On Sunday, with the smell of charred wood hanging heavily in the air, William Ilse stared in disbelief at the smoldering wreckage of Club 21 , almost unable to comprehend the way Texas’ oldest continually operating dance hall came to an end.
Until a car crashed into it early Sunday and ignited a fire that burned it to the ground, the 117-year-old dance hall was a top destination for live country music and dancing. Just last week, Johnny Dee and the Rocket 88s drew a crowd of more than 150 people to the club, which sat 11 miles northeast of San Marcos on Texas 21.
A car crash is not how Ilse, Club 21’s owner, saw things ending.
"Someone asked me what I’m going to do now," Ilse said, standing behind police tape watching as firefighters continued to douse hot spots in the remains of the club. "I’m going to go home, eat breakfast, have a cup of coffee and say the hell with it. There’s nothing I can do."
Ilse’s mother bought Club 21 in 1964; he took it over in 1989. Ilse didn’t have insurance because of the high costs, he said.
About 2:30 a.m. Sunday , not long after the bar closed, a Mazda sedan and a Chevrolet Suburban came speeding down Cotton Gin Road and crossed Texas 21 without stopping, Department of Public Safety trooper Tim Gerloff said. The Mazda crashed into the front of Club 21, Gerloff said, while the Suburban came to rest in the backyard of Ilse’s home next door to the hall.
The hall caught fire, and when emergency crews arrived, it was fully engulfed in flames, Gerloff said. No one was inside the hall when the crash occurred, Gerloff said.
He said the drivers had abandoned both vehicles by the time firefighters and ambulances arrived at the scene.
"That Suburban was tore all to pieces," Ilse said. "I had to pull it out with my tractor."
No arrests or charges had been made as of Sunday evening, and Gerloff said investigators were working to identify the drivers of the cars and witnesses.
Gerloff said the owner of the Mazda, whom he would not name, lent his car to another person. Gerloff said investigators do not know why the cars were speeding.
"We don’t have a lot of hard facts at this point," Gerloff said.
The front part of Club 21, which housed the bar, was built in 1893. In 1912, a basketball gym and dance hall were added. When the Uhland schools closed, basketball was no longer played there, but the dancing has never stopped.
A four-lane, nine-pin bowling alley was added on in 1932.
Although Gruene Hall in New Braunfels was built in 1878 , Ilse said Club 21 has been in continuous operation longer. The cover of Don Walser’s album "Rolling Stone From Texas" was shot outside Club 21, one of Walser’s favorite places to play. Jimmie Vaughan shot one of his videos there.
Club 21 has also been used in several period movies and was the site of Coors Light’s old "Big Hair Contest" commercials.
Ilse said he and his family have watched several generations of Central Texans grow up in and around the hall. They used it for wedding receptions and birthday parties. Many just came by to dance or have a beer.
"It’s 100 years of memories gone," said his wife, Barbara Ilse . "We can’t rebuild it."
Her cousin Cindy Johnson also worked there and said she had served a lot of beers over the decades.
"Saturday nights were the best nights here, for all those nights Barbara and I danced here growing up and the times we worked here," Johnson said. "It was a family-oriented place, and everyone loved it."