The Bradford, Emerson Hill & Contoocook Square Dances
Some of you may have gone to the Fall Ball in Peterborough recently, and looking at the list of bands and callers I should think that if you went you probably had a good time. Or perhaps you went to the Concord dance, which is also generally a good time. But you didn’t see us at either, although we were dancing nearly nonstop all day: we had ducked over into the world of old-time New England square dancing at the Reunion Dance for the old Bradford Square Dance, and were having a grand old time!
Many of you are undoubtedly aware that Teresa and I dance at the Contoocook square dance regularly, and have been attending it since it was in the Emerson Hill School in West Hopkinton. It’s one of our favorite dances. When we first started dancing there Woody Roberts was playing piano, Bob Messer was playing saxophone, Bobby Boynton was calling; there were several other people to fill out the band. Woody and Bobby retired after a couple years. Walter and Lou Heath joined the remaining musicians as the piano player and fiddler, and George Hodgson became the caller. Many of you know George because until he died this past spring he was a regular at the Ralph Page Weekend. After George died, Bobby came back to call the dance again. Walter has been unable to play for over a year now, and Woody has started playing again.
With the exception of George, the rest had an important common experience: they had all been musicians for the Bradford square dances. In fact, the Contoocook square dance that we attend is the current incarnation of the Bradford square dance, and one of a rather small number of old-time New England/Eastern square dances still running.
Note from 2020: The Contoocook dance went on until December 2013. By then many of the dancers were quite old, and attendance was down. After ending the Fall 2013 season the decision was made to end the dance series.
The Bradford Dance
T he original Bradford dances ran from 1939 until the mid 1970s. It started in a cattle barn which was converted by Frank Fortune into a dance hall, and which came to be known as the Bradford Arena. Frank Fortune called the dances, and Myron (Mike) Colby’s Orchestra provided the music for the dance; Mike Colby was the fiddler.
We may think we have some large dances today — e.g. the Peterborough dance, and some of the urban dances. But out in Bradford, drawing from a fairly local crowd, they had a large attendance every Saturday night. After World War II ended it grew to 400 or more dancers (50 squares!) every week regardless of the weather. Attendance remained high for many years. The dance also moved to different halls, including Stark Mansion Hall in Dunbarton, and in 1965 to Fortune’s Barn in Bradford which even had indoor plumbing!
Myron Colby died in 1967 and Frank Fortune had to give up calling in 1968, although the dancing didn’t stop. Walter Heath took over playing piano from Woody Roberts at one point, and Marcel Robidas, whom many of you know from the Maple Sugar Band that used to play in Lee and Kensington, became the fiddler. Howie Dearborn played bass; he was a regular at Marcel’s Wednesday night soirée and is an outstanding musician. The dance kept on going, and then moved into other places. The West Hopkinton dance got started in about 1980 with music provided by the Woody Roberts Band.
There’s a much fuller account of this dance on a web site hosted by Walter Lenk whom some of you undoubtedly know, with considerable information provided by Janice Colby Boynton, Mike Colby’s daughter and the mother of Bobby Boynton who currently calls the Contoocook square dance. Best of all, the site contains recordings of a Bradford dance in 1955 obtained from Jack O’Connor who realized it might be of interest to others and made it available to Walter to create this web site.
The more I learn about the Bradford dance the more I come to believe that it was of great importance in the history of dancing in the state of New Hampshire. Consider that every Saturday night 400 or so people would converge on the dance hall and have a great time dancing, drinking outside the hall, socializing, getting into fights (definitely a part of the dance scene in those days), starting and ending relationships, and doing everything else that people do when you get such numbers of people together so regularly. If there were 400 every week, and presumably not everyone went weekly, there must have been many hundreds involved with the dance at any one time. Over a period of thirty years that’s many thousands of people who went to the dance and who undoubtedly influenced and were influenced by it in one way or another.
The Bradford Reunion Dance
In honor of the completion of Walter's web site, Janice, Bobby, Janice’s sister Myrna Toutant, and others involved decided to have a Reunion Dance this past weekend. They set about to notify as many of the people involved with the original Bradford dances as they could. The Reunion Dance was held in the Webster Town Hall, with Bobby calling and Woody playing piano. Bob Messer from the original band and Walt Heath, who played piano for many years when Woody took a break, were in attendance.
The band consisted of Woody Roberts, who joined Colby’s Orchestra in 1956; John Boynton on drums and Bobby Boynton calling (both Mike Colby’s grandsons); Stewart Fortune on electric bass (Frank Fortune’s nephew); with Boynton family friend, Jim Pero on fiddle and electric guitar and Jack O’Connor on banjo. The program consisted of an alternation between sets of square dances (three to a set, of course) with sets of round dances (waltzes and foxtrots mostly, and an occasional polka).
It was a very celebratory event; many of the people there hadn’t danced in forty, fifty or even sixty years. Needless to say, many couldn’t really dance very much if at all; there were dancers there in their 90’s who weren’t up for dancing; they were happy just to have made it and to be seeing people. Finding your friends was a bit difficult; if you haven’t seen someone in forty or fifty years, he/she may look rather different now! Fortunately we were all wearing name tags; and while I’m normally not a huge fan of name tags this was an occasion where their use was very appropriate.
Teresa and I weren’t at the original Bradford dances; we were too young to make it. But we were invited because of our involvement with the Contoocook dance; and we were certainly glad we went!
The place kept filling up, and we ended up having about 240 dancers filling the hall! There were never more than five or six squares at a time as many couldn’t handle the squares; but when we did the round dances many others got up and danced a waltz or a foxtrot. We danced all the old favorite square dances. Not everyone was in practice, but somehow it all worked out, and everyone had a great time. We visited with friends, danced some more, watched the slide show, danced some more ... It was almost spooky to see, in the slide show, photos of some of the band members (Woody and Bob Messer were most noticeable) when they were considerably younger than we are now, and then to look up and see them in their late 80’s.
It was one of those dances you hope will never end, but at some point the band played Till We Meet Again, Now is the Hour, and Woody sang May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You and we knew the dance was over. However, it wasn’t entirely over as after supper we went to the Contoocook square dance where Bobby was calling and Woody was playing and danced some of the same dances and some different ones with some of the same people and some different ones (although certainly a much smaller group). It was a very pleasant way to come down from such an enjoyable day of dancing. By the time we went home we were quite exhausted, and we’d had a marvelous day of music and dancing.