July 22, 2014

Places I’ve Played

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The Hen House

June 23, 2011

By Bill Skiff

When I was a teenager in Cambridge, the Hen House was the only place to be on Saturday night. I would do anything to get there: wash dishes, fill the wood box, empty the trash, and even clean calf pens. At that point in my life I would rather dance than eat — and the Hen House was where the action was.

The Hen House was located in Underhill Center. It was a two-story building with a storage area in the basement and a top floor serving as the dance hall. The back had a parking lot and a set of steep stairs that led to the dance floor.

The story goes that the owner built it as a chicken house. He planned to raise chickens and sell their eggs. A friend suggested that before he bought his first batch of chicks that he hold a dance to pick up a little cash. He did, and the rest is history.

The dance floor was hardwood (with a little corn meal thrown around you could glide over it like Fred Astaire). The bandleader, and trumpet player, was Al Cole; his band was a swing band typical of the era. Al could play Sugar Blues just like Clyde McCoy. I asked him to play it every time I went.

My mother hated the Hen House and called it “a den of iniquity.”

“All they do there is drink and fight,” she said.

What could I say, other than, “Mom they also dance?” I think I was 25 before she let me go (well not quite, I was 17). I felt like I had broken out of prison.

The real saying about the Hen House was that it had “three rounds, two squares and a fight a minute.” The band would play three slow dances followed by two squares. The fights generally occurred during intermission, accompanied by the consumption of various liquids.

The slow dances were a wonderful opportunity to get your belt buckle polished; especially when the “Canadian girls” came down from Montreal. Their perfume smelled so good that it could make a boy from Lamoille County give up farming. On slow dances, they placed their bodies real close to you.

Your buckle became so polished it would glow in the dark. In truth, I was intimidated by them and only danced when my buckle became tarnished.

The squares were fun, too: duck for the oyster, duck for the clam, Wabash cannonball, and kiss her in the moonlight. In that dance, there came a time when you and your girl would swing into the center of the ring. At a given point, the lights would go out, and the caller would yell, “kiss her if you dare.” I always dared, but was not always successful.
Intermission was a program by itself. Between drinking, fighting and affairs of the heart, there was never a dull moment. I was too small to fight and had a body that couldn’t tolerate alcohol. I was left with only one option — I made out as best I could.

There were other places where you could go on Saturday night — Harts Barn, Desco’s, Jake’s Barn or the Little Club. But for me, it was the Hen House. Even today, when I hear dance music, I think of those good times. Sometimes, when the summer air is just right, I can even smell the perfume of those fine Canadian ladies.

I think I’ll go check my belt buckle.

Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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