November 17, 2007
My name is Joseph Fabian and today I’m here today talking with Hillie Bailey, From Holden, Maine. A nationally recognized Hall of Famer from New England, Hillie has dedicated his life to the art of Square Dancing.
Joseph Fabian: Hillie, Tell us about where you were born and grew up. Your life before square dancing?
Hillie Bailey: I was born in Princeton, Maine. And we moved to Bangor when I was about three years old. And I grew up in Bangor. Went to the Bangor schools. And graduated from Bangor High School and settled down for just an ordinary life. At that time I had no contact with square dancin’ whatsoever. Although my grandfather had told me that he had danced square dancing Down Eastern Maine many years ago and that his favorite dance was Birdie in the Cage. So they were dancin’ square dancin’ many years before I was born.
JF: Hillie, what was your first encounter with square dancing?
HB: My first encounter was after the Second World War. And, I guess I was probably about 30 years old. A man by the name of Carl Rodgers from the Extension Service out of the University of Maine was comin’ round to the towns and introduced … tried to introduce square dancin’ to ‘em as an adult recreation. He’d come to a town for four weeks in a row. One night each week. And, he was not so much a caller as he was a good leader. And after you attended three of those sessions, when you would come in, he would hand you a card with a call to a dance on it and that was gonna be the dance that you was gonna try to call that night. And everybody tried it. Some liked it. Some didn’t. But, I enjoyed it because I happened to pick a dance that I knew the tune. Red River Valley. And, I got thru it alright.
JF: Hillie, can you tell me about the first days of square dancing?
HB: Well, first days of square dancin’ around here, was when we had a man from the University of Maine, by the name of Carl Rodgers. Used to come around once a month to a town to introduce to anyone who was interested, square dancin’. Not only did he introduce square dancin’, but also contra dancin’, and folk dancin’. It was all in one. And, he’d travel to these towns for four times. And then expect the people in that group to have enough interest to keep it goin’. And, have someone step up that could queue em in their dancin’ our call for them. And it seemed to work good because there were square dance clubs that popped up everywhere in our county. And, it grew so fast that practically every town had a club. And it just blossomed right out. The people enjoin’ it so. And that was the way it started. And then as it got into it further, why people began to slack off some in their dancin’ because they were dancin’ practically every night in the week. Now after many years, people seemed to have tired of that and in the teachin’ of the lessons now, you have to attend a long series of lessons before you’re considered good enough to dance with a club. I think that kind of put the kibosh on some of the people that wanted to dance just as a recreation. The way I feel, the people, they wanted to dance for the fun of dancin’ and not be required to have to learn a lot of new movements and basic movements all the time to keep up with a club. In the old days, you might have an opportunity to go to a square dance. I’m talkin’ a hundred years ago now. Maybe four times a year when they’d have a barn raisin or a big harvest supper or somethin’, and if there was a fiddle player there, why he’d play fiddle music for you to dance. And, this would only happen a few times a year. So, you didn’t have to know all the elaborate figures and complicated moves of the modern square dance. If you were out of dancin’ for say two or three months and then go back to your group to dance, you’re gonna hear things that you’ve never done before. And that’s kind of discouraging for people. In the old days, you’d … after not dancin’ for two years, you could go back and step right in and have fun.
JF: I understand you were part of the original group of Callerlab callers to meet and begin formulating a set list. Can you tell me about those meetings? Where were they? Any person or any group of people stand out in your memory?
HB: I’m tryin’ to think where that first one was. I think it was in St. Louie (St. Louis). And, what we assembled for, was to get all the calls basic so that they’d all have the same name. Because people were comin’ up with … makin’ up new calls and new basic movements by different names. On the West Coast there’d be the one name and on the East Coast another name and that would be confusin’ to the people dancin’ if they were travelin’. So they thought they should get together and if for instance a Star Thru came out on the East Coast, on the West Coast the same movement came out as Snapparoo. And things like that would confuse a dancer. So then they decided to make a form, a list of the calls and every … have them written down so they know what they were. And I think that has worked out pretty good that way.
JF: Does any one person stand out during those meetings as a leader or someone who put a lot of input?
HB: Bob Osgood. He was the editor for Sets in Order magazine. He dedicated his life to square dancin’. And, he was the sparkplug of the whole thing out there. And with havin’ his magazine being the favorite magazine of a lot of dancers all over the country, he could put things across to ‘em and explain things where they wouldn’t have a chance to get ‘em explained. He’d do it in his magazine. And they also made a listing, Callerlab, of the different movements and numbered them. So, everything was getting lined up so that if you took square dance lessons on the East Coast, They’d be the same as square dance lessons on the West Coast.
JF: That was very interesting Hillie. What was your first club? What was the name of it? Where was it at?
HB: Well, the first club was here in Dedham. We called it the Dedham Folk Dance Club. Because, we not only did square dancin’, we did contra dance and the folk dancin’. Then, as our club grew, and more clubs were built around us, we were getting people joining our club from all over. So, we changed the name of it to the Country Cousins.
JF: How many members did you have when you changed the name … or squares?
HB: Oh, I don’t know. We had a big membership. And they was drivin’ many miles to get here.
JF: Speaking of miles, what was traveling like for you as a square dance caller?
HB: Well, the first of it, we didn’t have to travel much. There were so many clubs. It was just a short ways to another club. And, if we booked a club out of town, it was probably less than 50 miles away. And there was no problem there.
JF: Did you have any limits on how far you would travel to call for a club?
HB: No. Had no limits on it whatsoever.
JF: Well speaking on distance, I understand you did a square dance on a train across Canada I believe. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
HB: Ok, we went across Canada on their Canada Centennial Train. There were 300 and some odd dancers on that train. There were just square dancers on the train. A special train.
JF: Were you the only caller or were there other callers on the train?
HB: No, there were several callers on the train. I was the only one from the U.S. on the train. And we danced 36 times. 36 big dances in two weeks. We went from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Vancouver Island. And, we had some of the biggest dances that I had ever seen. Dances that were big enough where you have speakers on the stage and speakers halfway down the hall. With people on the intercom to tell them how the sound was comin’. It was that big. Any place the train would stop, either to refuel or ice up or whatever, we’d all get off the train and whatever there was there to dance on, either grass or gravel or anything, we’d do a little dance. And goin’ across the eastern part of Canada, I wondered why on a weekday there’d be so many people show up just to watch us to dance for 15 or 20 minutes or a half an hour. Then. I looked at it on a map, that train serviced that whole country thru there. And goin’ from where the railroad track was to a main highway, probably be over a hundred miles. They knew this train was comin’ and boy, they turned out to see it. Now, we followed the (???Utez) river up into the mountains. And, then followed the Frasier river down and come out on the West Coast. It was quite an experience. We saw a lot of the country. We went thru the Rockies. And we were on a Buddy Couple system. When you pulled into a station goin’ across Canada, there’d be a couple there that would pick you right up. And, take you to their home. Offer to do laundry for you. And give you a chance to shower or anything that you wanted to. Because the knew we were on a train for awhile. I made an awful lot of friends that way. Right straight across Canada.
JF: Sounds pretty exciting and sounds like you had a lot of good memories and a lot of people.
HB: Yeah, we did. And we had one little couple that met us in Ottawa, a little Chinese couple and they had two had two little girls. Cutest little things you ever saw. And many years after this train ride had been over, they showed up one summer at my place. And they stayed with me for 2 or 3 days. And I showed them around the country here. And it was things like that, uh, made it so wonderful.
HB: Another trip that we had one time, some Canadian dancers got together and invited us to go with them to the Calgary Stampede. I think it was the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede. It was in 1975. And, the caller from Nova Scotia and myself, they put us right on the program up there to call and that was quite a thing because they had some awful big dances there. During the day, during the stampede, the whole main part of Calgary was shut down to automobiles and they had chuck wagons along the sidewalk. And you get to walk along in the morning and stop, and they’d hand you hotcakes and sausage from a chuck wagon that would usually be workin’ on the range. And it was interesting to meet the people this way. That was an experience there. And at the time, we took a sight seeing tour. Up the through the mountains.
JF: That train ride sounds pretty important. Did you do any other big square dance where you traveled or anything??
HB: We did. We here in Maine was asked one time by the chairman of commerce in Bar Harbor. And I called for the Acadia Belgium Boys square dance club in Bar Harbor. They were going to Nova Scotia on a Blue Nose Ferry. It was a new ferry service, takin’ off. And, they wanted to go over and get business deals goin’ on … not only in Bar Harbor, but also in the Yarmouth. Nova Scotia where the ferry docked over there. And they wanted a social group to go over with them. Well, a lot of their people were dancin’ in our club in Bar Harbor. They thought it’d be nice to take square dancin’ over there. So, they did. They invited us to go on an expense paid trip and we went over and attended banquets and listened to the business the men talk and one thing or another. And we met in the evening after our banquet, they had a ballroom dance for the businessmen. And there was a square dance club that formed in Yarmouth, and we were, the square dancers, invited to go and dance with them. So, that’s where we went. At the dance I met their caller, who just fairly new at calling. We picked up a very good friendship. This trip to Nova Scotia was supposed to be somethin’ that happened once a year. But that’s the only year that the businessmen did it. We, as square dancers, we made friends with the square dancers over there and they invited us back. So, we started going over on our Memorial Day and the square dancers from Nova Scotia would come over to Maine in September. It was a Buddy Couple System, you didn’t have to take your car. All you took was just foot passenger and sail on the boat. And I think, if I remember right, it was about $7 dollars a person on that boat. A very inexpensive way to travel. We enjoyed that exchange so much. Meeting people. And having a Buddy Couple over there to meet. Of course that was always with the caller, Garnet Banks and his wife Kay. We became very good friends. And it changed, kept getting bigger. People looked forward to goin’ over there and them comin’ over here. On the tenth anniversary of that exchange, I had a medallion struck for that tenth exchange. And, everyone that went, received one. It was quite a memento. They cherished those. We had an interesting thing happen. The mayor of Yarmouth, on the first night we went over, he came to square dance from the banquet. To see you know, what it was and everything. I figured that it was nice of him to do that. Because he was not a square dancer. And then he disappeared. So, I figured he went to the other dance. And, would probably spend (time) there with the businessmen. In a short time, he was back. He spent the rest of the night with us. He was one of our biggest promoters of square dancers over there. At one point in our life of this exchange, it was getting bigger and halls were getting harder to get. And they had a brand new school. We tried to arrange to have that for the dance. No way. They wouldn’t let us unless we guaranteed the floor. So, we had to move into a smaller hall, which wouldn’t hold us. The mayor found out about it. He went to the school department and told them: “You let the square dancers have the hall. I’ll guarantee the floor”. He was one of our biggest promoters of square dancin’ over there. And he used to come over here on exchange. We carried that exchange on 15 years. Then Garnet Baxter, a caller that I worked with over there got transferred, he worked for the telephone company and he got transferred. And, it would be impossible for him to handle the exchange where he was. He was too far away from the port. So we had to call it quits on the 15th. After all these years, been many years since we had that last exchange, 79 was the 15th. The people that had these Buddy Couples over there, they’d pick them up at the boat, take them to their motel, drive em around, take ‘em to their church on Sunday, and get em to the dances and show them around. Those people got so friendly that when they have a vacation they’d either show up over here in Maine to their Buddy Couple, or Maine people would show up over there. And they’re still doing it, even after all these years. They made friends for life. On the 15th exchange, I had another medallion struck. Besides the medallions, I also had a dozen of those medallions dropped in solid silver. One went to the mayor and his wife. My chairman that helped me out on it, he and his wife both got one. My wife Elizabeth and I got ‘em, they were all edge marked. The people that helped us the most. Even the manager of the ferry terminal who let us come in there and take over. With so many people goin, he’d let us check ‘em off and take our word for it. Which was really somethin’. He was a big help. And, on the tenth exchange, we took 435 from the U.S. over there, on that boat. And, they even installed a special electrical outlet on the upper car deck so I could plug my set in and let them dance a little bit goin’ over. We never danced too long because it was too tricky on the waves. We never knew what kind of weather we were going to have. But we all did a little bit of dancin’. Enough so they could say they danced on the boat. I think that is the biggest thing that I did in square dancin’. Because the friendships that that made was these groups are still going strong even today. When a lot of them aren’t even dancin’. And a lot of them passed away.
JF: Wow! That’s somethin’. Through your square dance calling years, you probably received a lot of awards and commendations. Which ones or which one stands out the most?
HB: The one that stands out the most is of course the Hall of Fame. The New England Hall of Fame. It recognized the contributions of the wife and I to all the time that we put in to the square dance movement. And that was quite a surprise to have that presented to us.
JF: I’m holding it and it’s a beautiful plaque that says “To Hillie and Elizabeth Bailey”. This was presented to you in 1997.
JF: Well, right now, I’m interviewing you in a room that used to be a kitchen for the Stage Stop Dance Hall. I understand you built this whole place yourself. As I walk into the dance hall, it remains almost unchanged since its last dance. I can see the people and hear the chatter as the people eagerly await for your needle to drop. Hillie, it is a beautiful hall. The floors, I understand, were buffed by the slow shuffles, and Star Thru’s and Promenades through many the years. Any special memories you’d like to share with the hall, The Stage Stop.
HB: Well, we built this hall just for square dancing. And, first we had just the hall. And then we decided we had to have someplace where people could sit and have a cup of coffee. (sounds of him walking around) So, we built the kitchen on. And, that was a great asset. The kitchen was big enough so if they wanted to sit out a tip, they could. And sit down to a large pine table and enjoy themselves. One thing that the people do miss now by not havin’ this as a dance hall. In the old days, when they came here, to dance, and we danced every Friday night here. Dancers would come many miles to be here. And, mostly to meet their friends. I don’t think my callin’ was that exceptional. Just that they enjoyed bein’ here with their friends and talkin’ with them. And, if they wanted to sit out a tip, they could. Over here in the kitchen. Elizabeth was a fine cook and she used to have goodies for them. I remember one night, Bob Osgood from Sets In Order called up. He wanted to stop in and see it. He was travelin’ thru to Bar Harbor. And, when he saw the hall, It’s a live log cabin, he mentioned the fact that when, the first dance he ever called was in a log cabin. Out in California. He said “Will you be dancin’ here tonight?” and I said “No.”. And he said “Gosh, I’d like to come to a dance here!”. I said, “Well, why don’t I see how many people I can get together. And you folks come here and enjoy yourself”. And that’s what we did. I made three telephone calls: one to Mount Desert Island, one to Machias, down in Washington county, and one to Portland. And told them what was happenin’. Said, Bob Osgood was here and he’d like to have a dance here at the Stage Stop. And, he didn’t want to call a dance. He just wanted to be here at a dance, he said. So, that was ok. As it turned out, many miles in between Portland and Washington County and Mount Desert Island. But as it turned out, we loaded the hall. As I remember it, there was no charge. We just got together for a dance. And, the wife made biscuits and we had strawberry shortcakes for intermission. And, Bob couldn’t get over it. That we could get that many people together, so quick, with just so few telephone calls. But they knew Bob. Most of them took their magazines. And you didn’t have to ask them more than once to come. And that was the best of havin’ your own hall. You could do what you want over in it. And, just give the people a good time. And that’s what we did.
JF: That hall is simply beautiful. How many squares can that hall hold?
HB: We’ve had them packed in too close. I know that. You can get eight squares in there and they can dance comfortably. Good Lord, sometimes they’d have another square out here in the kitchen dancing. But, one thing about it, no matter what kinda trouble they had at home, or at work, or in their everyday life. Once they come through the door at the Stage Stop, their trouble was behind them. They might have had the same trouble when they left. But at least they had a few hours of reprieve from it. And, people stop in quite often goin by. They see my car parked here. There was a couple that stopped in last week. He’s a lobster fisherman from down on the coast. They stopped in just to see how I was and what I was doin’. They said “Boy, I sure do miss comin’ here.” He said that was the very best time of their life. When they were doin’ the square dancin’. That’s just straight from them. No one asked them to say it. You know, they’re good people and quite people.
JF: Over the years, what were your favorite records. Either patter or singing?
HB: I like the Chinese Breakdown. I used to use that teaching. It’s a Sets In Order record.
JF: I think it’s Blue Star?
HB: I don’t think there’s any other particular one that stands out in my mind. Course, we have some records for special dances.
JF: What year did you retire from square dance calling?
HB: Oh jeeze. I started calling in 49. And I went 50 years.
JF: When you retired from square dancing, what was your take on square dancing at that time? And, compare that with where square dancing is today.
HB: Well, square dancin’, it has slowed down some. But there was still good dancin’ around. But, the reason I retired was I was out every night. And, the wife had been takin’ sick. And she passed away. She always traveled with me. And, without her, I knew I could never pick up another partner like she was. When we danced together, I knew right where she was all the time. And, at my age, there’d be no way I could ever pick up another one. So, I just walked in and wished them all good luck.
JF: I never like asking this question, even of myself. Life is choices and free will. But, do you have any regrets over the years?
HB: I have no regrets about the dancin’. No. We had a good life with it. Both the wife and I enjoyed it. Every minute of it. And we worked so good together that we were a good team.
JF: What activities are you involved in now? Any musical instruments? Anything keepin’ you busy?
HB: Well, I’ve slowed down. I’m 88 now. I do play the guitar some. And, on Sunday afternoons, I go to a senior center in Bucksport. And, there’s a group of musicians meet there and just play for the older folks. That’s what I say, the older folks, but I’m, I think there’s only one woman older than I am there. But it’s fun just to play music and sing for them. I enjoy doin’ that. And, once in a while I go into a nursing home and entertain them for an hour.
JF: I want to thank you for this interview and the time that you’ve spent. I feel extremely fortunate to have danced to your calling. You are in an elite group of callers that never settled for second best or halfway. I would like to thank you on behalf of the thousands of dancers who left there worries at the door, danced to your calling, and hopefully, most forgot to pick up their worries on the way out as they headed home. I want to thank you very much Hillie.
HB: Thank you. I hope that come out all right.
JF: It’ll be fine.
(End of Interview with Hillie Bailey)