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Fire destroys Caldwell County landmark

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By LPR Staff
Editor/POST-REGISTER

More than a century of memories went up in smoke in the early hours of Sunday morning when a fire destroyed Texas’ oldest continuously-operating dance hall.

According to Chisholm Trail Fire Rescue Captain Donovan Kokel, the first call for help rang out at 2:47 a.m. on Sunday, when dispatchers reported a structure fire at Club 21 in U

hland. Kokel said units from his department responded immediately, but found the 117-year-old building “fully involved,” meaning almost totally engulfed in flame, by the time fire trucks arrived.

“The Sheriff’s Office deputy was on scene before we arrived, and told us that the radiant heat from the blaze was so intense that he could feel it from the other side of Highway 21.

“It burned hot and fast, and it broke our hearts, but there was really nothing we could do,” Kokel said.

As if the shock of learning that the Caldwell County hallmark had caught fire wasn’t enough, Kokel said the second shock came as crews dug in to try to fight the blaze and protect the surrounding buildings.

“Once we got into it, we found the two cars,” he said.

Those two cars, a Mazda sedan and a GMC Suburban, had crashed into the property, evidently after traveling at a high rate of speed on County Road 129 (Cotton Gin Road) and missing the intersection at Highway 21.

“It’s speculation to say that the vehicles were racing,” said DPS Highway Patrol Sgt. Darrell Jirrall on Monday. “We don’t have a lot of information on what happened that night, because we haven’t been able to locate the drivers of the cars.”

What is known, Jirrall said, is that the Mazda crashed directly into the building, plowing through the kitchen and most likely starting the fire.

The Suburban missed the building and narrowly missed a propane tank before crashing into a tree. Both drivers, it seems, fled the scene before emergency workers arrived.

“We have no reason to think that the fire was started to cover the accident,” Jirrall said. “The information we got from the building owner is that the point where it looks like the car went into the building was near the gas line to the stove, and most likely, the impact broke the gas line and started the fire.”

Jirrall said the registered owner of the Mazda, identified as Antonio Reyes, of Kyle, has been cooperative in the investigation.

“It was his daughter’s car, and she was at a party that night,” he said. “We’ve spoken to her, and she said that she was at a party that night and loaned her car to a friend. We haven’t been able to locate that friend yet.”

It is equally unclear who was driving the Suburban, registered to James Sammons, of El Paso. Jirrall said there are “people in El Paso trying to make contact with him,” but as of Tuesday afternoon, they had been unable to locate him.

The owner of Club 21, William Ilse, who has run the establishment since taking it over from his mother in 1989, said on Sunday he did not have insurance on the building, and initially said he was not planning to rebuild.

However, by Wednesday morning, the Club’s website, www.club21dance-hall.com, had been updated to reflect that “there is talk of rebuilding the dance hall due to the outpouring of support from our Central Texas neighbors.”

A link on that site offers the opportunity for supporters to donate funds to the reconstruction.

Built in 1893, Club 21 was expanded in 1912 to include a bowling alley and basketball gym. The Ilse family purchased the Club in 1964, and it has been a weekend pinnacle of live music and “boot-scootin’” for generations of Central Texas families. The club has also been scouted as a location for such films as “Stop-Loss,” “Lone Star State of Mind” and Hope Floats. It was a regular stomping ground for such local favorites as Johnny Dee and the Rocket 88s, People’s Choice and Kevin Fowler.

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