History: Dancers let loose at lake venues
By Ross Schneidmiller
Liberty Lake Historical Society
A woman in a romantic embrace with her man says, "Remember when we danced out over the water at Liberty Lake?" This scene was from a Hollywood movie that long-time Liberty Lake resident Mickey Becht recalled in an oral history given in the late 1980s. Mickey said she watched the black-and-white movie on her TV, but she no longer remembered its name or the actors involved. In a way, the movie dialogue did not surprise her because of stories told by her husband Don.
Don Becht started working at Liberty Lake Park as a boy around 1915. He continued working there part time and eventually managed the park until its closure in the late 1950s. He enjoyed sharing stories of the various entertainers who had performed at the Dance Pavillion over the years, as well as movie personalities who vacationed at the park.
For the Inland Empire, dancing and Liberty Lake were connected for more than the first half of the twentieth century. Most people knowledgeable on the subject would connect dancing to the Pavillion at Liberty Lake Park, located on the northwest side of the lake. Dancing, however, began before and continued after the building of the famed Pavillion at many venues around the lake.
One of the first dance facilities at the lake opened in 1902 and was built by Charles Treager. In a May 1, 1899, Spokane Daily Chronicle article Traeger stated, "We will at once erect a comfortable hotel for summer visitors and a big dancing pavilion. This pavilion will extend out over the lake 30 or 40 feet, giving a delightful location where all the breezes can be enjoyed." These breezes are likely why Treager named his resort The Zephyr, as the definition of zephyr is "a light wind, or wind from the west." In that article, Traeger said he would be building a family resort, but he built a roadhouse instead.
Ragtime music and the dances associated with it had been gaining popularity since the mid-1890s. This genre of music began as dance music in the red-light districts of American cities. It was composed chiefly for piano, and it brought an era of expressive ballroom dancing. During the ragtime dance craze, floors were dominated by the One-Step, a dance where a couple merely walked one step to each beat of the music. Its immense popularity was due primarily to its simplicity so that even novices could do it. In 1902, ragtime was played and danced to on lower society dance floors like The Zephyr.
A year later in 1903, a dance hall was added at the MacKenzie Hotel on the west side of Liberty Lake. Along with this they provided summer dance cruises. A steamboat named the Ermine would pull a barge of reveling dancers, as they slowly cruised around the lake dancing to the beat of the piano.
There were other dance venues as well. Kalez Park, located where the county park is today, had a pavilion that gained popularity around 1910. "Take a launch to Kalez Park - your boat ticket entitles you to a number of free dances" read a sign on the boat docks at Liberty Lake Park. The Stonehouse Park and Hotel on the southwest end of the lake had a dance hall within the hotel. Dutch Groshoff, longtime Spokane and Liberty Lake band leader, described it as a place "where Spokane's social elite could come and kick up their heels, but it would not be reported in the Sunday Society column." The Spokane Valley Country Club, located above the present-day boat launch, offered live entertainment and dancing from the 1940s to the 1960s. Both Sandy Beach and Dreamwood Bay resorts advertised open-air dance floors.
It was Liberty Lake Park, however, and its crown jewel Dance Pavillion that set Liberty Lake apart from other Spokane lakes. Known as "Spokane's Inland Seashore," it was not uncommon for this Liberty Lake resort to attract thousands of people with attendance at the dances in the high hundreds. The grand opening of the Pavillion was in 1909. It was built upon a pier extending 200 feet into the water. The management boasted that the smooth maple floor could accommodate 628 couples dancing.
A 1914 brochure read, "The Dancing Pavillion, well known for its perfect floor and ideal location out over the lake can be reserved for society and party dances." Almost every Spokane club, society and fraternal organization at one time or another held a dance in the Pavillion. Businesses enjoying their summer picnics in the Park would usually host a dance as their last event of the day. Special trains could be arranged arriving right before the dance was to begin and then leaving soon enough to catch the last cable cars serving Spokane's neighborhoods.
Dance clubs hosted series of dances in the park. One such group, the Liberty Girls, put on themed dances. In July 1916, they hosted a dance celebrating the 140th anniversary of the first ringing of the Liberty Bell. Most of the girls wore colonial costumes, three appearing in powdered wigs. Another group, the Weekend Dancing Club, formed in 1917 and held dances for enlistees in the military prior to their departure for training camps.
Gordon Lowell met his future bride dancing at the Pavillion in 1915. In an oral history in the 1980s, he recalled the operation of the dances. A single ticket was used as admittance to each individual dance. When the song was over, you were ushered off the dance floor out onto the promenade of the Pavillion. Once the dance floor was cleared, you could regain entry by presenting another ticket. Several park employees were involved in the process, from a dance floor manager, ushers, ticket takers and monitors. According to Lowell, if you danced too close to your partner, a dance monitor would tap you on the shoulder and you would have to move farther apart.
Liberty Lake Park hosted its own dances supplying some of the best entertainment in the Inland Empire. Rollie Starr's Syncapators, The Phil Sheridan Orchestra, The Mann Brothers' Music, and Dutch Groshoff and his Orchestra, among others, all headlined at the park.
One sign posted as you came to the lake was "Dance with Dutch." Dutch Groshoff, who helped introduce Bing Crosby to Q-6 radio, began playing at the lake in the early 1920s at The Stonehouse. He and his orchestra played on and off at the Pavillion for years becoming its main attraction prior to World War II. They had a sweet swing sound, and the crowds loved to dance to their music.
Over 50 years of dancing took place in the Pavillion. That dance floor, which was said to have the perfect spring to it, witnessed the formation of modern dance. Every popular trot, swing, hop, jive, waddle, walk, or shag was probably danced there.
With Liberty Lake's rich and fun history in dancing, don't you think the community needs to bring back a large dancing venue with a smooth maple floor?
Ross Schneidmiller is the President of the Liberty Lake Historical Society. He and his wife Kelli enjoy dancing and are members of the Social Dancers of the Spokane Club.
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Did you know?
• The Spokane Valley Country Club was eventually acquired by the Spokane Elks Lodge 228. It was destroyed by fire in the 1960s.
• The Liberty Lake Dance Pavillion eventually stopped charging per dance and went to a cover charge to get into the dance.
• A fire inside the Dance Pavillion in the late 1950s rendered it useless. It was dismantled in the early 1960s, making way for the Alpine Shores housing development.
• Pavillion Park was named for the famed Pavillion in Liberty Lake Park, and the spelling came from the dance ticket.
• There are several places to dance socially in the Inland Empire today. Subscribe to groups.yahoo.com/group/dancelist/ for up-to-date posts on dances and dancing.
Events, Competitions and Activities
From the Liberty Lake Historical Society, a 2014 monthly series
January - Ice Skating
February - Parade of Mermaid Competitions
March - Opening Day of Fishing
April - Dancing
May - Water Competitions
June - Liberty Lake Amateur
July - All Valley Picnics
August - Dutch Jake Picnics
September - Hydroplane Races
October - Baseball Games
November - Liberty Lake and Football
December - A.R.T.'s Christmas in July