Of Weed Ladies, Play Parties, and Camp Meetings

What's going on in them Manchaca Hills?

Edna Turley Carpenter, 1901, wearing an outfit that was the
Edna Turley Carpenter, 1901, wearing an outfit that was the "cause of much head-shaking from East to West."

After running away from South Austin two years ago, I settled as far South as I could while still residing in Travis County. That’s how I ended up moving to what was a rural suburb surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland but is fast becoming sucked into the Austin sprawl. Technically, I live in Manchaca but I have to drive two miles to the T at Manchaca Road and FM 1626 that passes for Downtown. Manchaca isn’t incorporated so there’s no mayor, but the sheriff lives three blocks away. The Manchaca Fire Hall is the local meeting place.

Manchaca is one of those classic Texas place-names with a peculiar pronunciation. Named for Col. Jose Antonio Menchaca, it was first rendered singular from “Men” to “Man” then in true Texas from, pronounced another way. Say it correctly as men-CHAH-ca or colloquially as MAN-shack. I say MAN-shack because I say GWAHD-aloop and PER-din-AL-iss.

My mother bought Tales from the Manchaca Hills on eBay soon after we moved in. The 1960 book was written by a husband-and-wife team who recorded the oral history of the wife’s mother, Edna Turley Carpenter. There’s a huge Turley gravestone in the old Twin Creeks cemetery nearby, and I live near “the old Turley place” on Turley Drive, which is just a 150-something-year-old chimney after a fire destroyed the old house under dubious circumstances, according to neighborhood lore. The first time I looked at the chimney I knew it had many stories to tell from a time when Austin was a three-hour buggy ride away, but faster by train.

Some of those stories are in Tales from the Manchaca Hills, but the chapter titled “Weed Ladies, Play Parties, and Camp Meetings” caught my attention. Edna was born in 1872; her recall and sense of detail is remarkable. Though intriguing, “weed ladies” turned out to be dolls and “camp meetings” merely revivals. The upstanding folks who designed “play parties” would keel over at today’s average rap video.

“Our outside amusements … were confined to school or church plays, box suppers, country parties, and play parties,” Edna remembered. “A play party was a square dance with the omission of the church-disapproved elements: the 'waist swing' and the music of that devil-spawned instrument, the fiddle. The participants were allowed to touch hands but not commit the sinful act of encircling a partner’s waist.”

Although there was no doubt much sinning and dancing happening elsewhere (Ah, for a memoir of Clarksville or Webberville from this period!), Austin’s fondness for backyard parties and house concerts has its roots in scenes like this: “Although Pa wouldn’t allow us, ‘Out of respect for my wife’s church,’ to give dances in our home, we attended them in friends homes before we joined the church. Music was furnished by a single fiddle player or at most by two fiddle players and a banjoist. Curiously enough, my sisters and I were responsible for introducing round dancing (which is considered more sinful than square dancing) into the neighborhood … We learned how to perform waltzes, polkas, schottisches, and lancers.”

Edna eventually yielded to her church’s prohibition on dancing. Yet, she couched her agreement to do so into words that carry weight today: “Something valuable was banished from community when children, young people, and elderly persons no longer danced together.”

Wonder what Edna would have thought of Eeyore’s Birthday Party.

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