Skip to Main Content

Square Dancing in the Kentucky Foothills

Introduction and the Early Days

[1] The Council of the Southern Mountains encouraged folk dancing as part of its recreation program. Among the preferred dances were English country dance, Morris and sword dances, Danish dances, and singing games. For further discussion of this, see Spalding, Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities, Chapter 6. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

[2] Steve Green, “The Berea Tune Lists: An Archival Resource for the Study of Social Music in Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee in 1915”
Harry Rice, “A Perfect Wild Flower and the Straightjacket of Lines and Spaces: Berea’s Two Spheres of Music.”

[3]  John Harrod, interview with Susan Spalding, Owenton, Kentucky, June 5, 2014, SC-CD-152-006; Lewis and Donna Lamb, interview with Susan Spalding, Lancaster, Kentucky, February 28, 2014, SC-CD-152-003.      

[4] Billy F. “Red” Williams, interview with Susan Spalding, Irvine, Kentucky, June 17, 2014, SC-CD-152-010; Travis Wells, interview with John Harrod, JH-CT-071-01 and JH-CT-071-01A.

[5] Levin, Ida. Kentucky Square Dances. Louisville, Kentucky: Recreation Council, 1928.

[6] Philip and Fanny Harrison, interview with Susan Spalding, Berea, Kentucky, June 20, 2014 SC-CD-152-012; George Bryant, interview with Susan Spalding, Berea, Kentucky, June 4, 2014 SC-CD-152-; Barbara Baker, facebook message, June 24, 2014. Eventually the Finnells bought the others out and in the 1960s a new owner added bedrooms to create a home out of the party house.

[7] Geneva Botkin and Rieta Botkin Eaton, interview with Susan Spalding, Berea, Kentucky, April 8, 2014 SC-CD-152-004; Harrison interview. Philip Harrison also began dancing in the late 1930s, but through the Berea College Academy Folk Club. There he learned only folk dancing, rather than square dancing. Apparently the name “Fruit Jar High School” originated when workers were building the school, but it is unclear to me exactly what incident was the source of the name. In any case, the name has stuck, because several people referred to the school that way. It is unclear whether Allen called the dances for the club or simply organized them.

[8] “Berea Play Center Sponsors Square Dance Club.” Berea Citizen, June 16, 1938; “New Organization Sponsored by Play Center.” Berea Citizen, June 23, 1938; “Square Dance Club Meeting.” Berea Citizen, Sept 1, 1938.

[9] Nora Allen Jenkins, interview with Susan Spalding, Berea, Kentucky, June 13, 2014 SC-CD-152-008; Harrison interview. A question persists regarding how Allen learned to call, since square dancing was not part of the folk dance repertoire at Berea College. It may have been part of his upbringing, or perhaps he learned to call from the Morgans or from others.

1940s: Renfro Valley, Berea High School, Street Dances, and the Estill County Mountain Square Dance Festival

[10] Geneva Botkin interview with Harry Rice, Berea, Kentucky, May 10, 2010 SC-CT-971-001; Williams, Michael Ann. Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertude Knott. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2006. A close connection existed between Renfro Valley and Berea. According to Geneva Botkin, (interview with Spalding ) “a lot of the musicians, the Coon Creek Girls, Slim Miller, the Neighborhood Boys, chose to live in Berea because Renfro Valley didn’t even have a grocery store. Mount Vernon was the closest little town and it was so small at that time (1940s) that it didn’t have a movie or anything. Berea had a movie theater then. It was a little larger and even had dry goods stores.” The Renfro Valley performers were likely aware of the square dances at Berea High School, and may even have played for some of them.

[11] Botkin, interview with Rice; Botkin and Eaton, interview with Spalding.

[12] Whisnant, David E. “Finding the Way Between the Old and the New: the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Work as a Citizen,” Appalachian Journal 7, no. 1-2 (Autumn-Winter 1979-80). Reprinted in Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America’s Southeast and Beyond, edited by Susan Eike Spalding and Jane Harris Woodside. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 91-109.  Matthews de-Natale, Gail. “Wild and Yet Really Subdued: Cultural Change, Stylistic Diversification and Personal Choice in Traditional Appalachian Dance.” In Communities in Motion, pp. 111-126.

[13] Jenkins, interview.

[14] Harrison, interview.

[15] Williams, interview.

[16] Williams, interview. Red Williams recalled that the American Legion sponsored the contest, and their sponsorship is announced in the Estill County Herald. In his Louisville Courier-Journal article, Howard Hardaway identified the Estill County 4-H as the host. Following is an undated article from an Irvine newspaper about the festival, provided via email by Diana Turnbull on September 30, 2014: “Square Dance Festival Draws Huge Crowds.”

The big American Legion Annual Square Dance Festival Friday and Saturday nights, March 28 and 29 at the Estill County High School gymnasium was well attended both nights. There were many turned away after all seats were taken with many standing.
Musicians and square dance teams came from various parts of Kentucky, also a string band and square dance team from New Castle, Ind.

The prizes were awarded as follows:
Best square dance team - White Water Valley Hoedowners, New Castle, IN
2nd best - Scott County Briar Hoppers, Georgetown, KY
3rd best - South Irvine, KY
Best juvenile square dance team - Irvine Clodhoppers
2nd best juvenile - Irvine Hill Toppers
3rd best juvenile- Ridge Runners
Best string band - Kentucky Mountain Boys, Irvine, KY
Most graceful couple - Alice Wilson and Bobby Jones
Best caller - Clarence Wiliams
Best fiddler - Coleman Cornelison, Cynthiana,, KY
Best man dancer - Allen Crowe
Best woman dancer - Mrs Juanita Wade, Beattyville, KY
Best banjo player - Francis Powell
Best mountain ballad - Kincaid Sisters, Stanton, KY
Judges for the festival were:  Vaughn Muncie, Winchester; B. F. Kincaid, Stanton; Mrs Mary Muncy, Lexington; Mrs Nancy Campbell, Booneville; and Emmett Graves, of Richmond.
J. P. O'Brien, commander of Post No 79, presided as master of ceremonies.

[17] Williams, interview. Jimmy Lou Jackson, interview with Susan Spalding, May 6, 2014, SC-CD-152-005. Soft shoe refers to freestyle footwork dancing without taps.

[18] Harrod, interview; Travis Wells interview with John Harrod n.d., JH-CT-071-01A;
Darley Fulks interview with John Harrod, Wolfe County, Kentucky, June 13, 1987, JH-CT-101-02A. 

[19] Williams, interview.

[20] Williams, interview. Not only was Red Williams a championship square dancer in his youth, but he and his wife also won jitterbug contests.

[21] Lewis and Donna Lamb, interview.

1950s: Square Dance Teams and the Estill County Mountain Square Dance Festival

[22] “Amercian Legion Hall Open to Groups,” Berea Citizen April 22, 1954; “Benefits at Legion Hall,” Berea Citizen May 6, 1954. Slim Miller, Rosie Foley, Bernard Davidson, Harold Davidson, George Davis, Jr., Preston McDaniel, Hollis Sheats, Tom Williams, Dr. Gover Thompson, and Billy Keith Williams are thanked in the first article for “furnishing their time and musical talent,” in addition to those named in the paragraph to which this note refers.

[23] Belle Jackson, interview with Susan Spalding, Berea, Kentucky, February 4, 2014, SC-CD-152-001; Jimmy Lou Jackson, interview with Susan Spalding, Berea, Kentucky, May 6, 2014, SC-CD-152-005. 

[24] Linda Owens Jennings, interview with Susan Spalding, February 14, 2014, Berea, Kentucky, SC-CD-152-002; George Bryant, interview with Susan Spalding, June 4, 2014, SC-CD-152-14.

[25] Jennings, interview; Botkin and Eaton interview.

[26] Bryant, interview; Belle Jackson, interview; Jimmy Lou Jackson, interview.

[27] Belle Jackson, interview.

[28] Jennings, Bryant, Belle Jackson, Jimmy Lou Jackson interviews.

[29] Bryant, interview; Belle Jackson, interview.

[30] Bryant, interview. It is unclear which year the group won the championship, since the clipping is undated.  In 1958, they took third place at the State Fair, winning thirty dollars. “The following youngsters composed the team: Johnny Carroll, Carla Sue Johnson, George Bryant, Rieta Jo Botkin, David Lee Williams, Jewell Gabbard, Billy Wagers, Judy Green, Jimmy Tillery, Jennifer Williamson, Dennis Upton, Linda Baker, and Jimmy Lou Jackson, who called the set. Mrs. Mary Lee Jackson is the director. Parents who accompanied the dancers were Mr. and Mrs. George Bryant, Mr. and Mrs. John Carroll, Mr, and Mrs. Ralph Wagers, Mr. and Mrs. Sam Gabbard, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Botkin, Mr. and Mrs. Sherman Powell, and Mrs. Cully Johnson.” The Berea Citizen n.d. 1958.

[31] Jimmy Lou Jackson, interview.

[32] Belle Jackson, interview; Jimmy Lou Jackson, interview; Jennings, interview. 

[33] Hardaway, Howard. “Body and Sole.” Louisville Courier-Journal Magazine, November 19th, 1958. Richard Jett Collection, Berea College Archives and Special Collections. Richard Jett, originally from Wolfe County, Kentucky, started square dance teams when he began teaching high school in Ezel in Morgan County in 1958. For further information about Richard Jett see Susan Spalding, Appalachian Dance, Chapter 7. During this time, Estill County square dancers and folk dancers also attended folk festivals at various locations around central and northern Kentucky. A May 30, 1963 article in the Estill Herald announces that the award-winning Estill County Ridge Runners square dance team attended the 26th National Folk Festival at De Vou Park in Covington, Kentucky, at which singers and dancers from as far away as Texas, Montana, and Florida performed. A number of articles mention folk festivals in other Central Kentucky towns in other years. Toledo Blade Article about Covington National Folk Festival May 24, 1963:,6519207

[34] Jennings, interview. 

[35] Jimmy Lou Jackson, interview; Belle Jackson, interview; Bryant, interview; Jennings, interview; Botkin and Eaton, interview with Susan Spalding, April 8, 2014, SC-CD-152-004.

[36] Bryant, interview.

The Berea Community Home-Coming and Beyond

[37] Settles, David. “Berea Homecoming Festival Was a Major Attraction for 15 Years.” Kentucky Explorer, March 2001; Settles, David, “Old Joe Clark Is Back Bigger Than Life.” Kentucky Explorer, June, 2001. Boone Valley Hoedowners member Rieta Botkin was Homecoming Queen one year.

[38] Bryant, interview; Botkin and Eaton, interview.

[39] Belle Jackson, interview.

[40] Jimmy Lou Jackson, interview.

[41] Jennings, interview.

[42] Botkin and Eaton, interview; Bryant interview.

[43] Lamb, interview.

[44] Williams, interview. See Spalding, Appalachian Dance, Chapter 7, for more about Darrell Rogers.

[45] Bryant, interview; Botkin and Eaton, interview.

[46] Harrod, interview. Note that this is similar to the dancing described at Brodhead, with groups of couples doing figures on their own, without a caller.                            

[47] “Memories of Street Dance in October Revived in Photos.” Berea Citizen February 11, 1971. Musicians are listed as Lewis Lamb, Dewey Lamb, Sherley Lyons, and Fred Lyons.

[48] The Hoedown Island dance still takes place on Fridays and Saturdays all summer. In Letcher County, in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, a monthly square dance is held at the Carcassonne Community Center.