The echoes of the Eva Lake ‘Hoot n’ Holler’ dance hall, the music, dancing, and occasional rowdiness out in the parking lot, faded away nearly six decades ago. Yet many long time residents still recall when it was ‘the’ place to be for young folk on a Saturday night.
The highway to Thunder Bay hadn’t been completed in the mid 1950s (and there was no road going west), but Atikokanites were more than willing to pile into cars and head out on the dirt road to Eva Lake weekends to dance to the live bands. There, they could enjoy a format that for a young town in the mid-1950s, was a little less formal and old fashioned than the in-town dances typically hosted by the Legion, Union Hall or TeenTown.
“It was a real country dance, and lots of fun,” recalls Shirley Wiens who went often with husband Howard. “We were all young; I don’t think there was an old person there.”
The hall was built and run by Clayton Thompson, a Steep Rock foreman, who hired friend Don Meilleur, who also worked at the mines, to play guitar and call square dances. Meilleur recalls a lot of musicians played out there, at least four bands. Meilleur played with singers and guitarists Johnny Wardman, Benny Lisisnki (stage name Benny Lo), Walter Falk, Len Craft, bass player Ralph Preszoloski (aka ‘Ralph Presley’), pianist Jack Switzer (long-time owner of Crystal Beach Resort and Quetico Centre employee), fiddler Arnie Laughti, and accordion player Allan Fugate.
The band was frequently accompanied by Meilleur’s future wife Yvonne who sang there, thanks to her suitor’s encouragement. “I didn’t even know I could sing before,” she recalled. (After they married and the mines closed, the couple moved to Dauphin for a while where they performed on the local radio show.)
Darrell Campbell’s parents were part of another Hoot ‘n Holler band, The Country Troubadours. Darrell’s father Glen played the guitar and accordion, while mother Elsie sang and played the banjo and autoharp. The band had Howard Struve on accordion, Darryl’s cousin Bill Campbell (vocals, emcee), his uncle Charlie Kivari on bass fiddle and Leonard Frollick on three neck steel guitar.
Jim Koroscil, who grew up in Sapawe and resides there now, remembers the “Honky Tonk piano” played by Bernie Finner. “He played just like Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley,” he recalled. “He used to play Blue Moon of Kentucky and he’d really give ‘er.”
People paid to get into the dances and bands were paid to perform. It wasn’t a lot of money but, considering “you could buy a gallon of gas for 35 cents,” it was worth the trip, recalled Darrell, who was a child at the time.
He and his family often headed further east once the road extended to Shebandowan, because there was another dance hall there where his parents performed and many of the EvaLake dance hall regulars also attended.
The ‘Hoot ’n Holler’ offered a hardwood floor, big stage and benches along the walls, so “if there were too many people to sit down, you’d get out and dance,” said Earl Rodger.
It also had a small concession stand that sold hamburgers and refreshments. “Millie [Thompson] was a good cook,” said Yvonne. It also had a wood stove for heat, and “I came close to hitting that once when we were doing the Circle dance,” Yvonne chuckles.
While dances may have been lively, they were orderly affairs, where Clayton organized the dances and ‘called’ for them. The Thompsons were not musicians but clearly enjoyed music enough to start the hall, said Don, who recalled a trip the Thompsons took with him and Yvonne to Minneapolis to purchase a Fender Jazzmaster guitar for Don to play out there.
“Wow!” said Don, “He let me pay it off by playing at the hall. I had the guitar until we had a house fire in 1992 and it was lost in the fire.”
The Thompsons ran a tight ship, recalled Meilleur who said that no alcohol or fighting was allowed on the premises. Outside however, was a different matter.
Some men would sneak swigs in the parking lot and occasionally a fight would break out. In fact, “some of us just went out to watch the fights, and some went out to get it into fights,” Rodger says with a chuckle.
Frank Mullner remembers the occasional dust-up between some rowdy miners, especially the time he received a punch in the nose. “I was a bystander, but I was standing too close,” he laughs.
The hall, at the end of a 22 mile dirt road, was a bit of a remote locale, and some parents viewed the ‘Hoot ‘n Holler’ as a “den of iniquity”, said Aileen Black. “We’ve laughed about that over the years,” she says. Black, whose family moved to Atikokan from Scotland in 1953 when she was 15, longed to attend the dances but her parents feared that the atmosphere was not a place for ‘nice’ young girls.
Mullner’s wife Grace had a similar experience as a young teen, recalling it was also one of two places she was forbidden by her mother to attend. (The other was the downtown café, ominously known as the ‘Cave.’) While parents were concerned about the safety of the roads and the possible goings-on out there, the young folk couldn’t resist it, and when Grace was old enough, she also attended with future husband Frank.
By all accounts however, the attraction was quite simply good music and good dancing and socializing. The town was home to many newcomers – like the Wiens who moved to Atikokan from rural Manitoba – who had come for work in the mines. “We were all trying to get to know people and that was a great way to do it,” recalls Shirley.
Possibly even better than the dancing was the traditional end to the evening, where many couples would head to Crystal Lake for a swim on the way home “by dark of night,” recalls Wiens with a chuckle.
Koroscil said that many also stopped off on the way home for parties at Sapawe, then a bustling little community, which had many homes, a church, school, store and restaurant – all owned by the sawmill owner J.A. Mathieu.
Whatever became of the original Hoot ‘n Holler is a little murky; some locals recall it may have burned down, while others say it could have been the same building that became the Eva Lake Marina, part of Eva Lake Resort in the late 1950s.
Originally that resort property adjacent to the hall was a Navy Sea Cadet base prior to the Second World War, then briefly a Mathieu lumber camp and accommodation for highway construction workers, before being purchased by A. E. Hebditch and J. MacCarthy in 1955, who started the resort. It was purchased by Iowa’s Jim Shuey a few years later. The marina was torn down about a decade ago.
What is certain from all the ‘Hoot ‘n Holler’ recollections however, is its location: If it wasn’t the marina, it at least existed earlier on that very spot.
While many details are lost over time, one common sentiment is echoed by all who shared memories with the Progress of the Eva Lake Hoot ‘n Holler.
“It was a good time in our lives,” says Don Meilleur.