In days of yore, tipsy Mainers would crowd into dim, smoke-filled rooms under colored party lights, their sweaty bodies swaying together on sanded dance floors. On stage, guitar slingers twanged away while sweet singers crooned about their cheating hearts. Holding each other close, hands slipping down into opposite back pockets, the dancers’ faces met, inches apart.

Locking eyes, they sometimes kissed.

Dancers take to the floor as Mike Preston (center) and his band play at the Nicholodeon bottle club in Mechanic Falls sometime around 1995. The club, now known as The Silver Spur, was still operating before the pandemic closed its doors a year ago. Credit: Courtesy of Mike Rodrigue

In these pandemic days of isolation and life-saving personal space, it sounds like a fairy tale — or a nightmare. Either way, it’s true.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, Maine had a thriving bottle club scene. Back then, dozens of dance halls like The Red Barn, The Wagon Wheel and Country Crossroads dotted the state — and they were all full, every weekend. There were plenty of gigs to go around for country groups like The Silver Dollar Band, Streamliner and Hurricane Mountain.

It was strictly BYOB, hence the bottle club moniker. Patrons hauled in their own booze by the case and cooler full.

Those glory days of dancing and drinking are long gone. Nearly all the old dance halls have closed. When the pandemic hit, only two were still operating in the state. Both have now been shuttered for over a year.

Clockwise, from left: Bucky Mitchell sits at the drums for a publicity photo with the Stan Jr. Show circa 1975; Mitchell plays with Rick Wells’ Wagon Wheel bottle club house band around 1972; Mitchell, photographed in April 2021, played with some of the state’s most popular bands and later toured North America. Credit: Courtesy of Bucky Mitchell; Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The 1970s

Drummer Bucky Mitchell, 69, of Windham was there when the bottle club craze started and ended up playing at most of them in the early ’70s.

“All the clubs were packed to the hilt, every Saturday night — every one of them,” he said.

Before state law allowed patrons to bring their own liquor into dance halls, folks still found ways to enjoy a nip on their nights out. Mitchell remembers the scene when he was starting to sit in with local bands, as a teenager, in the 1960s.

“What people did was, they danced inside and enjoyed the show but when the band took a break, they’d go out to their cars to drink,” Mitchell said. “All the fights were out in the parking lot. Then, when the music started, they’d get back up, dust themselves off and go back inside to dance.”

But by 1970, dancers were allowed to bring their drinks inside and the bottle club boom was under way. After getting out of radio broadcast school in Boston, Mitchell came home to Maine and got a steady gig with Rick Wells’ house band at The Wagon Wheel, just a few lots down from his parents’ house in Steep Falls.

“That place was going like gangbusters,” he said.

It was so popular that Portland country music radio station WPOR would broadcast live from there every Saturday night, from midnight until 1 a.m.

With The Wagon Wheel packed to capacity every weekend, other clubs started popping up in the area. The Lakeview Club opened above a bowling alley in Sebago Lake Village, then morphed into the 400-person capacity Country Crossroads in the same town, near Standish Corner. Then, the Pinkham family, who owned a sawmill, opened The Roost just a few miles away in Buxton. It sported a luxurious, knotty pine interior with exposed, rough-sawn beams and a balcony.

“Then Harmony Hall out in Yarmouth came into the picture,” Mitchell said. “They built one that could hold 650 people. They were packing that one, too.”

Mitchell remembers playing the 10-4 club in Liberty one night with Maine country music giant Dick Curless.

“Halfway through the night, and in comes the fire inspector,” he said.

The inspector told the owner he was going to have to shut down immediately because there was only one door. With the size of the crowd, it was a fire hazard.

But the owner was having none of it.

“He got his chainsaw, went right to the middle of the building and voop-voop, cut a door into the wall, flopped it out into the parking lot and said, ‘There’s your second door.'”

Curless, Mitchell and the rest of the band kept on playing through the whole incident.

At the end of an average bottle club night, the lights would come up and Mitchell would get a look at the carnage in the room.

“There’d be bottles and cans all over the tables, water and liquid all over the floor,” he said, “and maybe a pile or two of throw-up. Everyone smoked cigarettes back then. You could cut the smoke in the air with a knife.”

Mitchell credits bottle clubs’ long-running popularity to local media, economics and a lack of anything else to do in rural Maine on a Saturday night.

At around $5 per couple, it was inexpensive. Most radio stations were also still locally owned back then and willing to spin regional musicians’ records and plug their gigs.

“And, there weren’t 200 channels of TV to watch,” Mitchell said. “Every Saturday night, people went out — because that’s what you did. You and the wife got a babysitter and you went dancing. That’s what everybody did.”

From left: A teenage Mike Preston (right) is all smiles while onstage with his idol, Maine country music legend Dick Curless, at The Roost bottle club in Buxton sometime in the early 1990s; Preston poses for a photo with two fans around 1991 when he was just a teenager; Preston, now in his 40s, has been playing and singing country music all over New England since he was a child. Credit: Courtesy of Mike Preston; Courtesy of Angela Jean McGraw; Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The 1980s

Tim Emery was a twentysomething, hotshot rock and roll guitarist when he was recruited by one of southern Maine’s most popular bottle club bands, Streamliner, in the mid-1980s. Emery especially remembers the lively Friday nights — which were singles-only — at Country Crossroads.

“It was packed. It was crazy. It was call-of-the-wild mating season,” he said.

On those singles’ nights the band would be expected to play a “circle dance,” he remembers. Women would dance in a rotating circle, with men dancing in a larger circle, rotating in the opposite direction, around them.

Lionel (left) and Raymond Rodrigue stand in the foyer of Crystal Falls dance hall in Chelsea, beneath some of Raymond’s hunting trophies. One of two remaining bottle clubs in the state, it has been closed, due to the pandemic, for over a year. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“We’d play a fast song and then stop. Then we’d play a slow song and they’d have to dance with whoever they were facing,” Emery said. “That was always interesting.”

It was a vivid scene on stage, too.

“There were nights when articles of clothing got thrown on the stage,” Emery said. “I don’t know if there were ever any undies but I definitely saw a bra come up once. It was a good time to be a young, single guy in a band.”

At some clubs, he remembers, musicians would be expected to play “God Bless America” at the end of the night, as a kind of cool down.

“One club would make everyone stand in a circle, hold hands and sing along,” he said. “Each place had their own rituals, things you had to do.”

A vintage sign reminds patrons of the rules at Crystal Falls dance hall in Chelsea. Crystal Falls dance hall and has been closed since the pandemic hit in 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The 1990s

Around 1991, just as the scene began to wane, Maine country singer Mike Preston played his first paying gig at Tuxedo Junction, a bottle club in Wiscasset. He was 13.

“Bottle clubs had everything a teenage boy was looking for,” he said. “It was my first introduction to drinking, smoking cigarettes and women. I didn’t need rock and roll.”

Preston was a child prodigy. Chauffeured by his mother, he’d sit in with artists like Curless and Yodeling Slim Clark. Preston would arrive at clubs in full, fringed, singing cowboy regalia — including a colorful bandana tied tight around his Adam’s apple.

“I remember the smell. It smelled like cheap perfume, cigarette smoke and stale booze,” Preston said, savoring the memory. “There was sawdust on the floor, heat from the amplifiers, the sound of shuffling feet. It was exciting, fun. I loved it.”

Back then, he said, going out was still a big deal.

“The ladies, they fixed their hair, wore nice clothes,” Preston said. “The men combed their hair, tucked in their shirts. They wore their best, western clothes. They had specific, going-out-on-a-Saturday-night jeans.”

From left: A mirror ball and colored lights hang from the ceiling at The Silver Spur in Mechanic Falls; a light is reflected in a mirror shaped like a pair of dancers; a sign states the obvious at The Silver Spur. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The future

When the pandemic hit a year ago, only two of Maine’s country music bottle clubs were still operating: Crystal Falls in Chelsea and The Silver Spur in Mechanic Falls.

Brothers Lionel and Raymond Rodrigue opened Crystal Falls dance hall in March 1989, making it the youngest bottle club in the state.

The Rodrigues built the huge building themselves on busy Route 17. Taxidermied trophies from Raymond Rodrigue’s hunting trips hang in the foyer. Hand-lettered signs advise dancers of the strict dress code. No T-shirts, work boots, bare feet or tank tops allowed. Dirty dancing is also not tolerated.

DeeDee Allen runs The Silver Spur with her husband, Peter.

The Spur’s unassuming wooden building off Route 121 houses a large, 60-foot wide wooden dance floor and huge stage. Colored lights and a disco ball dangle from the ceiling. One wall is covered with portraits of Maine country music stars. A full length mirror hangs on the wall in the foyer, so dancers can check their look before making an entrance.

Both venues have been closed since the pandemic arrived in Maine in March 2020.

Owner DeeDee Allen stands at the edge of the wooden dance floor at The Silver Spur bottle club in Mechanic Falls. Allen said she’s sure the dancers will return when the hall reopens, at some point, after the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Until they open the doors to dancers again, the brothers said they’ll live off their savings, social security and a few investments. But even before the pandemic, business wasn’t what it used to be. If 100 sets of shoes scuffed across the Rodrigues’ dance floor, it was a good night.

“The cell phones have ruined everything,” Lionel Rodrigue said. “People just want to sit home and play games. Sometimes I look out there and see people messaging each other right there on the dance floor.”

The Allens, however, are hopeful about the future.

“We had our first sellout crowd in February last year,” Allen said. “Two weeks later we were shut down.”

The Allens have stayed afloat for the past year renting out an upstairs apartment as well as an adjacent building. Peter also works a day job at Hancock Lumber, operating a boom truck. They let a small space in the hall’s basement to the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame, too.

Allen said a loan from the Small Business Administration has helped.

“Or we wouldn’t have made it,” she said. “This business revolves solely around what we can’t do: Live music and dancing. People aren’t going to come sit for shows. They want to dance.”

Last fall, Allen put up a stage outside and had a band play. Patrons came and danced in the dusty grass. Some brought sheets of plywood to shuffle and scoot across.

The Rodrigue brothers say they’d like to reopen but only when all pandemic restrictions are lifted. It’s the only way it would make sense to them.

“Not if I have to babysit people,” Raymond Rodrigue, 75, said. “I’m not going to be here telling people to wear masks and dance 6 feet apart.”

But what the dancefloor will look like when they reopen remains a mystery.

“Sometimes, you work all week for nothing,” Lionel Rodrigue said. “But at my age, this is all I know how to do. Dancing has been my life. It’s not like it used to be. I think the dance halls are a thing that’s passing.”

Allen sees it differently. She said she gets multiple messages a day from people asking when she’ll reopen. They see bars and restaurants operating and want to come back.

“People think we’re just going to be able to start dancing tonight — and I want to,” Allen said. “I think we’ll be OK if we can just get back open.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.