by BRAD ROLLINS
Picking through the rubble of the historic Club 21 the other day, William Ilse found unharmed bottles of Coors Lite inside a refrigerator. He wiped ash off one, opened it up and drank it down.
“It was one of those rodeo beers. Warm like it had rolled around in the truck for a week. But it was good,” Ilse said, describing what may be the last drink served at the 117-year-old institution. Or maybe not.
In the bleak hours after a blaze leveled the Uhland club early Sunday morning, Ilse told reporters and anyone else who asked that he was done with it, that he wouldn’t rebuild, that it wouldn’t be the same if he did. But on Tuesday as he surveyed the charred heap where a landmark once stood, the club’s owner was sounding a little more hopeful about the future of what was the oldest continuously operated dancehall in Texas.
“I was so disgusted with everything Sunday that I said I wasn’t going to rebuild. But there’s been so many people come forward and said ,’Whatever it takes,’ that we’re going to try. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but there will be an effort,” Ilse said.
Not long after closing time, at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday, a Mazda passenger car and a Chevrolet Suburban raced down Cotton Gin Road and crossed Texas 21 without stopping, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson said. The Mazda plowed into the building, apparently setting the fire, while the Suburban tore through the yard of Ilse’s home next door, passing between two propane tanks and uprooting a tree before coming to rest.
Neither driver was on the scene when emergency responders arrived, said Kyle Fire Department Battalion Cmdr. Mike Vasil, who was first on the scene, followed by the Chisolm Trail Fire Department which traveled to the site from Mustang Ridge.
Firefighters were an hour or more into containing the fire before someone discovered the Suburban; only after the building’s ruins had cooled enough to allow for exploration did a firefighter find the Mazda inside.
“Somebody said, ‘Is there supposed to be a car inside?’ and I like to fell over,” Ilse said.
Built in 1893, Club 21 has for well more than a century been a staple of Hays County life, even though it lies just across the county line in Caldwell County. Ilse’s mother, Martha, and her brother, Carl Homann, bought it in 1964 from Ben Garbrath.
His father, August Garbrath, constructed the front portion of the building first and, 19 years later, added the dance hall to the rear. The dance floor served double duty as a basketball court for the local school’s Uhland Kangaroos. Four nine-pin bowing lanes were added in 1932 and operated until about 2002.
The bar has hosted acts ranging from Deryl Dodd, David Ball, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and a young Kevin Fowler. Jimmie Vaughan shot a music video there and Coors Light filmed its old “Big Hair Contest” commercials at Club 21.
Ilse said the crowds who came out to see the ruins on Sunday and the stories they told reiterated how much the club meant to its community. He’s seen two grown men break into tears while telling stories about the old place.
Said Ilse, “I knew people had memories about the place but I don’t guess I understood that it really meant something to people, meant something deep down.”