Dancers pose for a photo outside of the laqua School after a dance. From lefi: Alfred Hitchcock, unidentified, Ed Horrell, Ruth Shaw, Harry Gifi, Jean Brett, Hugh Horrell, Lissie Shaw, Anita Shaw. The two figures in the window are unidentified. Photo courtesy Naida Gipson. All photos via the Humboldt Historian.

Early settlers in Humboldt County had little entertainment. Life was grim and the work was never-ending. This was true for my Norwegian grandfather, Gustav Olsen; however, in 1898, as soon as the barns and the house were built on his Showers Pass homestead, the first thing he did was to add a large room to the house with a tongue and groove dance floor.

He felled the trees, sawed them into boards, planed them, and cut the tongue and groove with hand tools. Then he and my Swedish grandmother, Johanna Lovisa Anderson Olsen, hosted a dance, the first of many, inviting people for miles around to attend. Women wore “waists” and skirts with drawstrings that expanded with the many pregnancies of the time. Some young ladies came to the dances on horseback in split riding skirts, packing their dress skirts in their saddle bags. They would change once they arrived.

The earliest dance I remember was at the Johnson Ranch, also called the Lone Star Ranch, at Showers Pass. I was five. My little sister Betty was three. 1 don’t remember my other sister Pat, who was nine, coming to this dance. Mother sometimes dressed Betty and me alike. That day we wore blue cotton dirndl skirts with straps over the shoulders embroidered with tiny white flowers, white puffed-sleeve blouses, and white anklets with black patent-leather Mary Jane shoes. Our mother probably wore a mid-calf-length dress cut on the bias, as many dresses were in the thirties, with silk stockings and medium-heeled dress shoes.

Our car toiled up the mountain road in second gear, complaining all the way from Freshwater and through the hairpin switchbacks. Two cars could not pass on this narrow trace. Drivers sounded their horns as they entered a turn, and if they met another car, the car traveling downhill had to back up to a wide spot and let the uphill car pass. On steep inclines, my father grinned and shifted into low, whistling a little tune, happy to be back in the mountains where be was born and raised. I held on tight to the back-seat passenger strap and shut my eyes.

The car labored up the dirt road past John Hurley’s gate and the Kneeland School, past Rousseau’s, Fulton’s, Sibley’s, the laqua Cemetery, past the road to the Gift Ranch, and Tom Shaw’s place, then Fredrickson’s where the road ran between the ranch house and barn.

We continued past Hunter’s and the laqua School, and finally turned off on the road to Johnsons’ Lone Star Ranch. We arrived in late afternoon. An outdoor dance pavilion stood near the house. My father, Mike Olsen, took his piano-tuning tools directly to the upright piano standing in one corner of the dance floor. While he tuned the piano, Mrs. Johnson took Betty and me to the chicken house where she had just received a shipment of hundreds of little yellow chicks. We went inside and she handed us each a baby chick. The floor was covered with a carpet of chirping, feathery chicks; they were so dense around our feet that I stumbled and stepped on one. I froze, near tears. Mrs. Johnson told me not to worry, lifted us over the undulating sea of feathers, set us down outside the chicken house door, and removed the dead chick: the one I had accidentally stepped on.

More people arrived as the sun set. Lanterns were lit and hung on poles around the dance pavilion. Everybody danced — grown-ups and children alike — to “When the Moon Comes over the Mountain,” “K-K-K- Katie,” and “Its Three O’clock in the Morning.” Our father played his violin. Someone played the piano and someone else a banjo. At midnight the hat was passed to pay the musicians, while the ladies served a potluck supper. When Betty and I grew tired, mother fixed a bed in the back seat of the car and tucked us in for the night, but the adults danced until it was time to go home and milk the cows, at four o’clock in the morning.


The author’s father, Mike Olsen, with his violin, and Ed Brown, with his accordion. The Olsens were a musical family. Mike Olsen’s father, Gustav, played for dances held at their Showers Pass homestead throughout Mike’s childhood. Mike taught himself violin and mandolin, and played the dance circuit from the time he returned home from the Army after World War I, until his untimely death from cancer in 1944. Photo courtesy of Naida Gipson.

Betty and I soon progressed to Saturday night dances at the Freshwater Grange Hall where my father’s small group played tunes from the twenties and thirties, like “Sweet Lorraine,” “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” and “It Had to Be You.” Whole families came to these dances. Babies and small children fell asleep on the built-in benches along each side of the hall. Men usually chose partners, but once in a while “Ladies’ Choice” was announced. At midnight the ladies of the Grange served coffee and sandwiches in the kitchen downstairs. The last tune, just before 2:00 a.m., was always “Good Night Ladies.”

Betty and I learned a French minuet and a dance called the Varsouvienne (put your little foot, put your little foot, put your little foot right here…) I especially liked the mixer dances when a “caller” announced the moves and new partners would appear accordingly. The Paul Jones mixer was “allemande left.” Everyone gave his right hand to his partner and turned around to give his left hand to his neighbor in a “grand right and left” all the way around the circle, where we all met a new partner when the music stopped. In another mixer, one man started the dance with a broom for his partner. When the caller yelled “change partners,” the man chose a partner and gave the broom to another man. This continued until everyone was dancing. At other times, the men stood on one side of the hall and the women on the other, everyone facing the walls. When the music started, everyone walked backward and bumped into their next partner. Many times, two concentric circles were formed, one of men, one of women, each walking round in a different direction. When the music stopped, new partners met.


As my sister and I grew older. Mother let us go with our father to the Grange dances without her, but we had to promise never to go outside the dance hall. We really had no wish to go outside, and happily stayed inside under our father’s watchful eye. We agonized over what to wear to these dances. Wardrobes were limited during the Depression and World War II, but we coordinated skirts and sweaters with matching hair ribbons, bobby socks, and saddle shoes. My mother’s sister, Sadie Phillips Azevedo, a sixth-grade schoolteacher in San Mateo, sent Betty and me matching dresses every Christmas when we were still small children; she may have sent the peasant jumpers and blouses I remember wearing to the Lone Star dance. Then, as we grew up. Aunt Sadie began sending boxes of clothing she no longer used. She shopped in stores like I. Magnin’s and The City of Paris in San Francisco. We could nearly always find something to wear among her nice cast-offs. I remember one two-piece outfit in particular — a pale pink pleated skirt with a matching short-sleeved jacket. I had no use for the jacket, but the skirt, which happened to be just my size, became one of my favorites. I paired it with an oversized white sweater, white bobby socks, and brown and white saddle oxfords. The skirt held knife-sharp pleats. Even after being washed, it emanated remnants of Aunt Sadie’s perfume — Chanel No. 5.

My oldest sister, Pat Olsen Roberts, remembers a dance held at the laqua School one New Year’s Eve. Immersed in their celebrations, everyone emerged from the school house at the end of the dance to find the ground covered in deep snow. Our cousin Anita and her husband Stanley had just returned from Montana. Their pickup, equipped with balloon tires, got stuck in the snow at the gate to the Gift Ranch. Our father’s car was full of kids—Pat and our cousins, Thelma, Ray, and Galen Olsen. Stanley asked all the kids to ride in the back of the pickup, giving the tires weight and traction and enabling them to drive out of the deep snow. The kids rode in the back of the pickup all the way home.

Pat and two of her friends, Marjorie Nellist and Mary Ivancich, formed a trio and sang at some of the Grange dances. They called themselves The Three Coquettes and took “Little Coquette” as their theme song. The Coquettes wore matching outfits they made themselves, and stood up on stage in front of the microphone, blending their voices in three-part harmony like the popular Andrews Sisters.

Saturday was cleaning day at our house, but there was usually a dance somewhere on Saturday night. To look our best, we would shampoo our hair in the laundry tray before beginning our chores, then set it in rows of pin curls, or roll it on metal curlers or around rags. Our hair dried while we vacuumed and dusted. After dinner, we had our baths, put on our dancing outfits, brushed out our hair, smoothed on a little orange Tangee or bright red Revlon lipstick, and went to a dance that started at nine o’clock.

As teenagers, we were allowed to advance from the Freshwater Grange Hall, where everybody knew us, to the dance halls where my father’s group, Olsen’s Orchestra, played. Admission was one dollar. Sometimes Ed Brown would play his accordion. Elaine McNaughton was their terrific piano player. When she stopped playing for dances, a young, pretty blonde girl, whose name I can’t remember, took her place. I do remember that one Saturday night during World War II at the I.O.O.F Hall in Blue Lake, her boyfriend came home on unexpected leave from the Army Air Corps, and showed up at the dance. She wanted to dance with her handsome airman, so Dad asked me to fill in at the piano. I was not sure I knew all the songs, but I knew chords; the saxophone player, sitting nearby, signaled me at the chord changes.

The money Dad earned playing for dances went into a “kitty,” which he used for special things, like presents for my mother. One day he asked Betty and me to buy our mother a gift with money from the kitty. We picked out a gorgeous pale green satin comforter — my favorite shade of green — filled with wool batting, at Daly’s Department Store. She used this blanket until the cover wore out, and then re-covered the good wool batting with a cotton print fabric. I helped her tie the restored comforter with embroidery floss, putting a tie every eight inches.

Once or twice a month, the band rehearsed at our house, and the band members’ wives and children often tagged along. While the musicians practiced we made taffy. Mother tested the boiling candy by dropping a bit into a cup of cold water to see how soft the drop was. When it tested just right, she poured the candy onto buttered platters. We washed our hands thoroughly and coated them with butter, ready for a taffy pull. As the candy cooled enough to touch. Mother worked it away from the edge of the platters into big globs. Two people pulled a wad of taffy between them, back and forth, until it turned white. Then we pulled out a long single strand and cut it into bite-sized pieces with scissors that had been scrubbed and sterilized.


Ray Bullock’s band, playing for a dance at Camp Bauer. First row, from lefi: Julius Cabalzar. Robert Walker, Duane Gurnee, Milt Makoski (all on sax), and Claude Gribble (guitar). Second row, from left: Wally Craycroft (trumpet), Ray Bullock (drums). Jack Weeks (bass), and Dan Gurnee (piano). Photo courtesy of Ray Bullock.

I’m not sure when my father bought the LaSalle, maybe in 1938. He needed an automobile large enough to transport all his musicians to dances. The 1929 La Salle was a huge dark rectangular automobile with folding jump seats between the front and back bench seats. He built a plywood box large enough to hold the drum set and other instruments, and bolted the box to the back of the car. Inside, there was plenty of room for the entire band and any teens who wanted to go along. If there were not enough seats, we sat on the floor or on a saxophone case.

One weekend when the band was playing for a Saturday night dance at the Carlotta Grange Hall, my family camped at Grizzly Creek on the Van Duzen River. My father helped us set up camp, then went back to get the La Salle and the band. When the dance was over at two in the morning, he drove us back to camp in our family car and let one of the band members drive the La Salle back to Eureka.

In the early morning light, someone woke him up to tell him the La Salle had missed a curve in the road and now lay on its side against a giant old-growth redwood, it seems the driver had fallen asleep. Fortunately no one was hurt, but my father had to take the band members home and then figure out how to turn the car back up on its wheels again. He probably used a block and tackle. He could always figure out how to get things done.

Another time, when the band played for a dance at the Mattole Grange, we camped on the river near Honeydew, and all the band members and their families camped with us. A huge white tent was set up for a kitchen. Betty and I went fishing with our father and learned to catch and clean trout, and to thread them on a willow twig for carrying them back to camp.

One of the best dances was the Harvest Ball held at Camp Bauer, part of the Northern Redwood Lumber Company at Korbel, where an outdoor pavilion sat in a small clearing among old-growth redwoods. To me, dancing out-of- doors under a full moon in August seemed just like something out of a fairytale. Ken Stayton recently told me that people at one time had taken the train from Eureka to Korbel for the outdoor dances, danced until two in the morning, and then boarded the train back to Eureka.


The author’s cousin, Ted Phillips, a vocalist for one of the big bands in Eureka in the early forties. Photo courtesy of Naida Gipson.

During our high school years, we discovered dances at the Municipal Auditoriums in Eureka, Loleta and Fortuna, with orchestras and bands like Sal Nygard’s, Ray Bullock’s, and Al Pollard’s, who played the big band sound of the forties. These orchestras were much larger than my father’ little band. The musicians sat on the stage behind matching music stands emblazoned with the leaders initials, emulating the orchestras of Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman. My cousin, Ted Phillips, who sang like Frank Sinatra, would sit by the saxophones, dressed in his best, his blond curls combed just so, and walk to the microphone at center stage when it was time for him to sing. The orchestras played such songs as “Shoo-Shoo, Baby,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and “String of Pearls.” People would stop dancing and stand in a circle to watch Jan and Joe Oppenheimer, or Chuck Steele and Mae Pauline Walch, jitterbug.

We high-school girls no longer dressed in skirts and sweaters with bobby socks and saddle oxfords, but wore dresses and high heels. Nylons or silk stockings were not always available during the war, as all silk was conscripted for making parachutes, so we shaved our legs and used leg make-up; it rubbed off on the insides of our slips and dress hems, and probably on the chairs we sat upon. The longed-for silk stockings had seams up the backs, and some girls tried to draw the seams on their legs with eyebrow pencils. I had a dance-dress of royal blue rayon with big square shoulder pads, in the military style favored by designers of the time. The skirt was straight and short, to my knees. White braid scrolled down the front, accenting the white buttons. My shoes, from Gallenkamp’s Shoe Store, were high- heeled, ankle-strap wedgies of white fabric, a popular style that did not need a ration stamp. Only leather shoes required ration stamps.

In high school, girls and boys still went to dances in separate groups. We nearly always left the dance with our group, too, unless a special boy should ask to escort us home. Dances were a safe place for young people to meet and have a good time. I met my husband. Ken Gipson, at the Fortuna Rodeo Dance — another big-band dance — on July 4, 1951. I can still remember the dress I wore that night — in my favorite shade of green. The soft crepe dress, with white collar and cuffs and white trim on the pockets at the hips, had a pegged skirt that tapered down to mid-calf with a short slit up the back.

Ken and I married in 1953 and we joined a dancing club in Arcata. There, my dance-dress was a sleeveless blue and white striped chambray, with a full skirt over a full crinoline petticoat; my shoes were white backless, high-heeled “Springalators,” the style of the day.

In 2003, Ken and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. It’s funny how I can remember exactly what I wore to dances over the years. In 2003, I wore a red crepe dress cut straight with no waistline, to hide the extra thirty pounds I’ve accumulated around my waist. We rented a hall, had food catered, hired a musician with a keyboard, and …

… danced.


The story above was originally printed in the Winter 2006 issue of the Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.