Barns, once a staple across the North Dakota prairies, are slowly disappearing from the landscape. And barn dances, once one of the biggest forms of entertainment in rural areas, are also dwindling. While not as abundant as they used to be, a few barn dances are still held in North Dakota, some purposefully preserving the historic events, others to simply provide enjoyment to residents of surrounding communities.
Elroy Lindaas Barn Dance
Elroy Lindaas started holding barn dances in the hayloft of his barn in Mayville about 25 years ago, when his twin daughters suggested holding a dance for their high school friends. At that time, Lindaas was a member of the band, The Happy Norwegians, and he thought his barn would be a fun venue at which to perform. Now known as the HayShakers, the band continues to play at the Lindaas barn dances throughout the summer.
“The band would go up in the barn to play and pretty soon we had people coming with lawn chairs to listen,” says Lindaas. “As it became more popular, more people showed up and it blossomed from there.” Once used to hold cattle, the barn has now been transformed into a local community gathering place. Over the years, the dance has changed in many ways. In the beginning, advertising for the events was accomplished through a phone tree. Now, Lindaas publishes a schedule of dances in the local paper and e-mails or mails a copy to anyone who is interested. Each dance typically has 80 to 100 attendees, and people often come from towns hundreds of miles away to experience and enjoy a barn dance.
Lindaas has made some improvements to the barn to make it a safe place to gather, including replacing the rickety stairs leading to the hayloft and adding a plywood dance floor. Screen doors and fans provide comfort as the weather and the dance floor heat up. He has also added restrooms, a stage and lights, and chairs have been placed in the hayloft for those needing to rest from the excitement or those who prefer to enjoy the music and watch people dance.
Although many people enjoy dancing to the old time and contemporary music, Lindaas says many people attend just to watch the festivities and enjoy time with friends and family. “All ages come to our dances,” Lindaas says, “but typically there is more grey hair in the barn than other colors.” The barn’s no alcohol policy encourages young families with children to stop by and dance the night away. Musically inclined audience members are often invited to bring their instruments and play along with the HayShakers, which has been joined by up to 15 musicians at times. The band plays many different types of music – from waltzes and polkas to the bunny hop – at a typical dance. “It gets pretty lively sometimes,” Lindaas says.
Lindaas says the barn dances on his farm have gone beyond simple entertainment, and have played an important part in many people’s lives. “There have been couples that have met at the dances and later married,” he says. “This has happened more than once with both young people and widows and widowers.”
Lindaas stresses the barn dance is not a commercial venture and is completely supported by freewill donations from attendees. Contributions are used to provide soda and coffee to attendees. Lindaas says he typically pours about 70 cups of coffee per dance and regulars bring cookies, bars and even sandwiches, turning the entire night into a potluck. “People are pretty generous. That plastic pail we have in the corner is sometimes full of donations at the end of the night,” he says. “It isn’t big money, but it helps keep the dances going.”
Each spring, community members rally to help Lindaas clean the barn and rafters and prepare for the season’s dances. This year, a local youth group helped Lindaas clean in order to raise money for an upcoming trip. “There is a lot of preparation each year, there is work involved,” he says. “But the dances are fun. A person will do a lot for fun.”
The Lindaas barn dances are held every other Saturday from June 6 – September 19. The band typically gets started at 7:30 p.m., and plays until 11 p.m.
“I enjoy meeting the people that come and when the band takes a break I often go around and shake hands and visit with the new folks,” Lindaas says. “I have made an awful lot of friends through this endeavor.”
Arthur Barn Dance
In 1952, Herbert Johnson moved a barn to the small town of Arthur to be used as a hayloft. That May, he and his family held a dance as a fundraiser. The dance was so successful that the barn was never used as a hayloft. Instead, regular dances were held there for local families. This tradition continued for the next 20 years.
The dances were discontinued in 1980, but in 1988, Brian Johnson, who was Herbert’s newborn son when the dances began in the 50s, along with his wife, Becky, took over the barn and decided to hold their first barn dance.
Brian and Becky Johnson’s children were raised working at and attending the family’s barn dances. “That was their life, going to dances every other Friday night,” says Becky Johnson. “Everybody likes to come out and dance. It is an all-ages thing, kids that are under 21 don’t have anywhere to go to dance and listen to music. One of our big draws was that anyone could come to our dances.”
In April of this year, the Johnsons sold their Arthur farm to move to West Fargo for health reasons. They sold the farm to Julie and Delon Cahoon, who were looking for a retirement property that could support cows and create some income. Originally from Casselton, they were looking at the Arthur property for its grain bins and pastures, but as they became more serious about the property, the Johnsons asked if they would continue the barn dance tradition. “We went to a couple of the dances and we were sold,” says Julie Cahoon, whose family had previously owned a bar, and considers the barn dances second nature.
The Cahoons held their first pair of dances in April, each dance attracting around 400 dancers of all ages. Along with one of the Johnsons’ previous employees, the couple’s 10 children came to help collect admission and grill burgers at the April dances. An agent helps the couple choose bands that will appeal to the young adults coming from college towns across North Dakota and western Minnesota to enjoy the dances. Julie Cahoon says overall, the ownership transition has gone smoothly. “We are new to this, so we spend a lot of time hoping we did everything right,” she says.
Country rock can be heard each dance weekend and the dance floor is filled, generally with young people under 30, from the time the dances begin at 9 p.m., until the live bands close down at 1 a.m. “The kids are out there doing the jitterbug and country line dances. The boys are out there in their western attire and the girls wear big, shiny belts and cowboy boots,” says Cahoon. “Those kids can dance – it’s unbelievable how good they are.”
She says the respectfulness of the young adults attending the dances encouraged her to continue them. “I saw one fellow try to throw a paper cup into the garbage and missed. Another guy walked all the way across the barn to pick the cup off the floor and throw it away.” She says hardly any clean-up was needed after their April dances and everyone was well-behaved. “I think the dancers think of it as their own place, somewhere to dance and have fun. It is a wonderful environment.”
Although the Cahoons plan to hold dances similar to the way the Johnsons did for so many years, they do plan to make some physical changes to the property. Adding picnic tables for dancers taking a break and building a shelter for patrons waiting to enter the barn are a few of this year’s priorities.
Admission is first come, first served, and the cost is $10 per person. It is not unusual for people to be lined up outside the door waiting for admission to the packed barn. Barbeque and soda can be purchased at the barn, and attendees often bring in their own refreshments. Alcohol is allowed, but Cahoon says only a quarter of those who attend drink it.
The Cahoons advertise through a Facebook page, “Arthur’s Barn, ND” and they are currently developing a website. The barn’s grand opening will be held August 28, when they will hold a free pig roast and entertainment prior to their scheduled dance featuring the Fargo band, Jacked Up. After Labor Day, the dances will continue twice per month on Fridays until the spring to coincide with the college schedule.
Hay Day: Musical Barns of North Dakota
Merrill Piepkorn, a member of the band, Radio Stars, wanted to host a barn dance at which his band could perform. He ended up hosting multiple barn dances across the state and creating a documentary film, music CD and coffee table book detailing North Dakota’s barn dances.
Piepkorn began to expand his project when he realized that barns, once the heart of Americana, are slowly disappearing from the landscape. His project was developed to capture barn dances in their “hay day.” In the summer of 2013, Piepkorn hosted six dances in barns across North Dakota, capturing the music and documenting the experiences through vivid photographs and videos in order to preserve and tell the stories of the dances.
Piepkorn held a barn dance in the Lindaas barn, as well as barns in Dickinson, Stanley, Hankinson, Hazen and Ashley. The Lindaas barn was the only barn that regularly holds barn dances, some are barns used for family and local community events, and others are reserved for daily farm life.
“I love North Dakota,” Piepkorn says. “I enjoy educating North Dakotans about our state and highlighting things that people might not otherwise know, and barn dances have always been an interesting and important part of North Dakota’s history.”