The unbroken Spoke

Famed Texas dance hall won't bend to urban development

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The unbroken Spoke

Guadalupe Galvan

Guadalupe Galvan

Guadalupe Galvan

James White built the Broken Spoke, known as "the last of the true Texas dance halls," 50 years ago.

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The year was 1964. Gas cost 30 cents per gallon. The Beatles were embarking on their first world tour. Americans were fighting the war in Vietnam. Neil Armstrong had not yet walked on the moon (and wouldn’t for another five years).

Where the Ann Richards School is today stood a race track. Red Lobster was a cedar yard. Less than a mile down the road stood some flat land with a nice big oak tree, where a man– fresh out of the military after being stationed in Japan– decided to build a dance hall.

That man is James White and that dance hall is the Broken Spoke, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary this past fall.

The Broken Spoke is considered to be “a gem” in the heart of Texas, however, it would never have been possible without someone like James White behind it. White and his wife, Annetta, are the kind of people who could talk about anything and people would listen. Together, they carry stories of times and places that others can only imagine.

We had to hand dig the septic tank…and then some guy sunk his beer truck into it.”

— James White

While White leans back in his cheddar-colored suit with matching boots, he tells stories of starting “the Spoke.” He’s quick to dispel any notions that he bought the Broken Spoke building, and instead shares stories of building the Broken Spoke himself, and the trials and tribulations he’s faced over the years.

“We knew a guy who ran a gas company, and so we asked one of these guys we knew and he said sure I’ll get you gas, so he just pumped it across the street,” says White.

“When I got water, it just ran from the city limits across the road. Then it froze in the winter and some guy was riding his horse and it stepped on a pipe— water went everywhere. That’s when we decided to get it legal and everything,” White adds. “And we had to hand dig the septic tank…and then some guy sunk his beer truck into it.”

White and Annetta poured their souls into the Spoke– both because they loved it and because they had to. “You invest everything you got into it, because you know you got to make it, even if you’re working 20 hours straight,” he says.

“And I had to learn how to cook,” Annetta adds. “Customers helped– they would say here’s how you peel potatoes, and so on.”

White and Annetta add to each other’s stories, sometimes talking over each other, and their voices evoke the same old-timey feel of the Broken Spoke. They toss around names like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Queen Elizabeth, Lloyd Doggett, Robert Duval, George W. Bush, and Ann Richards. They speak fondly of “the old days.”

“There was a lot less traffic, lot less taxes, lot easier to get around. Austin’s so high tech now, and that’s why people like the Broken Spoke, ‘cause we haven’t changed it. They like to see the hats and the boots. We’re kinda like the Alamo,” White says.

I wanted something real Texan for the name. I was thinking about some Jimmy Stewart movie from the ’50s called Broken Arrow, and I thought, wagon, boot, spoke, and I got ‘Broken Spoke.’”

— James White

Although he and Annetta weren’t yet married when the Spoke opened, they had their wedding reception there, as did their two daughters.

“We met early in 1961. I went overseas for 18 months, then I came back and we started dating,” James says. “When I was at the army, I was thinking ‘bout what I wanted to do when I got out, so I thought about a lot while I was there. I decided on a dance hall because I loved going to them growing up and had nice memories from ‘em. And I was thinkin’ I wanted something real Texan for the name. I was thinking about some Jimmy Stewart movie from the 50s called Broken Arrow, and I thought, wagon, boot, spoke, and I got Broken Spoke,” White says.

Annetta says the Spoke has attracted its share of colorful characters over the years: “They’re some regulars whose elevators don’t go all the way up.”

Despite their ripening ages, White and Annetta are no less involved with the Broken Spoke now than they were when it started fifty years ago. “We still make gravy twice a day– 3 or 4 gallons,” Annetta says. “And I still train all the cooks.”

“People retire after working for thirty years; we’ve had fifty, but we’re not out on the rocker,” James says before turning to Annetta. “She wouldn’t like rockin’ on the porch– she’d get bored. So we ain’t stopping any time soon.”