Ontario rediscovers hidden treasure
What makes objects valuable? Primarily rarity and the passage of time. That pottery jug your great-grandmother bought for a pittance decades ago might now be your key to a comfortable retirement, so maybe you should stop throwing your loose change in it.
And so it is with the Ontario Community Hall, a building as familiar to local residents as the sky or the Kickapoo River, which runs through the village.
Like wallpaper, it’s been there for 80 years, and most people look past it, except perhaps taking note of the ceiling, which invariably draws the attention of first-time visitors to the building.
In fact, the story of the Ontario Community Hall, is as intriguing as its roof. That roof elevates what might be a mundane 1930s wooden structure to a position as the only lamella-roofed dance hall in Wisconsin under public ownership.
Originating in Germany, it is a vaulted roof consisting of a crisscrossing pattern of parallel arches skewed with respect to the sides of the covered space, composed of relatively short members (lamellae) hinged together to form an interlocking network in a diamond pattern. Very popular during the 1920s and 1930s, its open-span concept offered a solution to avoiding supporting posts for dance halls, gymnasiums, auto dealerships and many other uses. Ultimately the style morphed into what we know as the Astrodome and the Superdome. But over the years, many have burned or been razed, leaving only a few behind with this unique feature.
The Ontario Community Hall began life as the Silver Palace Dance Pavilion on Goose Island. Built in about 1934 by G. Heileman brewmaster Otto Mueller, it was located seven miles south of La Crosse, where popular bands of the day performed. It also did a brisk business in wedding dances and other family events.
But when the Army Corps of Engineers pushed ahead with a plan to widen the channel, Mueller was forced to sell out, reportedly at a substantial loss.
In 1937, the village purchased the building at auction from the Army Corps for $500.
Undaunted by the 4,000-square-foot building and its complex roof, Ontario men disassembled the structure, numbered the pieces, and then trucked them back to Ontario. mostly with their personal trucks.
Like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle, they reassembled the building through the winter months, holding a dedication ceremony Feb. 22, 1938.
On Saturday, April 28, the village will celebrate the 80th year of the hall. During that time, it has been the center of community life, hosting roller skating, wedding dances, funerals and everything in between. For almost four decades, it served as the school gymnasium.
The April 28 event includes a pork dinner and will take attendees back to 1938 including clothing and music of the era with a reprisal of the first dedication ceremony,
In the afternoon, rural Ontario country musician Tor Eness and friends will perform the musical hits of the year, followed by polka lessons and music by Brian and the Mississippi Valley Dutchmen.
The event will kick off a year-long campaign to honor the history of this unique building and the important role it has played in village life.
More information can be found at ontarioommunityhall.org.