Location & Contact:
Arthur, ND 58006
By Brad Tastad
Since 1952, people from all over the area have enjoyed themselves dancing the night away at Johnsons Barn.
Known as Herb Johnsons 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 Johnsons Barn.
For the past 20 years, Herb Johnsons son Brian and Brians 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, Johnsons 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 Johnsons were a tradition.
Expanding a successful fund-raiser
The barn that hosts the popular dances was moved to its present location from Grandin.
Dads 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 werent 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 its 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 havent changed much, if at all, since the first dance with a hardwood floor was held in 1954. And people who attend definitely know theyre 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 dont mind.
Youd 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 Johnsons Barn have hosted through the years has definitely changed.
In the 50s 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 Johnsons barn back in the 50s into the mid-60s included Gene Deloughy and the Swinging Canadians, 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 wouldnt 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-60s, after the invasion of British rock groups like the Beatles swept the country, the music style at Herb Johnsons 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 70s.
But in the early 80s the attitude of people attending Herb Johnsons barn changed.
In the 50s, 60s, and 70s people came to the barn dances to dance, explained Johnson. But in the 80s 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 50s and60s 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 70s.
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 arent 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 Johnsons Barn, today the group Avalanche is the most popular. We try to get them in here once a month, added Johnson. Theyre by far and away our best draw.
Getting back to dancing
Then in the late 1980s in an attempt to bring back the regularly scheduled dance nights, the Johnsons 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. Wed open the hayloft doors so people outside could hear the music.
And the people didnt just come from the Arthur-Hunter area. Wed starve if we had to rely on crowds from a 20-mile radius of here, continued Johnson. Its 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 theyd 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. Its been a family operation forever, said Johnson. And after a dance, theres a fair amount of cleanup. We mop, wax, and buff the floor and if its 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 isnt worth the trouble of doing it ourselves, so now we hire deputies from Cass County for each dance, explained Johnson. There usually isnt any trouble, but if something does come up, theyll take care of it. We dont have to worry about it.
Despite the work involved, the Johnsons have enjoyed the Barn dances they host, and plan on continuing the tradition. We have no plans on quitting, summed up Johnson.
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