A double date leads to a Galla-Popa double wedding

Part of our ongoing Leelanau Farming Family series

By Rebecca Gearing Carlson

Sun contributor

Wedding couples of the late 1930s and early 1940s braved hurdles that most modern couples have never faced. These brides and grooms survived the devastating economic and social challenges of The Great Depression only to witness the eve of a second world war. Unimaginable, yet these persevering couples endured and thrived. As the interview with Jeannie (Popa) Coulter began, she related the challenges her parents, as well as her aunt and uncle, faced in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The story and backstories of her parents’ double wedding in July 1941, when two sisters married two brothers, was a lesson in local culture and history. Despite world events and economic challenges, a double date led to a double wedding, and then to a double wedding renewal of vows 50 years later.

Weddings of the 1930s and 1940s were influenced by austerity and sacrifice following the Great Depression years, but couples were not deterred by it. Many brides drew inspiration for wedding dresses, hairstyles, and celebrations from the golden Hollywood era with silver screen fashion icons like Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford. The box-style dresses of the 1920s flapper era were out of fashion as women chose elegant lines and dress cuts that flattered shape. “Brides wanted to feel feminine and glamorous like the film stars…Dresses were made from silks [satin or rayon] cut on the bias, which sat delicately over their curves…Most had long sleeves which were wider at the top, narrowing into a fitted wrist,” again flattering to the figure (Magpie Weddings). Hairstyles ranged from “The Marcel Wave, The Bob, The Finger Wave, or The Chignon” (Marriedtobe.com) and adorned by a halo hat or tiara. Looking at the stunning wedding photo of sisters Alvena and Dorothy Galla, these fashions come to life. Both women wore unique halo hats with veils attached. The halo hat sat back on the bride’s head so that her hairstyle would stand out. Amazingly, Alvena and Dorothy’s dresses are both on display at the Leelanau Historical Society and well worth a visit. Even though neither veil survived to be included in the display, both veils became stories of their own.

While wedding traditions and styles vary over time, the wedding celebrations and dances unique to the Leelanau Peninsula community evolved as a local practice from the early 1900s until about the 1960s. During numerous farming family interviews, the topic of wedding dances kept arising. It was the interview with Rich and Betty (Houdek) Popp where wedding dances were first mentioned; a dance at the hall above Morey’s Grocery Store served as the location where Rich and Betty are introduced. This theme kept repeating during more farming family interviews. Several of the farming couples met at a community wedding dance which began their own story. During my interview with Mary Lou (Walter) Rothgarber, a side comment about a double wedding dance began my journey of researching the wedding dance stories and tracking down a family member of this double wedding. This led to Elizabeth Adams at the Leelanau Historical Society and eventually my meeting with Jeannie (Popa) Coulter.

The first mention of a wedding dance appeared in the Grand Traverse Herald on Sept. 9, 1905. Digging deeper into the local newspapers of the early 20th century: “Wedding dances are all the rage in our town these days” (Suttons Bay Courier 6/21/34). In the Leelanau Enterprise, “A dance followed at Morey’s Hall in Suttons Bay with music by Don’s D Notes” (10/3/57). Also, from the Enterprise, “A wedding dance was held at Morey’s Hall in Suttons Bay, after which Mr. & Mrs. Koch left on their wedding trip to an undisclosed destination” (11/14/57). The mystery behind the “undisclosed destination” is interesting. In some cases, the wedding dances may have gotten out of hand, “Solon Township board [is] prohibiting wedding dances” (Northport Tribune 10/6/49). Wedding dances were mainly held at several locations throughout the Leelanau Peninsula such as Cedar, Maple City, and Suttons Bay. As Jeannie Coulter explained, “Wedding dances were a chance for the local community to help the newly wedded couple celebrate.” These wedding dances were held after the ceremony and family reception and allowed the larger community to attend the dance and honor the newly married couple.

The path to the double wedding of the Galla and Popa families on July 5, 1941, is as intriguing as the ceremony itself. Both the Galla and Popa families owned large farming properties in the Cedar area of the Leelanau Peninsula with around 180 acres each. Future sister brides Alvena and Dorothy Galla were part of a large family, with 12 siblings in total. Future brother grooms Stanley and John Popa were also part of a large family with 14 siblings. The interconnection between these families happened at church, in the community, and family gatherings like weddings and wedding dances. My question to Jeannie is: how did these couples first meet? Jeannie believed her parents, Dorothy (14 years old) and John (24 years old), initially met at a family wedding where John was an attendant. Jeannie believed her “mother developed a crush on the handsome John Popa. He was a dude, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth wearing a fedora hat.” Jeannie was not sure how Stanley and Alvena first encounter each other.

The first date between the Galla sisters and Popa brothers was an unplanned double date. Stanley needed to borrow a car for his date to the movies with Alvena and asks his brother John to drive him. John agrees to help his brother. While Stanley is picking up Alvena at the Galla Farm, John Popa sees Dorothy and asks her to join them for the movies. This double date is the beginning of two life-long love stories. According to granddaughter Debbie Berry Avitts, “my grandfather [Stanley Popa] proposed to the love of his life on my grandmother’s [Alvena Galla] 18th birthday.” Jeannie was not clear on how her own parents, John (age 27) and Dorothy (age 17), became engaged, but it was shortly around the same time as Alvena (age 18) and Stanley (age 32). At the time of the engagements, John Galla was working in the Grand Rapids area for a seating and upholstery supplier; his brother Stanley was working in the Detroit area for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) a New Deal Program developed by President Hoover to create jobs during the Depression Era; according to Debbie Berry Avitts, Alvena was working as a live-in nanny and housekeeper in Dexter, Michigan; lastly, Dorothy was finishing the 12th grade in Traverse City.

Alvena’s granddaughter, Debbie Avitts, shared the story of how her grandmother’s employer helped find her wedding dress. “The lady of the house took my grandmother shopping at the only major store in the area, Montgomery Wards, hoping to find a suitable dress. [Although] this store did not have a bridal department, [w]hen they entered the store, there hung a beautiful wedding gown that someone had special ordered and later changed their mind. My grandmother tried it on, it fit like a glove, and she spent a whole month’s salary on that dress-$25.” The Galla and Popa double wedding date was set for July 5, 1941.

Jeannie explained that, “Local farm weddings were generally three-day celebrations” drawing in family, friends and the community. Day one (usually a Friday) involved the pre-wedding preparations of cleaning homes, garages, barns, and granaries for the event. According to Jeannie, the women of the family would prepare the foods for the multiple day event, “Killing chickens and baking.” That evening would be a rehearsal dinner for immediate family of the bride and groom much like a groom’s dinner. As it was July 4, 1941, after an evening picnic of chicken, potatoes, beans, pickles, coleslaw and cake, the Galla and Popa families celebrated with a night of fireworks.

Day two (Saturday) was the wedding day. On this day, July 5, 1941, everyone fasted before the church ceremony which was held at Holy Rosary Church in Cedar, Michigan. The morning ceremony was followed by an immediate family-only breakfast at the bride’s farm (Galla). The breakfast included ham, kielbasa sausage, ring bologna sandwiches, sweet rolls, and raisin bread. After breakfast, family stayed to help set up for the late afternoon wedding reception dinner that would be open to invited wedding guests, about 100 people or more. The family women prepared more food for the buffet-style wedding reception and picnic. After the dinner reception the newly married couple attended their wedding dance at the local hall above the Cedar Tavern, which was open to the community.

The community wedding dances were an informal event which generally began around 8 pm and would last until about 11 pm. Jeannie explained wedding dances were “dancing only.” There was no food or alcohol, although there was probably alcohol consumption outside of the hall. As Jeannie had been a witness to several wedding dances while she was a young girl, she shared that when the wedding couple proceeded into the dance hall, dancing was already in progress with a band like “Zip & The Zippers.” The couple and wedding party would parade in making a round of the hall greeting everyone. Jeannie further explained that “many times the couple and wedding party was [returning] from having their formal photos taken in Traverse City.” She shared beautiful wedding photos of both parties. In the pictures, there was always a young woman sitting on a chair while everyone else stood. Jeannie explained, “The maid [or matron] of honor always sat in the formal pictures.” From her first-hand experience, Jeannie offered many happy memories of wedding dances. However, she acknowledged as “weddings became more formal,” the informal “community celebration” of wedding dances began to disappear around the 1960s.

Day three (usually Sunday) is Poprawiny, the Polish word for post-wedding day celebration. Specific to Polish weddings, Jeannie referred to Day Three as the end of the wedding celebration or “The Finishings.” After church services, the immediate family gathered for ‘finishing’ off all the food and alcohol left over from the wedding celebrations. The women would help the hosting family clean as well.

Day four would be the beginning of the honeymoon if the couple was lucky. Jeannie explained not all couples could afford a honeymoon. Her parents, John and Dorothy, were able to afford a honeymoon to Niagara Falls, Canada, for three to four days. However, her uncle and aunt, Stanley and Alvena, had to return to work after their double-wedding celebration.

Both couples celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries in July 1991 in Maple City. According to granddaughter Debbie Avitts, “My grandparents were happily married for over 60 years before my grandfather passed at the age of 92.” Her grandmother died four years later. “They left behind a legacy of two children, four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and now one great-great grandchild.” Jeannie shared that John and Dorothy spent “51 years in a house [the couple] built on the shore of South Lake Leelanau. My dad loved to fish so this was his dream house.” Furthermore, she shared that her parents left behind “seven children, 19 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren” after they tragically died in an automobile accident north of Grand Rapids in May of 1999. John and Dorothy celebrated 58 years of marriage.

Why aren’t Alvena’s and Dorothy’s veils included in the wedding display at the Leelanau Historical society? “As the story goes, [Alvena] was dancing at [the wedding dance] hall above the Cedar Tavern[.] [E]very time she flung her head the veil would snag on the roofing nails as the dance hall had no proper ceiling at the time.” Thus, the veil was “torn to shreds…” (Jeanne Coulter). As for Dorothy’s veil, it would serve a more poignant purpose. “Thirteen months after the wedding, Dorothy gave birth to a son who died. She lined the casket with her veil. Her father made the casket” (Jeannie Coulter).