Browns Park hoedowns keep tradition alive

— Golden light and fiddle tunes filtered out of the former one-room schoolhouse while a harvest moon rose in the eastern sky over Browns Park Saturday night.

In the far reaches of Northwest Colorado -- a remote landscape of sagebrush and marshes famous for harboring outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Billy the Kid -- folks came together to stomp their feet and socialize with far-flung neighbors.

In years past, the Saturday night dance was a staple of entertainment characterized by revelry and dancing that lasted into the morning hours. Though recent hoedowns and parties at the restored Lodore Hall aren't as ambitious, Saturday's celebration was fraught with tradition.

"There won't be gunfights in the parking lot and the dance won't go on until dawn like the old days, but everybody has a good time," said local resident Bob Molloy.

At least three times a year, locals gather to commemorate the seasons such as an annual Christmas party and a spring celebration. The hall, which is in the countryside 80 miles west of Craig on Colorado Highway 318, offers a prime view of the Gates of Lodore's steep canyon walls high above the Green River.

Dancing is always in season among the locals who wasted no time Saturday pushing aside tables to make room for a dance floor. As a band of two guitar players and two fiddlers started, hands clapped and boots stomped as couples sashayed across the wooden floor.

"There's not enough of these kinds of dances anymore," said Anna Velasquez.

Velasquez, 16, of Maybell was dressed almost identically to her friend, Amanda Nichols, 15, of Craig. They wore stiff blue jeans, red plaid shirts over white tank tops, cowboy boots and long pigtails under cowboy hats.

Why did they come?

"The cowboys," Nichols said. "Usually there's a bunch of really hot cowboys but they didn't show up this time."

Teenagers from nearby border towns such as Vernal, Utah, and Rock Springs, Wyo., have been known to mingle and country dance, adding to a local base of mostly old-timers.

Because of Saturday's lack of eligible boys, the girls danced mostly with each other, at times struggling over who should lead.

Pat Brannan remembers a time when dances went a little differently. Dubbed "box-socials," women cooked dinners that men bid on -- an attempt for women to raise money for their Browns Hole Homemakers Club. High bidders would eat the dinners with their respective chefs.

"Some fool who I didn't know would always buy my dinner," joked Brannan, who has lived in the area since 1932.

"Everybody knew everybody," she said. "If not, you'd find out after dancing with them."

A few months ago, about 35 members of the homemakers club completed renovations on Lodore Hall, formerly the Lodore School, built in 1911. With funding help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that runs the nearby Browns Park Wildlife Refuge, the building was restored and is one of just four buildings in Moffat County on the National Historic Register.

Over a three-year span members removed old electrical wiring and upgraded it to code. Cedar shakes replaced unattractive siding and two new cement-floored outdoor restrooms were substituted for portable outhouses.

Inside, a fresh coat of white paint contrasts against dark-stained window trim. A former church bench taken from a chapel in nearby Greystone lines the perimeter of the room, providing ample space for onlookers to relax out of dancers' paths. A sun-baked wooden sign above the hall's entrance harkens back to the building's former life as a schoolhouse, which housed 20 children at its peak in 1913. It reads "School District No. 1, 1911."

The space is used at least once a month as a meeting room for the club. Started in 1955, the group boasts membership across the nation, secretary Mara Molloy said. Some who visit the area send in the $10 dues with the main mission of caring for the historic building.

"Four years ago you would not have known this is the same place," Mara Molloy said, pointing out a recently installed antique wood stove and new roof.

While alcohol has always been prohibited at the hall, history has it that cowboys would check their guns at the door, which was manned by a large local rancher who served as a bouncer.

During breaks in the music, revelers were known to filter outside to drink alcohol, said Clifford Smith, 78.

As the night wore on and the band began to tire, people would pass around an upturned cowboy hat for donations. Small children exhausted by the activity would fall asleep on benches or tables.

Browns Park population, hovering at about 286, holds fewer people than in its heyday, old-timers said. In the early 1900s every homestead was filled, where now only remnants of those outposts remain, Brannan said.

Trying to tap into that bygone era is precisely why Jon Adler of Steamboat Springs made the almost 300-mile round-trip Saturday.

"It seems like something that's fading," he said. "This is a chance to be a part of it."

Adler said he hasn't otherwise visited the area much except for a rafting trip down the Green River, but Saturday's dance may change that.

"It's beautiful out here. I should come more often," he said.

Matt Cretney of Milner also yearned to experience a morsel of history.

He spent much of the night dancing with his daughter, Samantha, 8, who twirled the night away in a long pink skirt and a cowboy hat.

"I heard about it by word of mouth," Kretney said of the hoedown. "When September rolls around, I'm looking for it."

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