Johnson’s Barn home to 53 years of dancing, memories
This is a copy of an article that ran in "The Cass County Reporter" January 18 2006 ,
and does a great job of telling our past and how far we have come.
By Brad Tastad
Since 1952, people from all over the area have enjoyed themselves dancing the night away at Johnson’s Barn.
Known as Herb Johnson’s Barn for the first 33 years of its existence, the well-known dancing hot spot is located halfway between Hunter and Arthur just off the east side of Highway 18.
When Herb Johnson, the owner of the farmstead and creator of the famous barn dances, passed away in 1985, the name changed to Johnson’s Barn.
For the past 20 years, Herb Johnson’s son Brian and Brian’s wife, Becky have kept the tradition of continuing to have dances at the barn.
And, with the exception of a lull in business in the early 1980s, Johnson’s Barn dances have been huge successes, with large crowds attending and well-known bands performing.
Just like the way it was in the early years of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when dances at Herb Johnson’s were a tradition.
Expanding a successful fund-raiser
The barn that hosts the popular dances was moved to its present location from Grandin.
“Dad’s barn had been lost in a fire and he bought this one to replace it,” explained Brian. “Three single-axle trucks hauled the barn here. Back then, there weren’t ditches and it was more of a cross-country trip. Trying to haul the barn today would be a nightmare.”
When the barn was in place, it was going to be used for livestock and hay, like any barn would be.
“Dad had no intention of having daces in it,” explained Johnson. “But the fire department in Arthur was looking for a place to have a dance as a way to make some money, and they asked him if they could have one at his barn”
The initial dance 53 years ago went over so well, that Herb Johnson started thinking about having one dance as a way to make money for himself.
“The first dance he organized was also very well-attended and popular,” continued Brian, who was just a few months old at the time. “Then he had another one, and another one, and they were all successful. In 1954 he put in a hardwood floor, and then he was committed.” The process of putting in the hardwood floor, which is still in use today, was a job and a story in itself. “That was a very labor-intensive project,” summed up Johnson. “Each board was put in one at a time and it’s a 120-by-35 foot floor. It took a long time to get it finished.” Today, over 50 years later, the floor “still looks nice,” pointed out Johnson.
Changes over six decades
The barn and farmstead themselves haven’t changed much, if at all, since the first dance with a hardwood floor was held in 1954. And people who attend definitely know they’re in a barn as soon as they enter and begin the ascent upstairs. The lower level has always been a livestock holding pen, and today there are pigs on the ground floor. And the odor is noticeable, but people don’t mind.
You’d be surprised how many people ask if they can go downstairs to see the pigs,” added Johnson.
While the structure and purpose of the barn have remained the same, the music and styles that Johnson’s Barn have hosted through the years has definitely changed.
“In the 50’s we had Lawrence Welk type of bands,” explained Johnson. “The eight or nine piece orchestras that had music stands in front of them with a variety of instruments.”
Some of the more popular groups who played at Herb Johnson’s barn back in the 50’s into the mid-60’s included Gene Deloughy and the Swinging Canadian’s, Hank Schooley and his Orchestra, and Preston Love and his Orchestra.
The latter orchestra caused a mild uproar, because of the particular time in history when the Civil Rights movement in the country was a major issue.
“Their band was not allowed to stay in Fargo, so they wound up staying in Arthur,” recalled Johnson. “And they wouldn’t serve them at the cafeteria in Arthur initially. But Dad went down to Arthur and told them he had hired them, and they better get good service. After that, everything was okay. But Dad had to raise a little hell with people.”
Then in the mid-60’s, after the invasion of British rock groups like the Beatles swept the country, the music style at Herb Johnson’s barn turned to more rock-and-roll oriented.
The more famous and well-liked groups such as the Uglies, Johnny Holm, the Cornerstones, and the Church Keys were all huge draws to the Barn.
Those types of bands continued to bring huge crowds to the Barn into the late 70’s.
But in the early 80’s the attitude of people attending Herb Johnson’s barn changed.
“In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s people came to the barn dances to dance,” explained Johnson. “But in the 80’s things changed. The Barn went from a dancehall to a concert hall. Everyone was coming to watch the band play, and not to dance.”
And that was the time when attendance at the Barn began to decline. The crowds declined so much that regularly scheduled dances were discontinued.
“We rented it out for wedding dances and private parties, but that was about it,” said Johnson. The frequency of the Barn dances has also diminished in the past three decades.
In the 50’s and60’s dances were regularly scheduled twice a week, on every Wednesday and Friday nights.
Roller skating was also a regular event every Saturday back in the first two decades. But that was cut off in the 70’s.
Today, because of the busy lifestyles that people lead, there are few, if any dances held during the summertime.
People are going to the lakes more than ever and seem to be busier than they used to be,” explained Johnson. “There just aren’t any people around, so we stopped having dances in the summer.”
Johnson estimates that each year since 1988, he averages between 20 and 25 dances each year.
While Pure Country was at one time the biggest draw for Johnson’s Barn, today the group Avalanche is the most popular. “We try to get them in here once a month,” added Johnson. They’re by far and away our best draw.”
Getting back to dancing
Then in the late 1980’s in an attempt to bring back the regularly scheduled dance nights, the Johnson’s turned to Country music. Bands like Pure Country and the First Impressions got us going again,” recalled Johnson. “Those bands were very good, and very popular. People started showing up again, and a crowd brings a crowd.” In the past 17 years, the crowds from the first three decades returned, and the main reason was to dance.
The crowds have ranged from several hundred to over 800 on the busy nights. “Not all of those people are in the barn at the same time,” explained Johnson. “We’d open the hayloft doors so people outside could hear the music.”
And the people didn’t just come from the Arthur-Hunter area. “We’d starve if we had to rely on crowds from a 20-mile radius of here,” continued Johnson. “It’s amazing where the people come from. We have people from at least a 60-mile radius here, up to a 200-mile radius.” Even people from the western part of the state show up for the dances. “The last dance we sold 10 advance tickets to people in Bismarck, who wanted to make sure they’d be able to get in once they got here,” added Johnson.
Besides word-of-mouth advertising, Johnson makes posters for his dances and distributes them himself to towns all over the area, including Valley City, Grand Forks, Fargo, Mayville, Crookston and every smaller town in between. They also have a website, www.johnsonsbarn.com which has photos from the latest dance while promoting upcoming dance nights.
A family business
Johnson remembers helping out with barn dances since he was about eight years old. He was primarily involved with cleanup after a dance in those days, a duty he still performs today. His two brothers and two sisters also helped with selling tickets, concessions, or with cleanup through the years.
Today, Brian and Becky, along with their son Eric and daughter Adra, do most of the work involved with planning, selling and cleaning up after each dance. “It’s been a family operation forever,” said Johnson. “And after a dance, there’s a fair amount of cleanup. We mop, wax, and buff the floor and if it’s been a big dance, it takes two days to clean it all up so the floor shines and looks really nice.”
As for worrying about any trouble that may arise with such a large group of people attending each dance, Herb Johnson took care of that years ago.
“It isn’t worth the trouble of doing it ourselves, so now we hire deputies from Cass County for each dance,” explained Johnson. “There usually isn’t any trouble, but if something does come up, they’ll take care of it. We don’t have to worry about it.”
Despite the work involved, the Johnson’s have enjoyed the Barn dances they host, and plan on continuing the tradition. “We have no plans on quitting,” summed up Johnson.
Hank Schooley and his Orchestra was a popular attraction in the 1950's at Herb Johnson's Barn,
and are shown here with their full musical sets, including music stand, chairs, and instruments.
Preston Love and his Orchestra were the first all-African band to play at Herb Johnson's Barn
in the 1950's, and anywhere else in the area. Because of the time in history of the country, the
Civil Rights Movement, situations arose when Preston Love and his band members wanted
service in cafes and hotels in the area.
Brian and Becky Johnson stand in front of the barn that has been hosting dances since 1952,
Brian's father, Herb, started the barn dances 53 years ago and ever since, dance nights have
been scheduled regularly. After Herb passed away in 1985, Brian and Becky took over full
management of the dances and changed the name from Herb Johnson's Barn to Johnson's Barn.