OKANOGAN – In an era before computers and cell phones consumed the lives of Okanogan Valley residents, Saturday night dances at locals halls was the thing to do for entertainment.
This was the message longtime Okanogan Valley musician Edna Mae Hinger presented to the Okanogan County Geological Society on Thursday.
Hinger, 81, was part of - what some call - the most popular Western-swing band Okanogan County ever had: The Okanogan Valley ‘49ers.
“In the old days you didn’t have TV. We had a battery radio (and) all of us played for dances,” Hinger said. “You played music because you didn’t have all this entertainment. You made you’re own entertainment.”
“I have about 150,000 songs up here that come from the 1900’s on up,” she told the small group of historians while pointing to her head. “So my life has been music.”
As a child, Hinger said she and her family performed for dances in Tunk Valley, and though they knew only a few songs, folks would dance the night away.
“We played for dances up Tunk Creek with no electricity,” she said. “Daddy would play the violin and I’d play the guitar… Daddy didn’t know a lot of songs, but sometimes they’d pass the hat and we’d play maybe ‘til two o’clock.”
And while there was no amplification system, she said folks would say they couldn’t hear the music outside the hall but they could hear the ‘thump’ from people stomping on the dance floor.
“When we played at Tunk, kids would sleep all around,” she said. “They’d just sleep on the benches while their folks would dance because it was a family thing.”
After a gentleman dropped off an accordion for Hinger to tinker on, she said the “chords just fell into place.”
It was thereafter she was spotted for her accordion skills at a gig in Riverside and “someone said the '49ers needed an accordion player.”
“It just got so big,” she said. “The most amazing thing to me is Jack Fisher bought this circus tent…and in 1914 or 1918, at a dollar a piece, they had 300 people. Now in 1918 that was a lot of money. It was just interesting.”
The band, which began in 1949 and reorganized in 1951, went on to perform for 16 years steady and gained a strong following.
“They would follow us wherever we went,” she said noting carloads of people from Tonasket would make the trek to Omak just to go dancing.
In the late 1950s the group even arranged a recording session with Ike Rodgers at the Omak Theatre. Using reel-to-reel tape several of their popular selections were recorded and recently digitalized and converted to compact disc.
Along with local Grange Halls, she said there were numerous venues up and down the valley where locals would flock on Saturday nights to dance and enjoy themselves.
“Maple Hall was the big hall,” Hinger said. “Maple Hall was always a popular hall.”
The Hall was located near the Green Lake turn-off on the Omak Flats, she said.
“It was big. It had good acoustics…it was just well arranged.”
Popular bands and well-known acts also graced the Maple Hall stage in its heyday.
“Little Jimmy Dickens came up and we played with him one time,” she said. “He was such a gentleman…just so respectful and so sweet.”
“Faron Young, one time we played with him,” she said. “He was a really good singer but he was so conceded.”
And while the hall was remembered for its good times, Hinger said several relationships began, divorces ensued and fights were had in the building.
“You just stood there, because we didn’t play by (sheet) music, we all played by ear,” she said. “You’re just watching the people and you’ve seen a lot in your life.”
“Yes there were fights,” she said. “But most of the time they were just good times and everybody was just happy and having good times.”
But on summer night in 1977 all the good times at the Hall came to an abrupt end.
According to a Chronicle story published July 28, 1977, the 42-year-old hall was razed by fire in the wee morning hours of July 24.
“The building was on the ground within half an hour after the blaze was first reported,” the story said. “The hall, built in 1935, was owned by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who reported that it was not insured.”
While the official cause of the fire was never determined, then Riverside Fire Chief Steve Rex said he thought it could have started from an electrical issue.
“As poplar as it was, the only picture of Maple Hall was when it burned.” Hinger said. Because “people didn’t take pictures in those days.”
Prior to the Maple Hall era, she said numerous “Red Sheds” were built in the 1930s and there was always a place to go dancing on any given Saturday night.
“It was in the late ’30s that Red Shed was build up on the flat and the Red Shed in Riverside,” she said. “In that era it was amazing how many halls were built,” including in the former Hidden City south of Omak and north of Okanogan.
Another popular venue was ‘Teen Town,’ a safe place where teenagers could go to dance.
“You paid 50 cents, but if you left you didn’t come back,” she said. “And that way everybody knew when they dumped their kids off there they were safe because no one was going to drink and come in there.”
Hinger said Teen Town was located at Sawdust Maker’s Hall, but the original one was located behind what is now in Corner Bistro in Omak.
“Those were happy days,” she said. “Those were fun times.”
“People don’t dance like they use to,” she said. “There aren’t the dances like their use to be. They (younger generation) don’t have the opportunity to dance.
“There were always dance halls, (but the) times have changed.”