The Wapsie Experience (6/8/17)

Ken Donnelly · Wednesday, June 7, 2017
Dear readers: please put on your best suit and tie or your favorite party dress as we journey on Part Two of the partial history of the West Liberty High School Prom.


I traveled back a century to a West Liberty Index story dated May 5, 1917. The word "prom" was not yet part of the high school vocabulary then, instead it was the annual "Junior-Senior Banquet."

The United States had just entered World War I a few days previous. This special event was held on a Saturday evening at the dining room of the Masonic building on North Calhoun street. The supper was described as "elegant" and was prepared by the entire female freshman class in Home Economics. Unfortunately the Index made no mention of the contents of the meal.

There was no special theme for the evening as would normally be true in the years that followed.

The Index reported on the enchanted evening: "A program which featured short talks by several of the students, as well as addresses by the Superintendent and the Principal." A vocal solo and a piano duet also added to the fun of the evening.

A meal prepared by 14 year old girls and a piano duet a special evening?

You decide.


Fast forward six years to 1923. The banquet that year was themed as a "French Garden" It was described in the following manner: "a striking scheme of black and white was carried out in the gym (we've moved to the school) a ceiling of interlaced streamers of this combination, while the electric bulbs suspended from this roof were enclosed in prettily decorated black and white shades. Scarlet poppies, here and there, made the scene seem even more striking."

The meal this year was prepared by the King's Daughters. There was a program of toasts, one for the Juniors, then the Seniors, followed by the faculty and a final one for the school board and the community. No mention of the beverage used for the toasts.

The crowd then adjourned to the school auditorium where there was a skit by three juniors and a concert by the "Baby Band"; musicians from the first and second grades of West Liberty Elementary. Then to the gym for dancing.


"Juniors-Seniors Enjoy Banquet". This time the ladies of the Presbyterian church prepared the meal. No theme for the evening was listed. There were the usual toasts and dancing to the music of Kenny's Kings.


This year's banquet was described as" a Japanese decorative scheme of unusual beauty.”

"Along the north and east walls were a number of panels, representing windows through which one saw typical Japanese scenery. Boxes of peach blossoms were arranged at each of these, and the same artificial flowers were suspended, in abundance from the ceiling."

The Presbyterians returned again to do their culinary thing. Twenty-four boys and girls of the 9th and 10th grades, in Japanese costumes and makeup, served the tables.

The usual toasts, dancing until 11:30 p.m. with the Riverside orchestra playing the tunes. At one point in the evening, the doors were opened and, "friends of the students were admitted to the gallery above gymnasium from where they watched the dancing." "No Dancing With The Stars' to watch at home on their television apparently.


The Index story headlined "Classes Join In Elaborate Dinner Dance."

The year's theme was an old English Garden. One unplanned episode that evening was described as follows: "just before dinner was served, when the flash by which a photograph was taken, ignited the hanging decorations from one of the lights. The man who was taking the photographs, jumped to a chair and tore away the burning crepe paper to prevent a more serious blaze. In doing so, however, he was thrown to the floor as the chair slipped, and his back was severely sprained. The damage to the decorations was soon remedied, and none lost his head during the excitement."

On to the 1930's and the decade of the Great Depression.


For the first time ever, I came across the use of the word "prom" in describing the evening.

The usual dancing, courtesy of Al Schmit and his orchestra from Iowa City. Then the grand march led by the Senior class president; remarks by both class presidents which was followed by "a Swedish feature dance given by two junior high girls; followed by a reading of "The Freckled Face Little Girl" given by Louise Schooley.

Then six toasts, first one by the Senior class president, Whitacre Kimball; followed by "The Root" Leota Hildebrand; "The Stem" by Harold Blum; "The Bud" by Lucille James (hopefully not a Saint Louis beer reference); "The Blossom" by Dorothy Wilson and finally "The Seed" by K.C. Smith.

It was a different time as one can't imagine a similar host of toasts at the 2017 Prom! Nine Junior girls sang a few numbers and Effie Mae Turner sang a solo.

The Blue and White reporters concluded their review of the evening as follows: "The soft colors of the girls dresses blended with the decorations, making a beautiful scene from the balcony."


The banquet is gone! Was this the result of our country's severe economic downturn? Were the Presbyterian women tired of cooking?

The theme was a barnyard, bales of hay and a lumber wagon were used to complete the scene. No mention of the elaborate decorations of previous years at all. Again, I think the Great Depression was rearing its ugly head.

Several feature dances were held, such as a barn dance, a balloon dance and a slipper dance. I guess the Limbo and the Macarena hadn't been invented yet! Near the close of the evening homemade ice cream and cake was served.

Pretty simple evening. I guess expensive meals at Iowa City restaurants and four hour post-Prom parties were still decades away.


Prom decorations are back! “Fish, green frogs and boats which were tied to the pier...created an atmosphere which made the juniors and seniors feel like mermaids and sea nymphs."

"Wild iris was placed on the floor around the sides of the gym. Under the balcony, tables and chairs for playing checkers were to be found." (I'm bored with my date already, so I think I'll go play checkers.?) "On the covered benches running the full length of the gym were flower boxes full of geraniums. Intermission entertainment was two tenor solos sung by Harry Lewis accompanied on the piano by Dorothy Flater.

Eighty-two years later we are still blessed with her presence in our community as Dorothy Flater Carey. By the way, her future husband, John Carey, was the president of the Junior class and chaired the evening.


"Atmosphere of Night Club At School Party." An added night club atmosphere was Annette Schafer, dressed as a cigarette girl. At the intermission of the dancing there was a tap dance routine by Dorothy Klinert; a acrobatic snake dance by Margaret Carey and a waltz exhibition by Gladys Walker and Donald Inghram.

The Blue and White reporter seemed to be a part-time fashion reporter when she described the young women attending as follows: "Agnes Agnew, wearing flowers at the throat, appeared in yellow jacketed taffeta; Regina Nortman wore a yellow striped organdy with flounced jacket and green sash. Pale pink taffeta was worn by Patricia Sneeringer, and aqua green pin dot in decollete by Grayce Morford.

Blue had its followers too, in Dorothy Smith, dressed in a plaid blue satin with pleated collar and white corsage and Dolores Schaapveld, who wore a blue and white pin stripes with large blue flowers at the shoulder and skirt. Buena Romig was wearing white organdy and Janet Hildebrand appeared in lavender silk with gathered bodice and flowered neckline."


The theme was "Circus Ground,” "On all sides were tents, animal wagons, illustrations of Sando, the world's strongest man, Two-Ton Tina, the world's fattest woman, Roscoe, the world's human skeleton, a snake charmer, and clowns."

Refreshments consisted of ice cream cones received at the ice  cream booth. A five piece orchestra furnished the music. Entertainment was Don Sickmon who presented a special tap number and a ballroom waltz with a stuffed figure as a partner.


Theme: "Snow White" One might question this as an example of a young unmarried girl who lived with seven old men! But I wasn't even born yet so don’t ask me.

The orchestra played in a hut made of evergreens and straw which represented the home of the dwarfs. Dusty Keaton's orchestra of Iowa City furnished the music.

During intermission a floor show was enjoyed; "Ming-Su" Suzanne Birkett gave an Oriental ballet dance; Dorothy Klinert did a tap dance on roller skates!

Incidentally the seven dwarfs were: John Reid, Ken Angerer, Dwight Carter, Jack Bragg, Jason Spohr, Louie Morford and Robert Preias.


The Seniors were honored in a Hawaiian atmosphere. When students entered the gym there was a beach, all the guests were given floral leis. The orchestra performed on a platform in the shape of ship, "the S.S.'40".

Refreshments were fruit cocktail and cookies. They certainly didn't break the budget on refreshments, did they?

"Dancing continued until the clock rolled around to twelve, reminding the dancers it was bed time." After Prom-party still decades away!


From the Blue and White: "Jungle Setting Prevails as Tribes Enjoy Annual Dance."  The Okapi Tribe (Seniors), the Somalis (past graduates), the Hottentot Tribe (Juniors), the Bushmen (the chaperones) and the Zombi Tribe (the Faculty) enjoyed the yearly tribal dance.

The tribal dance was held beside a waterfall which emptied into a pond. The brilliance of many stars shone through the ceiling of Spanish moss from which green snakes, brightly colored birds and monkeys emerged.

Cannibal stew (punch) was served from a huge caldron by gayly clad cannibals. Richard Hazlett, dressed as a cannibal king, was the master of ceremonies.

The big feature of the intermission occurred about a huge bonfire in the middle of the gymnasium where a group of boys dressed like cannibals, participated in a tribal dance. The cannibals were: Keith Christison, Don Jacobsen, Arlo Stahle, Forrest Hinkhouse, Edward Sloan, Jim Bailey, Richard Walters, and Richard Hazlett.

We've been to 13 different West Liberty high school proms; all of them happening before I was born and maybe you too. I just wanted to give you an idea what they were like in the "Good old days".

This was a time when junior-senior banquets were followed by dancing, and later known as proms. They were always held in our town, always with live orchestras and always with home-grown talent. Sometimes there were home-cooked meals, often not.

There were no limos, no male tuxedos, no expensive dinners in Muscatine or Iowa City, no four hour post-Prom parties and no disc jockeys. As I said in my first Prom column; I have been to 34 Proms; three of my own, nine as a chaperon in West Liberty and 21 in Chicago. I have enjoyed them all.

Next time, how about a history of name performers at the West Liberty Fair in the past 100 years. Stay tuned.
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