South Natick: People Came To Dance!
A big thing about 100 years ago was dancing in the twilight along the Charles River in South Natick.
Young swains and their ladies gathered three nights a week at the Riverside Ballroom, and danced for hours to the music of two orchestras. Sometimes there were prizes, such as a diamond ring, or (get ready for it) “a free pig.” What guy or girl could resist?
Young people from surrounding towns traveled to South Natick to have their fun in the dance hall, and scandalized their parents by sitting together on a bench under the covered porch that faced the river. The Riverside was built to be a destination: for ballroom patrons, it was only a short walk to the bridge (no longer there) that carried a trolley line across the river, connecting Natick and Dover with other communities.
Charles Heinlein constructed the Riverside Ballroom on the west bank of the Charles River in 1896, next to his mother’s house at the end of Water Street, several blocks away from Eliot Street (Route 16). A short time later he built the popular “Nixie Heinlein’s Canoe Livery” at the water line on the other side of Water Street, offering canoes for rental by energetic folks who wanted an exciting outing on the river (see a 1911 advertisement below). Charles, one of nine children, had the entrepreneurial spirit of his father, who had emigrated from Germany to South Natick in the 1860s to work as a shoemaker (the shoe industry was booming in Natick at that time). Charles could see that the trolley service carried many people through the village of South Natick, and he determined to offer them some high-class entertainment.
Heinlein erected a single large hall with a gabled roof, exposed ceiling rafters, and a roomy stage at one end of the room. Two orchestras took turns providing several hours of live music on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Old ballroom posters in the Natick History Museum confirm that the Sullivan Brothers Orchestra of Milford and Brockton’s Fogg Orchestra were familiar to ballroom regulars. Through the years the orchestras played all the popular music that swept the country: there was music for the foxtrot, a highlight of the 1914 season, and the “Charleston,” introduced in 1923, and songs like “The Black Bottom” and “Ain’t She Sweet?” and “The Varsity Drag.” In the Flapper era, these were finger-snapping new releases.
The national “Dance Hall Phenomena” were criticized at a 1924 convention in Boston, by speakers who didn’t like the carefree behavior of dance hall patrons and jabbed at parents who were “sitting upon the shelf' and letting youth go without moral guidance.” Apparently there were different points of view about venues like the Riverside Ballroom, and the propriety of offering a refuge from the dance floor, in a quiet spot with benches along the river. The social scene was affected by other turmoil. Prohibition had been enacted four years earlier, but it was easy to avoid the restrictions on alcohol sales. Folks in the know could readily find speakeasies on River Street in South Natick. The bands played on in the Riverside Ballroom.
In some years the river changed from friend to foe. In 1917 floods demolished the canoe livery and seriously damaged the ballroom. Both were rebuilt in 1918 to be twice their original size, with modern conveniences like telephones. The trolley service was discontinued in 1918, reducing patronage of the ballroom and canoe rental. In subsequent years repeated flooding battered the buildings, and required repeated repairs. Heinlein agreed to take on Charles Batchelder, a Boston car dealer, as an investor and senior partner.
On the day after Christmas 1924, the ballroom disappeared in a raging fire. It wasn’t rebuilt. One lifelong South Natick resident recalled that “my greatest regret” of her youth was the destruction of the Riverside before she was old enough to go there for her first turn on the dance floor. "My parents had promised me that I could attend the dances once I was of age, but it closed."
Charles Heinlein died in 1930 and his nephew, Frank, took over management of the canoe livery business. It was nearly destroyed in the Hurricane of 1938, and the part of the structure that remained was flattened in a 1945 snowstorm.
Many folks in Natick and surrounding communities, who had spent pleasant and sociable hours on the dance floor and on the river, cherished their lively memories for many years.
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In 1911 Charles Heinlein enthusiastically promoted his canoe rental business, promising “a delightful paddle” on the “lower Charles River, known for its Magnificent Scenery with its many Shaddy Nooks and its clear Sparkling Waters…” As an aside, he mentioned that the river was “noted for its Fishing, Bathing and its many other sports” without getting into details about the other sports.
Spending $2 for an all-day canoe rental probably didn’t deter the healthy and adventurous folks who looked forward to several hours with a paddle in their hands, but frugal patrons may have decided to splash around for only an hour or two before returning to the boat dock. The all-day rental cost the equivalent of about $55 in current dollars.
Heinlein made sure to mention the trolley service which crossed the river nearby, with “electric cars” making a run every half hour from Lincoln Square at Marion and E. Central streets near the center of town.
Selected sources and additional reading:
Natick Historical Society collections.
Archive.org. “Resident and Business Directory of Natick Massachusetts 1911.” Accessed August 1, 2019. https://archive.org/details/natickmassachuse00lake/page/246