Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Settin’ the Woods on Fire: Hunter’s Lodge and the Lee Hwy Dance Halls

Back in the thirties, forgotten dance halls dotted Lee Highway, from Merrifield out to Centreville and beyond. Many of them exist only in legend now including Chimney Villa in Merrifield, Bull Run Dance Hall in Centreville, Happy Hour, Green Dolphin, and Pine Lawn at Fairfax Circle. Many of these dance halls were rough places that were centers of illegal drinking, fighting, and other disreputable activities. At Chimney Villa a patron stuck a pistol against the head of Fairfax County police officer and pulled the trigger, but luckily for the cop, the gun didn’t fire. During prohibition, dance hall parking lots were hotspots for buying illegal liquor to get revelers' blood warm before heading in to dance. All these activities caused the local elected officials much consternation and led to a crackdown on dance halls. Throughout the thirties, local governments passed onerous regulations on dance halls that effectively retarded the growth of live music venues in Northern Virginia in the coming decades. The center of live music in the DC area would begin a shift towards more favorable places like PG County and downtown DC and the few remaining live venues in NOVA would struggle along.

One dance hall that managed to survive this conservative crackdown was Hunter’s Lodge on Lee Highway at West Ox Rd. Hunter’s Lodge first appeared in late 1939 in the Fairfax Herald advertising “modern construction throughout”; square dances; and appearances by the Bull Run Ramblers and the Vienna Syncopators. In 1941 the Wash Post was touting its log construction and big fireplace with “Ernie Sparks’ up-and-coming band”. By 1943, it was so popular that the owners remodeled with an addition to the club. By the late forties, Hunter’s Lodge was a venue for pop and dance music such as Ernie Clay’s Orchestra sponsored by the Fairfax VFW.

In 1948, Hunter’s Lodge hosted the Arlington Optimists for a night of “horse racing.” The Optimists were having a benefit for their community work by watching films of horse racing and placing bets. Now what is gambling without something to wet the whistle? The Optimists broke out the liquor and beer while they watched the horse racing films. Naturally, the nothing-better-to-do Fairfax police arrived and raided the event. The owner of Hunter’s Lodge, CK Vance (of 506 N. Highland in Arlington), was arrested for serving liquor on the premises and serving beer after hours. The leaders of the Optimists were arrested for gambling. Ultimately, the ABC Board didn’t shut the dance hall down and it soldiered on. However, shortly after this incident, the ads began to say BYOL and BYOB, which means the club wasn’t allowed to serve, but could host alcohol. Only in Fairfax County would this happen.

By the late fifties, Hunter’s Lodge was still hosting big band music, but it may have been facing some financial hard times because the Fairfax zoning board shut down a daycare operating during the day in the club. By the time it was shut down, the daycare had operated for two months with 16 children. Not long after that, Hunter’s Lodge shifted to straight country music.

In 1960 many legendary country musicians played the Lodge including “Mister Country” Carl Smith with Sammy Pruitt (Hank Williams’ Guitarist), Jimmy Dickens, and Kitty Wells with Johnny & Jack and the Tennessee Mountain Boys. During this time, the ads touted the beauty and air-conditioning of the Lodge. In 1962 Ernest Tubbs played and saw Elmer Buddy Charleton playing and Elmer soon joined the Texas Troubadors on steel guitar.  In around 1961, a western theme park opened next door called Old Virginia City featuring a replica old west town and an American Indian village.  Old Virginia City seems to have disappeared in the late sixties. 

By the 1970s Hunter’s Lodge was no longer advertising in local as it evolved into an outpost in the changing landscape of Fairfax County. The Lodge became known for great country music, a fun-loving and sometimes rough crowd, and a sense of days gone by. It was a mecca for country fans coming from all over the region searching for something other than disco.


In 1978, the Lodge reappeared in the Wash Post as an unwitting site of an infamous crime. Deborah Fitzjohn was a 25-year old secretary living in Centreville who headed out for a night of fun in Fairfax on a Friday night. She was never seen again, but her car was found in the parking lot of Hunter’s Lodge. In 1986, John Crutchley, AKA the Vampire Rapist, was implicated, but police never had enough to charge him. Crutchley was known as the Vampire Rapist because he would withdraw blood from his victims and drink it. When Fitzjohn disappeared, Crutchley was living in Waples Mobile Home Estates near Fairfax City.

In 1982, Tommy Sanders took over and the Lodge became host to local favorites like Rick Cooper & Third Shift, Stringdusters, Heavy Country, and others. Legend has it that many famous country musicians, like Merle Haggard, would show up after their shows in larger venues. In 1985, the club suffered a fire that left extensive smoke damage and some have claimed it was an attempt to burn the place and collect insurance.  The club closed sometime around 1986 to make way for a Costco since the new crowd in Fairfax would rather shop than listen to rowdy country.

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