Dancing the Night Away on San Juan Island

  • By Mike Vouri
  • Posted 11/07/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22843
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In the later years of the nineteenth century on San Juan Island, social dancing was a primary social and recreational activity. As with many settlements on the frontier, the dances were held in community halls built with funds raised for that purpose. Often the revels went on until dawn, when farmers would leave to do the milking and then return for a big breakfast prepared by the women. Many details of these events were recorded in the journal of islander Bert Coffin (1869-1930), who arrived in 1892 to work in a grocery in the fledgling (and now extinct) village of Argyle with his cousin and partner Ham Nash (1869-1933). Coffin and Nash briefly catered the dances until they discovered that the earnings were meager. They both went on to other pursuits with varying degrees of success, but community-hall dances continued well into the twentieth century, and old-time music was rekindled in the twenty-first century, with weekly contra dances ongoing as of 2023.

"The People Will Dance at the Drop of the Hat"

Not long after the first non-Native settlers arrived on San Juan Island, the new arrivals found ways to make their life more tenable on a remote frontier island. In the early days around the time of the Pig War crisis, recreational pursuits were limited to liquor, gambling, prostitution, and the occasional theatrical entertainments from the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island. However, once families arrived in earnest following the settlement that resulted in the United States gaining sole possession of the San Juan Islands in 1872, social dances became the primary way islanders met, socialized, and kindled long-standing relationships, including marriages.

There was a time on the island 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 on Douglas Road 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 journal, entry dated January 2, 1893).

Coffin and his cousin and partner, Roger Elijah Hamlin ("Ham") Nash, had arrived on the island in June 1892. They had 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 crawl space by December.

An aspiring journalist and storyteller, Coffin kept a diary in a large 1878-vintage ledger. Entries included 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 on the Friday Harbor waterfront, and the daily shipping news. But there are also chatty, tongue-in-cheek accounts of stalking chickens, "Ham's" maddening silence about his visit to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, details of Coffin's assemblage of a plank bed and, of course, his personal experiences with island hoedowns, masquerades, and fancy-dress balls.

A review of The 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 remained 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 a neighboring farm, not a mile away). It was an investment in fun.

Six months after the duo's arrival, Coffin reported that he had attended a New Year's dance at the Union Grove Hall in 1893 with a Mrs. Stevens "furnishing a fine supper at 11:30, plenty of cake and pie too and good coffee" (Coffin journal, entry dated January 2, 1893). 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 (1828-1893), had been laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery that 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. 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" (Coffin journal, January 2, 1893).

That was probably OK because McGeary was Irish and knew a thing or two about wakes, not to mention drinking and dancing. She had arrived on San Juan Island in July 1859 as a laundress with Captain George Pickett's U.S. Army company, which had landed that month as a counterpoint to the British colonial government's arrest of an American citizen for the shooting of the pig that touched off the Pig War standoff.

A week after attending the funeral and New Year's dance, 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 at the southwest end of San Juan Valley (Two Barn Farm Lane today). He enthused:

"I must say it was a very social dance indeed ... 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" (Coffin journal, entry dated January 9, 1893).

This paragraph recalls "Rodeo," the ballet composed by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) during World War II for the choreographer Agnes De Mille (1905-1993). 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 community halls on San Juan Island. Here is an example from the program for a similar "Annual Ball" held January 1, 1858, in another Union Hall, this one in Boston, Massachusetts:

"Grand March
Cotillon: Fest
Contra: Hull's Victory
Cotillon: Ernant
Quadrille: Hiawatha

"Waltz and Schottische
Cotillon: Fra Diavolo
Cotillon: Labitzsky
Contra: Money Musk

"Intermission and Supper
Waltz Quadrille
Cotillon: Military

"Waltz, Schottische and Redowa
Cotillon: Coquette
Cotillon: American
Contra: Roy's Wife
Cotillon: Grand Basket"
(LaFarge, "Social Dancing ...")

Dancing Through the Year

Coffin's diary entries echo and sometimes fatten the notices and reports that appear in The Islander from 1894 to 1896. Among them were "Hard Times Dances," a Harvest Home Ball, a Basket Social and Dance, a "Necktie Party" (not what you might think), a Grand Masque Ball (spelled M-A-S-K in the newspaper) in celebration of Mardi Gras, 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" held on September 28:

"The 'Hard Times Dance' at the Union Grove Hall, last Friday night, 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'" ("Local and General," October 4, 1894).

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. 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 the following spring 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.

Less lively, though more profound in tongue-in-cheek fashion, was the Literary Society's meeting and dance in March 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 [Catherine McGeary's son] and John H. Boyce [son of Stephen and Lucinda Boyce]" ("Valley Gleanings").

The results were reported in the next edition of the newspaper, with bachelor life coming out on top: "The question was humerously [sic] and factiously discussed, pro and con, and, by popular vote was decided in favor of the affirmative" ("Local and General," March 7, 1895). While arguing in favor of married life in the debate, Coffin himself did not marry for another 20 years, never mind the baskets and neckties.

In any event, the debate results were upstaged in Coffin's journal by the "Masque Ball" the preceding month. It was held on the soggy evening of February 22 -- the rain started at 5 p.m. and continued through morning -- and the revelers did not leave until dawn to mount their wagons and splash home through the puddles to do the milking and feed the animals. (In later years, 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. 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" (Coffin journal, entry dated February 22, 1895).

But the storekeeper's enthusiasm for the ball 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. 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 a while, for weeks afterward you could hear someone say, yes, that was a fine dance you bet" (Coffin journal, entry dated February 22, 1895).

"Small Pay for a Night's Work"

Coffin's dance euphoria had apparently 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 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 4 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" ("Celebration at ..."). That would have been Nash, Coffin, and their friend and neighbor Andrew Anderson in the kitchen. Expecting a crowd, they baked cakes and pies on the 2nd, then 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. 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" (Coffin journal, entry dated July 8, 1894).

But they missed out on Judge Hackett's patriotic oration and "some very nice singing by the Glee Club," followed by athletic contests, including a 100-yard dash, won by Henry Hannah; the "Ladies race, Miss Mamie [Manie] Firth first[,] Miss Abbie Nichols second;" and "the 'Tug O' War' between the Valley and Harbor," captured by the boys from the Valley "after a hard struggle" ("Celebration at ...").

And the dance? The Islander reported the hall "so crowded that dancing was almost impossible until after midnight," when the revelers packed the tables for the supper served by Nash and Coffin, which was "splendid and there was plenty for all" ("Celebration at ..."). There were also gallons of beverages provided by William Douglas (1853-1934), who ran a saloon in the rear of his dry-goods store in Friday Harbor, directly across the street from his Douglas House hotel on Spring Street (the hotel building burned down in 2022) and "was well repaid by the liberal patronage of the people" ("Celebration at ...").

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 more than $16 each -- about $510 today. Hardly the fortune they envisioned following three full days of labor.

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" (Coffin journal, entry dated July 8, 1894).

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. I think that is rather small pay for a night's work besides losing the good time at the dance, and hereafter think I will let somebody else get up the supper" (Coffin journal, entry dated August 11, 1894).

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 this time, since he did not arrive until 1:30 a.m. he was relegated to eating the dark meat and giblets with the hotel staff. His own catering enterprise was at an end. (A year later, he and Nash 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, as he recalled the following February:

"Thanksgiving and Christmas are the dates on which we have the big dances, with numerous smaller affairs in between ... 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 journal, entry dated February 22, 1896).

Writing 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, Coffin concluded this entry by extolling the community's sobriety:

"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" (Coffin journal, February 22, 1896)

Time Goes About its Work

The Union Grove Hall burned down in late 1898, leaving the Valley people without a venue. It wasn't until February 1901 that a notice was posted in The Islander announcing a meeting at the Madden's Corner store for the purpose of considering a new Valley Hall. Four years later, 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 "well attended" masquerade ball (The San Juan Islander, February 25, 1905). 

That building developed its own lore over the next 40 years until it was dismantled by Albin "Al" Sundstrom (1918-2014) for its elegant, milled lumber for a price he considered "pretty spendy" (Sundstrom interview). 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 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.

Dances continue to this day (2023), the old-time music rekindled in the form of Monday night contra dances led by Michael Cohen, which resumed post-pandemic to much acclaim and enthusiasm following a two-year absence.

San Juan Island, once again, kicks up its heels and dances the night away.

Coffin and Nash Move On

Following his tenure at the store, Bert Coffin's working life followed a pattern that would be familiar to islanders today. He found employment 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 Nash, 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 Coffin 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 Captain Robert Newhall, moving Newhall's 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 (1859-1946), 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 journal entries, beginning in 1915, indicate that he was surveying as an independent contractor and for San Juan County, mainly doing road rights-of-way and fish-trap sites.

Ham Nash, meantime, enjoyed a more conventional career path. His attendance at the dances paid off, as in February 1896 he married Debrah Julia Kelly (1877-1943), one of the eight children of John (1840-1913) and Mary Ellen (1859-1942) Kelly. John was a former American Camp sergeant, as was Mary Ellen's father, John Hankinson (1830-1924). Coffin would later marry Florence Hankinson (1867-1935), Debrah's young aunt. In addition to managing the cannery, Nash became a tower of civic affairs, serving as county clerk, postmaster, mayor of Friday Harbor, and finally three terms in the Washington State Legislature. The home he and Debrah built at Spring and Caine streets survives as Spring Street International School, and their many descendants thrive on San Juan.


Journal of Herbert L. "Bert" Coffin, San Juan Historical Museum, Friday Harbor, Washington; Mike Vouri interview with Mary Jane Anderson, Friday Harbor, Washington, 2021; Mike Vouri interview with Albin "Al" Sundstrom, , Friday Harbor, 2014; Mike Vouri interview with James "Jim" Cahail, 2009; United States Census, San Juan County, Washington, 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930; Mike Vouri and Julia Vouri, Images of America: Friday Harbor (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009), 24, 76, 80, 85; Mike Vouri and Julia Vouri, Images of America: San Juan Island (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 20-21, 28-30, 67, 77, 89, 105-107; "Celebration at Union Grove," The Islander, July 12, 1894, p. 3; "Local and General," The Islander, October 4, 1894, p. 3, "Thanksgiving Necktie Party," The Islander, November 29, 1894, p. 3; "Valley Gleanings," The Islander, February 28, 1895, p. 3; "Local and General," The Islander, March 7, 1895, p. 3; The San Juan Islander, February 25, 1905, p. 4; Boyd C. Pratt, "The Disputed Islands, Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: The San Juan Archipelago, 1850-1874," unpublished manuscript, 2008, pp. 7-12, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Friday Harbor, Washington; Rod LaFarge, "Social Dancing in America: A History," American Squares magazine, 1956-1958, copy available at Square Dance History Project website accessed September 24, 2023 (https://squaredancehistory.org/items/show/1510); Robert Lee Cook, "Frontier Dances," Square Dancing magazine, May 1971 - September 1972, copy available at Square Dance History Project website accessed September 24, 2023 (https://squaredancehistory.org/items/show/1241).

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