Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Music & Dancing in Exeter, Illinois (Dance Floors I’ve Known) by Erwin A. Thompson

Erwin A. Thompson, author of Thompson Western Series and Folk Treasure

What! You have never heard of Exeter? At one time it was one of the foremost towns in the western part of Illinois! It had a post office that served the community for miles around. The hotel was patronized by the passengers of the stagecoach line that used the town for a way station.

In its heyday it was the gathering place of people of the neighborhood and the more venturesome from farther away. The thing that pulled them here was the dance floor in the big hotel. The room was twenty four feet wide, and perhaps sixty feet long. There have been other dance floors as large, of course, but it was the manner of construction that made this one the pride of the community. The floor joists were made of white oak, the full width of the hall, with no additional support anywhere except the ends. This gave the floor a “give” that I have never found to be duplicated in any of the other floors that I have ever danced on.

Railroads were the thing that doomed the thriving town. At the time when Exeter was going great, Bluffs and Jacksonville were almost unknown. But the railroads chose both of these (at that time) relatively unknown towns to build their lines through. This, of course, due to the geographical advantages of building a railroad as straight as possible and with very little abrupt change in the grade.

Exeter’s population dwindled. The vacant houses fell into disrepair. The post office was closed.

Around the year 1980 a group of young people went up there. They owned a dream that transferred into a purpose. They started to rebuild. The interesting thing was that they tried to use the old types of construction, and to preserve the old, historic flavor of the valley. One of their projects was to restore the old dance floor of the hotel.

I had become acquainted with these folks at the annual meeting of the Southern Illinois Folklore Society, at Greenville, Illinois. They were musicians, but did not know the basics of square dancing. I called a square dance at the meeting. After the musical program, a ham and bean supper was served for the performers. I happened to overhear the comments from a nearby table of how they had enjoyed watching the dance, and wished that they could know how.

So, being me, I went over and told them that their wish could become a reality if they wanted it to. This began a friendship that lasted for many years. When they started the Exeter project I visited them several times, and called a square dance in the old hotel where I became acquainted with the best dance floor I have ever been on.

Another thing that developed: When he entered the Civil War, U. S. Grant rode with his men from near Jacksonville to Naples, where they boarded a steamboat which would carry them to the battle front. At the time when the musicians were rebuilding the town of Exeter, a group of horse riders from the Jacksonville area decided to re-enact that march on the Sunday nearest to the actual date. It was quite a sight!

The folks at Exeter decided to cooperate, and have a “homecoming” on that day. These were great affairs, with musicians from all over the state attending and participating. It has been years go, but I still happen to meet musicians whom I had met there.

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