Cover Story

A Sense of Place

by R. Reese Fuller

Hamilton's Place is closed, but it's neither gone, nor forgotten.

As the sun descends on the evening of Sunday, June 19, traffic on Verot School Road is at a standstill as cars wait in line to park at Hamilton's Place.

Outside the white wooden building, some people mill about on the front porch, some dance in the gravel driveway, while others drink cans of beer and bottles of water. Some are even having their pictures taken in front of the white metal sign that announces the evening's double bill of Geno Delafose and Keith Frank. But there's no mention on the sign that after half a century, tonight is the last dance at Hamilton's Place.

You can feel the heat from the room even before you walk inside. Under the low ceilings, the dance floor is crowded with young and old, black and white, sweating and two-stepping to Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie. The hardwood floors vibrate to the dancers' shuffling feet. Some look like hard-working farmers, while others look like hard-dancing festival-goers.

William Hamilton hangs around outside the club talking to patrons. He's a diminutive man dressed in a red golf shirt and a white Panama hat. At 76 years old, and after 40 years of running the club his father built, this is his last dance.

After recently having open heart surgery, his doctor told him to get out of the business. "He said, 'Hamilton, it's time for you to get out of there because of the smoke in your club,'" he says. "I quit drinking. I never was a hard drinker ' a beer or two, a drink of whiskey or two ' but I could manage myself. When I said I would quit, I quit. But it looks like to me that I got some more blockage coming up, and I said, 'Well, it's time to give the club up.'"

William Hamilton can't remember the exact year his father, Adam Hamilton, opened up the dance hall. He does know it was just a few years after he was married in 1951. Back then, the city of Lafayette hadn't spilled out onto Verot School Road, and there were few entertainment options in the country. "We're in the city now," Hamilton says. "The city got us about 12 years ago. But a lot of people then didn't have no way to go to town, and they had no place to go to have fun, to drink a beer, or two. So Daddy said, 'Let me open a little place for age-able people to drink beer and for the teenagers.'"

Originally, the club was divided in half with two separate entrances. The adults could socialize and drink on one side, and the teenagers could dance to a jukebox on the other side. "That's why they got two doors to the front," Hamilton says. Throughout the years, the walls of Hamilton's Place have absorbed the accordion licks of the heaviest hitters in zydeco ' Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, Rockin' Dopsie, John Delafose, Rockin' Sidney, Sampy and the Bad Habits, Beau Jocque, Geno Delafose and Keith Frank.

When Hamilton was selling beer for 20 cents, Rockin' Dopsie talked him into raising the price to a quarter to pay for his performance. "When he made 30 dollars or 20 dollars, boy, he was happy," Hamilton says. "Dopsie was good, yeah, but he couldn't replace Cliff [Chenier]. There's nobody who can replace Cliff for zydeco. Now Boozoo was good. He played over here. He was good, but not like Cliff."

John Broussard grew up on the other of side of the Hamilton family's 167 acres and remembers hearing the music from the club. "There were no cars, no distractions, no other sounds that would cause you to not hear it," he says. "It was the country."

Broussard co-hosts, along with Melvin Caesar, the weekly radio program Zydeco Est Pas Salé on KRVS 88.7 FM, every Saturday morning from 7 a.m. until noon. The show is a mix of past and present zydeco, mixed with community announcements on dances, trail rides, birthdays, anniversaries and benefits, along with conversations with whoever drops by the station. Not a week goes by that Hamilton's Place isn't mentioned during the show.

The club was more than just a bar for the Creole community. "People used to sit outside of it around a tree," says Broussard, "and listen to music and cook in a black pot, maybe make a cowboy stew. It was a time when people could gather and find enjoyment in that gathering. We're going to lose that. We're going to miss that place. I don't think you can ever replace it."

In the era of segregation, Hamilton's offered local Creoles a respite from the everyday hardships of the Jim Crow South, and it remained an anchor for the community long after Civil Rights legislation was enacted. In 1982, Hamilton reached out to the white community and integrated his own club when he started hosting what became known as White Night, featuring weekly Wednesday night performances by the Red Beans and Rice Revue. "That White Night started the white folks coming," Hamilton says. "After that, it was white and black until now."

"It became a very relaxed atmosphere," says Broussard. "It's a place that people would come to from all over the world to enjoy the culture and the music. You can come and not be fearful of someone harming you because of the color of your skin." Sometimes referred to as the Hamilton Club, the dance hall was renowned for cultivating homegrown zydeco, along with Slim's Y-Ki-Ki in Opelousas, Richard's Club in Lawtell and El Sid O's in Lafayette.

But despite the club's goodwill and reputation, it's been hard the last few years for Hamilton to keep the lights on. Only two local acts manage to draw the crowds that pay the bills ' Geno Delafose and Keith Frank. Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble were starting to draw a crowd, but even with three solid bands, Hamilton says it's not enough to keep a club running. "The bands charge so high, you don't know if you're going to make it or not," Hamilton says. "So I said, 'Look, it don't pay y'all, and it don't pay me.' I'll just as well close it."

On the other side of Lafayette, on the corner of N. St. Antoine Street and Martin Luther King Drive, Sid Williams is looking to shut down El Sid O's Zydeco and Blues Club. "I ain't going to be too long myself," he says. "They don't support us no more in zydeco. We used to get a little business, but I got some dude looking at buying it now. I've about had it." Williams opened up his club 20 years ago on Mother's Day, with a headline appearance from his longtime friend Buckwheat Zydeco.

But like Hamilton, Williams says that rising costs and dwindling crowds have made it rough for the past four years. And Williams isn't even running the club full-time; he only opens on Friday and Saturday nights. "If I give a band $1,500," he says, "and we ain't got but $900 worth of people, then I got to turn around and pay my employees and the advertisements and my breakdown and my cleanup, well, then I got nothing. What the bands don't understand is that once all the clubs shut down, they won't have no place to play."

Fortunately for Williams, his club isn't his bread and butter. He also owns and manages the convenience store Sid's One Stop and manages his brother's band ' Nathan & The Zydeco Cha-Chas. "I'm trying to fight this," William says, "and I'm just getting enough of this, man. I work all day at the store. I take my little money from the store to pay the bands after I work hard over here. I could go to my house and get my rest."

Williams recounts a recent evening that's a familiar occurrence. "I had to take $300 from what I made from working all day long to pay the band," he says. "I could have stayed at my house, and I could have saved $300. I've been fighting this long enough, man. God and zydeco have done a lot for me, and I've done a lot back for the culture. But you just get tired of giving and giving, and nothing's coming in."

Williams is negotiating with an individual who plans to convert El Sid O's into a country and western bar. "That's on them," he says. "As long as they buy it from me or give me my five-year lease, that's them. I just want out of there, man. I don't want to be bothered with that at all no more. You go to the bank, and you keep taking out money. One day you're going to wind up with nothing.

"But you never know," he adds. "I might hit a Powerball and keep it open as a tourist attraction. You never know what God's going to send you."

Hamilton doesn't care if his club is turned into a tourist attraction ' just as long as it's not on his property. "We're not selling the land, just the building," he says. "A lot of people want to run it where it's at, but we said, 'No, it's too close. It would give us the same trouble that we got now.'"

The crowds at Hamilton's Place have changed over the years. With stricter drunk driving laws, Hamilton says his patrons stopped drinking alcohol and started drinking water. In January, the club quit selling alcohol. "I sell just soda water, ice, water and a little juice," he says. "They ain't got any more money in the club business because you can't drive and drink no more."

Other entertainment options are also siphoning off patrons. "Since they opened the casinos," Hamilton says, "the age-able people now go to casinos, and they go to bingo. Those dances are kind of fast now. A long time ago, they would have two steps. Now they got to raise that foot so high and fast, you get tired dancing, and the age-able can't do that no more. Me, I'm 76, and I can do it still a little bit because I keep going all the time. I always have had two or three jobs, and I keep myself in shape."

Broussard doesn't begrudge Hamilton's decision. "William Hamilton has donated a lot of his time into the club," he says, "and there comes a time when he wants to step aside to enjoy his life and move on. People have to move on, and things do change. You hate to see that, but that's the way life is."

While others mourn the loss of Hamilton's Place, Hamilton doesn't regret his decision. "Oh, I got enough," he says. "I'd like to travel." In the meantime, Hamilton still runs the family farm. There are cows, chickens, hogs and ducks to tend to, sugar cane and sweet potatoes to harvest and hay to bale. And there's a dance hall that he needs to sell. "I haven't put a price, but there's two or three that want it bad," he says.

Hamilton hasn't had his 4,000-square-foot building appraised yet, but the Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor's Office places the value of the building at $34,667. Two big questions remain: Who will buy the building, and where will they move it?

Broussard would love to take the club off Hamilton's hands. "It's a Creole landmark, and it's a landmark for zydeco," he says. "It's something that I would hate to lose. The floors are wooden, and it rocks when you're dancing and the whole crowd is there. It's something you can't re-create. When you look at the building on the outside, you see a dance hall, a club. You don't see any great fanfare ' no blinking lights or all that kind of stuff. It's just a dance hall in the country."

As a founder and member of CREOLE Inc., a local organization that promotes and preserves local Creole culture, Broussard would love to save the building and put it on display. "We were looking at Vermilionville, the historical Creole and Cajun area," he says. "So many great musicians have come through these doors and played; of course, it would be ideal for a museum."

Spokesmen for both Vermilionville and Acadian Village, where old Cajun and Creole buildings have found new homes, were unaware of plans to move Hamilton's to their respective locations and seemed reticent to even consider the possibility.

Folklorist Barry Ancelet doesn't like either option. "Bad idea," he says. "Maybe in a way it would be better than seeing it torn down, but if they move it to Vermilionville, all they're going to be doing is moving the building. They're not going to be moving what happened there.

"There was much more than cultural stuff that happened there," he continues. "You met people. You reinforced community ties. You exchanged news. You kept up with who's who and who's where. That's what's lost, too. We live increasingly in this thing that we call cyberspace. We stay in touch on the telephone, e-mails, instant messaging and all that stuff. Our social interaction just doesn't happen the same way anymore, and no amount of wishing it did would make it come back."

Ancelet likens the passing of Hamilton's to other beloved and now defunct dance halls ' the OST in Duson, the Triangle Club in Scott, and Jay's Cockpit and Lounge in Cankton.

"It's part of a natural evolution," he continues. "People live in different ways now. So the places they needed to do what they used to do fall out of need. We don't do community boucheries anymore because we all have refrigerators, and you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who would say it was better the old way. Because of the disappearance of community boucheries, we lost a significant socializing factor. Those were ways that neighborhoods stayed connected, and friends reinforced ties. You either find other ways or new ways to do that, or it stops being done. Nobody wants to live in the 19th century. The real trick is: Can you find a way to live in the 21st century in a way that preserves at least what was important, not every aspect of it, but what was important?

"Don't get me wrong," Ancelet adds, "we all lament the passing of what we feel like was an important tradition. But we have to be careful not to confuse a romantic desire to preserve what we had in the past."

Things will never be the same at 1808 Verot School Road. Cars won't line up to park outside the club on Saturday nights. The gravel parking lot won't be filled with friends shaking hands and catching up on old times. There won't be any more cold beers for a quarter to pay Rockin' Dopsie. Beau Jocque won't make the crowd dance so hard that the speakers sway. The end of Sunday night, June 19, might have been the last waltz at Hamilton's Place.

"Let me put it this way," says Ancelet. "A lot of people who are most disturbed about losing this were the ones who maybe used to go, and don't go anymore because their lives changed."