by VERONICA GORDON
William Ilse’s mother taught him to dance on the wooden floors of Club 21 in Uhland when he was just 15 years old. It’s one of the best memories he has of the former club. Last week, he began turning those memories back into reality.
Two years ago, Ilse received a call in the middle of the night from Hays County Sheriff’s deputies that his long-time family business was up in flames.
The club was fully engulfed by the time fire crews arrived, and the 117-year-old structure went up like a bale of straw.
“I got the call about 2:30 (a.m.) that the place was on fire,” Ilse said. “It just went up like crazy.”
Ilse said two vehicles were chasing each other and one drove through the building. He said the car hit an electrical panel and a propane tank.
“They came across Highway 21 and they never stopped,” he said. “The car was still in the building.”
“If there had been a truck or something coming down 21, they would still be picking pieces up. It was just crazy,” he said. “The Suburban went through a chain-link fence of my mother’s house and through another fence, jumped an underground cellar and wound up in the back, behind her house. It was a bad situation.”
The next day, friends and customers gathered at the site to get a glimpse of the destruction and pay their respects. The impact of losing Club 21, which was built in 1893, was greater than Ilse could have imagined.
“Grown men were crying,” Ilse said of those who were telling stories about their experiences at the club. “Some couples met there and are still married. Some have gotten married and divorced. That’s how that goes – you win some, you lose some. But people were coming down and crying. There are a lot of fond memories down there for a lot of people.”
Sadly, the mementos Ilse held dear can’t be replaced, including signed pictures of Willie Nelson, Ray Stevens, Kevin Fowler and Donna Douglas to name a few.
“There were a lot of pictures in there. I lost everything, everything,” he said.
But Ilse isn’t thinking about that these days. He’s moving forward, despite saying he would never open the club again.
“It is what it is, and I’ve just let it go,” he said. “There’s nothing that can be done about it. It was an accident.”
Club 21 is being rebuilt bigger and better than ever. Ilse and company started pouring concrete last week.
“I was forced into it by gun point,” Ilse said this week, using a figure of speech. “I had a friend of mine and his dad talk to me for months about wanting to rebuild, and I said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s done. I was in there for years and years.’”
“They finally talked me into it, so it looks like we’re partners,” Ilse said. Those partners are Tommy O’dell and Claude “Cowboy” O’dell.
Ilse said his uncle and mother bought the club in 1967.
“I took it over in 1989 when the job situation went to pot and was in there until 2000-something or other, I don’t know, I’ve slept since then,” Ilse said.
Ilse said the dancehall is going to be bigger and will be “guarded by Navy Seals,” he joked. The building will have sprinklers added and will comply with city fire codes.
“It’s going to be a fairly large place, so it’s going to take us some time to do it,” Ilse added. “We’re going to build a bar first with a kitchen, then going to go start on the dance hall. There’s going to be food and beer, just like it was before. Not anything big – hamburgers, maybe a steak night; they’re talking about it.”
Until then, the work continues on the reconstruction, he said.