By Suzanne Norquist
Movies and books portray the female population of western mining towns as a few “proper ladies” and a plethora of soiled doves. Modern media ignores another kind of dance hall girl, the Hurdy Gurdy Girls. A fun sounding name if I’ve ever heard one.
They were musicians and dancers who traveled west to earn money for their families. Often a group of four girls came with a chaperone, perhaps a married couple. An agent would make arrangements.
The original Hurdy Gurdy Girls helped to sell wooden brooms in Germany in the 1820s. Like beautiful models in modern car advertisements, pretty girls playing music attracted customers at the local markets. The instrument of choice was the hurdy gurdy. It’s a complicated contraption with a crank on one side and strings.
Click this link to see a modern hurdy gurdy “girl.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyIXR3s8OtY
The Caribou Sentinel in Bakerville, British Columbia described Hurdy Gurdy Girls as unsophisticated, dressed in bell-shaped skirts and speaking little English. While the girls donned colorful costumes, they often wore heavy boots to protect their feet from clumsy dance partners.
In Bakerville, “dancing on the ceiling” was popular. A miner would swing his partner in the air and see how high her feet would get. The man who could hoist his girl the highest was considered the best dancer.
The girls often adhered to a strict set of rules. Here is what the Alhambra Dance Hall in Silverton, Colorado required:
I have to especially wonder about rule number 3. How did they kick at the orchestra?
It is rumored that during one of the wild dances, a Hurdy Gurdy Girl kicked a ceiling lantern, starting a fire that nearly burned down Bakersville.
After a time, dance halls became known as Hurdy Gurdies and entertainers were Hurdy Gurdy Girls, even those not from Germany. Dora Hand was well-known in Dodge City. After training as an opera singer, she moved west from Boston to battle tuberculosis. There she sang at the Lady Gay Saloon and used her influence to help the needy.
The miners considered them to be good women. Governor William McConnell of Idaho wrote, “These girls were pure women, who had kind hearts and wonderful patience. They simply did the work they had bargained to do, and when their contracts expired, most of them returned home.”
Proper ladies snubbed them for their presence in the saloons and their style of dress. In 1867, the Caribou Sentinel reported, “Mrs. Partington says that just because the Hurdies are regarded as stars is no reason they should be regarded as heavenly bodies.”
Over time, the Hurdies were absorbed into the dance hall scene and became indistinguishable from the other women who worked there. And, perhaps as women were allowed into other parts of the workforce, they no longer needed to perform in saloons to earn money.
Regardless, these ladies aren’t your ordinary dance hall girls.
Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.
She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.
“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
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