Western South Dakota's Only Ranch Station

Historic community halls open doors for tours, potlucks, pie auctions

(Andrea Graham/Alliance for Historic Wyoming)
Advertising curtains, such as this one inside Kearney Community Hall, are common in community halls as stage backdrops, and were used to raise funds through local businesses paying to have ads.

BUFFALO, Wyo. — The doors of five historic community halls across Johnson and Sheridan counties were opened this past weekend for 15 people curious to see where previous generations of ranchers and farmers came together from miles around for picnics, quilting circles and dancing until dawn.

Courtney Caplan, board president of Kearney Community Hall, who led restoration efforts for the building 15 miles north of Buffalo, said events dating back to the 1920s gave families a chance to chat and catch up, share meals, raise a little hell, and do some courting.

“Without someplace to gather, you don’t know who your neighbors are, you do become more suspicious of the next guy,” Caplan explained. “Community halls bring people together. You come to enjoy the music, you’re not there to squabble.”

In addition to Kearney, the Unbarred Community Hall Tour, organized by the Alliance for Historic Wyoming, included spaces in Banner, Big Horn, Dayton and Story.

Caplan believes halls can continue to be a great place to get to know your neighbors, and help communities rebound after a year of COVID public-health restrictions. She and her team of volunteers are now hosting dances, pie auctions, potluck dinners and more.

Tour participants also got to see the parking lots outside halls, where Caplan pointed out women historically tolerated whiskey consumption during music breaks. She added most

Silver City, SD Community Hall. (Photo Silver City Historical Society)

events put food front and center, and many halls were organized and operated by women’s clubs.

“The women ran the halls, that’s just what they did,” Caplan remarked. “And they were movers and shakers; the social center was centered around the women and their events. If there was a pie auction, women made the pies.”

A number of halls in Wyoming were built in the 1930s with Works Progress Administration infrastructure funding under the Roosevelt administration. Most halls these days rely on volunteers from the surrounding area to keep doors open. Caplan noted she could not recall an occasion when anyone turned down an opportunity to lend a hand.

“People seem to be happy to volunteer,” Caplan emphasized. “And when they do volunteer, they go, ‘Wow, you guys, this is cool.’ This is going to be a great space, and I can hardly wait to use it for my grandma’s birthday party or whatever they want to do.”

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