable dance hall in Saskatchewan – Danceland

Where is it? At Manitou Beach, 180 km north of Regina.

Built in 1928, Danceland sits on the shore of Little Manitou Lake.

Its horsehair dance floor has some spring to it, which is perfect for dancing. Between the sub floor and a hardwood floor is a layer of horsehair, imported from Quebec. No nails were used in the floor.

The structure replaced a smaller version of itself that had been built in 1919 and was half the size.

People paid 10 cents per dance or they could get three for a quarter.

Open every night of the week, as many as 500 people would come through its doors during its heyday.

Flooding is a problem along the shores of Little Manitou Lake. Danceland has two pumps running all the time to keep the water out.

A large berm had to be built along the waterline behind Danceland to help keep the historic building dry.

What’s so special about Little Manitou Lake? It has five times more salt than an ocean, and ithere are only four lakes in the world like it.

More than 1,600 people took to Little Manitou Lake in 2019 to set a record for most people simultaneously floating on a mineral lake. (The density of the salt in the water keeps people afloat).

Thousands of people visited Watrous – Manitou Beach in the 1920s and 1930s because the lake is believed to have healing powers, and Watrous could be reached by train from four different cities.

Elvis and Al Capone are rumoured to have visited. While there is no hard evidence to support this, I made a documentary called Finding Al that explores Capone’s alleged connections with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which took me to Danceland.

The famous American jazz group, the Ink Spots, performed at Danceland, as did the Canadian jazz band Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen.

Is it still open? Yes, however it is currently closed because of the current COVID-19 situation, but like most musical venues Danceland has done what it can to remain operational throughout the pandemic, including offering concerts with no dancing.

Want to know more? CBC wrote a great article about Danceland: ‘Dancing has never died’: Music lovers hope to save Danceland, which features the current owner Millie Strueby. She bought Danceland back in 2001 with her husband Arnie, who passed away last September.

Danceland. (Watrous-Manitou Beach Heritage Centre).

Notable dance halls in Manitoba

The Normandy Dance Hall

Where is it? The Normandy is no longer, as its since been torn down to create space for apartment buildings, but it used to be located on Sherbrook Street in Winnipeg.

What’s its story? Originally called Norman Hall, it was named after the owner Mrs. William E. Norman and built in 1905. The building included a dance studio that was originally used for social and church functions.

Two men, Sid Boughton and George Evans, who rented the building years later in 1937, used the dance space for bingo. whist drives and dances on Friday and Saturday nights.

(What’s a whist drive? Basically, it’s a social event in which a number of people play the card game whist simultaneously.

Whist preceded bridge and is similar, but there’s no dummy or bidding, unless one is playing bid whist).

Becoming the Normandy – Boughton and Evans bought the building from Mrs. Norman in 1939 and wanted to preserve the original name. The two men would eventually change the name to Normandy in 1944 to pay tribute to D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.

Illegal activity – Gaming was illegal, and bingo was only allowed for charitable purposes, so the police paid Boughton and Evans a visit, confiscating their cards, so dancing and social events became the venue’s primary focus.

Upstairs, banquets and socials were hosted in the Blue Room.

Downstairs was dancing every night. Paying 25 cents to get in, people crowded the dance floor. Polkas, jigs and two-steps were the dances of choice.

Métis fiddler Andy Desjarlais and his Red River Settlers played the Normandy every Saturday night from 1939-1950.

Glen Frain and his Buckaroos also played at the Normandy. Born in Wadena, Saskatchewan, Frain served in an elite U.S.- Canadian Armed Forces combat commando unit called the First Special Service Force during the Second World War. Wounded twice, he saw action in North Africa and Italy. After the war, he moved to Winnipeg and started his band. When not playing music, he worked at Manitoba Hydro.

Elizabeth Taylor’s ex-husband Richard Burton was stationed in Rivers, Manitoba and would sing at the Normandy from time to time.

Fights at the Normandy – Soldiers were rowdy and would smash up the joint, including one or two toilets a night. At one point a huge fight broke out between members of the Air Force and members of the Army, which caused the chain of command in the Air Force to ban their men from going there for eight months.

Juvenile gangs made youth dances impossible. The Normandy attempted to host dances for youths on Saturday afternoon, but rival gangs of kids would get into fights, so these events were cut from the program.

Booze wasn’t allowed so people would try to smuggle in bottles.

Forget Lovers Lane, how about a fire escape? Couples could often be spotted on the fire escape of the Normandy.

Instead of Ladies Night, there was Maids Night Out on Thursdays when rural women, who had moved to Winnipeg to work in the domestic services, would visit the Normandy.

A soldier was killed in 1958 after sustaining a neck injury from a Normandy’s bouncer who was trying to assist two women who were being hassled. The bouncer would eventually be acquitted, but the incident was a business killer so Boughton and Evans sold it to a man named Ed Posner who renamed it the Sildor.

Back to banquets and socials – Posner sectioned the building to include more banquet rooms. He tried to maintain the wooden dance floor, but the maintenance costs were too expensive so he replaced it with tile in the 1970s before the building was later torn down.

A mortar crew stands back just before firing into a Nazi position somewhere along the Normandy Coast, France for which Normandy Dance Hall would be named after in 1944. (Getty Images).

Crabby Steve’s Barn

Where was it? In the Rural Municipality of Armstrong on Provincial Trunk Highway 7, four kilometres north of Komarno

Was there a Crabby Steve? Yes. He was famous in the Interlake area for hosting barn dances every Saturday on his property for more than 40 years.

“When I came back from the navy, there was no place to go, there were no dances, so I figured I would build some kind of a barn, so all the young kids would have a place to go,” Crabby Steve told CBC in the short 1986 documentary Crabby Steve’s barn dances packed ’em in.

Why was his name Crabby? He picked up the nickname after a long night out in San Francisco while part of the Canadian Merchant Navy. Originally from Malonton, Crabby Steve left home at 15 to serve seven years in the Merchant Navy where he worked as a ship fireman during the Second World War.

Crabby Steve died at the age of 91 in 2015.

Can I still go to Crabby’s? Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of the barn. The structure collapsed but can still be seen from the roadside. If you’re in the area, and are a fan of roadside attractions, you should check out Komarno, home to the largest mosquito, a statue made of stone and metal.

Facts about Komarno

  • Komarno is Ukrainian for mosquito, according to Google Translate
  • Komarno self-proclaimed itself the mosquito capital if the world
  • Komarno is 64 kilometres north of Winnipeg
Gimli, Manitoba (Getty Images).

The Gimli Dance Pavilion

Where is it? In Gimli Park on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg. In 1988, more than 100 trees were removed on the grounds after sustaining wind damage during a series of severe thunderstorms.

Why is it special? It’s one of only two historic dance halls still standing in Manitoba and was built in 1911. The wooden trusses that support the roof allow for a wide-open floor space for dancing.

The building was built by a musician, Olafur Thornsteinson, whose craftsmanship was so good that most of the original materials are still intact despite the extreme weather of 1988.

Still in use todaythe pavilion hosts the yearly Icelandic Festival of Manitoba and has done so since 1932.

A Prairie Icon – The building was preserved through the Prairie Icons Project that had the goal to maintain some of Manitoba’s unique and historic prairie architecture. The project was funded by Thomas Sill Foundation and J.M. Kaplan Fund of New York, as well as the Historic Resources Branch of the Province of Manitoba.

Did you say an Icelandic Festival? Yes. The Gimli area is known as New Iceland. Getting ahead in Iceland wasn’t easy. The only way to own the land was to inherit it, and those without worked for the land owners as labourers.

And a volcano erupted in 1875 called Askja, destroying houses, killing animals and covering the land with ash, leading to starvation, so Icelanders started to immigrate to Canada and New Iceland was born along the shores of Lake Winnipeg that same year.

New Iceland was independent from Canada and had its own Constitution. It later became a part of Manitoba in 1881.

If you’re in Gimli, you can visit the Gimli Dance Pavilion and learn more about its viking culture by doing the self-guided historical walking tour.  Gimli is also about a 30-minute drive to the giant mosquito in Komarno and Crabby Steve’s. Gimli also has a film festival in the summer, which converted to drive-in theatre to be able to run during the pandemic.

Beware of the fish flies. The first time I went to Gimli the fish flies were terrible. They are usually only around for a few weeks in July and don’t bite (in my head it felt like they were biting). So if you are thinking about the Gimli Dance Pavilion in its glory, know that those dancers may have been plagued by fish flies as the facility was originally an open air venue.

Quote of the week

“You should be giving a little bit of what you have to help others who might need it.”

– Jeffery Straker, Regina folk-pop singer, about why he decided to take to the streets over the holiday season, carolling to collect donations for the food bank after he himself has had a tough few years as a performer, especially as live shows are once again being canceled because of the Omicron variant.

Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed

  1. This year, Regina firefighters responded to more drug overdose calls than fires.
  2. Here’s a “back in my day” story. If you think the holidays during a pandemic is bleak, a Second World War veteran can one-up you. At least you aren’t getting shot at by Germans over Christmas while away from family.
  3. Saskatchewan farmers want the public to know they are carbon net zero and pay thousands of dollars in carbon tax.
  4. After a slow start to the tourism season, Moose Jaw had its second best fall for visitors.
  5. Saskatchewan has the potential to be a global leader in agriculture technology and a new venture capital fund will help local business leaders make their mark.

Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed

  1. A Winnipeg family showed off their epic lego Christmas village.
  2. More newborns have been showing up in emergency because in-person doctor visits haven’t been as frequent during the pandemic and so cases of jaundice and weight loss are being missed.
  3. The courts approved an $8 billion settlement for Manitoba First Nations impacted by years of drinking water advisories.
  4. A new public washroom on Main Street in Winnipeg is nearly complete and is a throwback to the city’s old comfort stations.
  5. A look back at the history of Winnipeg’s civic Christmas tree.

Photo of the week

Downtown Regina. (Getty Images).

Until next week…

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Kind regards and Happy New Year,

Kelly-Anne Riess

Important work at a critical time.

Over the last 20 years, on the Prairies and beyond,  local newsrooms have shrunk, which means not much investigative journalism gets done in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Flatlander is changing this.

 

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