DADE CITY — Warren Godbolt was just a kid when the really famous stars came through, artists like B.B. King and James Brown.
When Brown was in town, “there was a parade,” said Godbolt, who grew up near the east Pasco venue called the Cow Palace. That visit came years before the artist was dubbed “the Godfather of Soul.” Godbolt said, “He was on his way up then.”
The location, an old barn in a remote area off Bull Road in southeastern Dade City, isn’t much to look at these days. A couple of leaks in the roof and the passing of time have dimmed the outward charm of the once-popular music and social center. But locals hope that with a recent boost from the state, it could someday become a gathering place again.
Several area residents who know the site’s history and had been working for the last several years were finally successful in getting the location noticed. Officials with the Florida Historical Marker Program of the Bureau of Historic Preservation approved a historical designation for the site last month. Their action officially puts the Cow Palace on the historical map.
Al Brown is especially happy about that. His family bought the site several years ago in hopes of restoring it to again become a gathering place for the community.
Built in 1957 in the African American community of Carver Heights, the building featured a spacious dance floor, a bar with native cypress woodwork and ornate Spanish tiles, according to the text approved for the historic marker. The site’s real claim to fame is that it is one of the last remaining Florida stops on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit.
The fabled Chitlin’ Circuit was a network of African American music venues throughout the southeastern United States that National Public Radio stated “provided employment for hundreds of Black musicians and brought about the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” according to the marker. Among the other famous musicians who performed there were Ray Charles and Buddy Guy.
The marker also states, “The Cow Palace is recognized as one of the state’s last surviving stops on the Chitlin’ Circuit in Florida, and served not only as a top entertainment venue, but a point of pride for the local African American community.”
When the weather got cold up north, the musicians simply headed south in those days moving from one venue to the next, explained Scott “Howlin Buzz” Place, a blues musician who joined the cause of getting the Cow Palace noticed several years ago.
“This was a real place. This was a juke joint,” he said, a phrase that referred to a gathering place known for music, drinking and gambling. For those reasons, the Cow Palace had its upside and its downside. It was known for a time as a rough spot where drugs and violence caught the attention of law enforcement and turned some locals away.
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Place said the site needs to be put in perspective. “This is about music culture,” he said. “There is history right here. B.B. King and James Brown played here. James Brown is the Godfather of Soul.”
The site itself is in a unique setting. There is a lake next to the building, which was constructed with old pecky cypress. “The acoustic sound is really good in there,” Place said. While the location’s past might have been rough around the edges, he said, “the music was always good.”
He hopes that with the historic designation, old-timers in the area will be more willing to come forward and share history, photographs and stories about the venue in its heyday.
Back in 2015, when Place formed a nonprofit, the Chitlin Circuit Preservation Society, he worked with Brown and others to hold fundraisers at the site. But there were issues with the zoning of the property, which prevented the music gatherings from continuing. Brown said he is frustrated but hopes to overcome that in the future to reopen the site. He is working on building repairs now.
Gainesville native Jeff Jeter came to the area in 1972. He visited the Cow Palace but was too young to get in. Still, he remembers seeing a hundred or more cars at the venue when musicians were there. “I was fascinated with it,” said Jeter, who pushed for the historical marker.
“This thing is worth saving,” he said.
Godbolt feels the same way. He knows how his neighbors feel about some of the bad things that happened at the Cow Palace, but he prefers to remember what good happened there, the music that touched the community and his own life.
“I’m all for seeing something good happen out there,” he said. “I love music. I’m a music man. ... Music is so significant to the world.”