Part four of a series
Thirteen of the nation’s most famous band leaders and their musicians thrilled audiences and dancers in Caledonia, starting with the 1952 appearance of “Duke Ellington and his World Famous Orchestra” and closed with the 1954 performance of “Harry James and His Music Makers, starring Buddy Rich at the drums.” In between were Lionel Hampton, Ray Anthony, Wayne King, Jan Garber, Tommy Dorsey, Spike Jones, Tex Beneke, Ralph Flanagan, Tiny Hill, Billy May and Les Brown and His Band of Renown.
Dancing in a downtown ballroom began at least 68 years earlier – with roller skating, which was instantly popular after being introduced to Caledonia in 1884 by S. D. Torrey of Lansing, Iowa. That same month, Frank Bacon was building a 40’ x 100’ hall on North Badger Street for roller skating. On the July 4, 1884, the grand opening of Bacon’s Hall, also known as “The Rink,” had music and roller skating in the afternoon, followed by music and dancing in the evening.
Skating did not prove as profitable as expected. But later known as the Caledonia Opera House or while owned by Mr. and Mrs. Clem Hundt, as the Hundt Opera House, hosted most of the earliest Caledonia social events – dances, receptions, plays – and the first basketball game played in Caledonia in 1907. The Kelly Brothers Harp Orchestra played for a January 3 dance in 1910, the same year the opera house was destroyed by fire.
Then Union Hall Ballroom beca
me Caledonia’s primary dancing venue. The entrepreneur was Walter Goergen (sheriff of Houston County from 1879 to 1887) who in 1887 built Union Hall on South Kingston Street, a site which since 1873 had previously been the location of the Peter Wagner Brewery. Whether or not Goergen retained any of the original structure, he built what would become known as the Union Hall Complex.
Goergen (also known as “the Kaiser”), with construction in 1903, was credited with having “deftly waltzed the Union Hall into the 20th century by converting the upper story into a dance hall” above commercial enterprises on the ground floor. Also upstairs was a cloakroom and lobby, from which patrons could observe the dancers through glassless window openings.
A highly successful business on that ground floor was the Goergen family’s popular Banner Restaurant. The name was derived from the painted depiction of the flag with stars and stripes that covered the entire ceiling from the front door to the kitchen door. That artwork by paper hanger and painter Frank Willis was said to be the largest American flag west of the Mississippi River.
With local musicians providing live music, usually starting about 9 p.m., area youth and some not as young were said to have danced the night away. There was a break for a midnight supper on the first floor in the Banner Restaurant. It was a hearty meal with meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables and dessert to sustain the diners during another three or four hours of dancing until dawn. Union Hall Ballroom advertised itself as Southeastern Minnesota’s largest and finest dance floor. Union Hall dances continued into the 1950s.
Some patrons attended as couples, but many also as individuals. One 1939 dance in Caledonia admitted couples for 50 cents. However, admission fees were usually different for “gents” than for “ladies,” the latter always admitted for less. It might be as reasonable as “Gents 35 cents, Ladies 15 cents” in 1933 in or as much as “Gents 45 cents, Ladies 30 cents” in 1938. (In 1938, 45 cents had the purchasing power of $8.50 in 2022.) Get there early: a June 1938 newspaper advertised Gents 40 cents, Ladies 20 cents, but before 9:00 Gents 35 cents, Ladies 15 cents.
The Caledonia Municipal Auditorium, built in 1938, was also the site of many dances. But unlike the for-profit business Union Hall, the auditorium was owned by the city. Most dances there were sponsored by civic organizations, such as the American Legion and Catholic Daughters of America. It was the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), which put a town with a population of 2,243 on the map as a tour stop for 13 big-name bandleaders and their orchestras during that amazing span of 30 months in 1952-1954.