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Rural Missouri Magazine

Raisin' the Roof
Old-fashioned barn dances keep community traditions alive

by Jeff Joiner

Square dancers, young and old, gather in the hayloft of a barn near the Sullivan County town of Winigan for an old fashion barn dance. Steve and Debbie Young started holding barn dances on their family’s farm several years ago to have some fun and help foster a sense of community.

The day’s heat scarcely retreats as a deep orange sun sinks below a Sullivan County horizon. Inside the hayloft of a large barn on a farm north of Winigan, the heat is stifling but a large fan provides relief for a gathering of people listening to several musicians. Folks sitting around the outside of the loft visit with each other while tapping their feet to the rhythm.

Steve Young stands up from playing a mandolin with the other musicians and calls out, “Anyone want to dance?” Several couples follow Steve and his wife, Debbie, into the middle of the hayloft’s large wooden floor as another edition of the Winigan barn dance gets underway.

A fiddle player launches into a lively tune accompanied by guitar, mandolin and keyboard as Steve begins organizing a square of dancers. The scene looks little different from barn dances that were popular in the Midwest in the early 20th century. The dance calls and tunes are the same, only the presence of electricity in the barn loft, which powers mikes attached to the acoustic instruments and the slow cookers for the potluck dinner, give the scene a modern touch.

The hayloft of the Young’s barn is ablaze with light late into the night during a dance.
Traditional dances not only encourge older musicians to play, they also encourage the next generation.

The barn, originally built by his grandfather, now belongs to Steve’s mother and sits on the family’s farm in north-central Missouri. Steve, who works for the Missouri Conservation Department, lives in Harrisburg near Columbia but spends a lot of time at the farm where his mother lives.

Twice a year, in the spring and the fall, Steve and his wife, Debbie, host an old-fashioned dance in the barn. Steve recalls his grandfather telling stories about dances originally held in the loft of the barn soon after it was built sometime around 1920.

One day a few years ago while visiting the farm Steve was telling Debbie stories he recalled his grandfather telling of the old dances. Debbie suggested they hold a dance there again Steve agreed. But the old barn wasn’t ready for a dance quite yet. After more than 50 years of steady use on a busy farm, the barn needed a little sprucing up. The couple cleaned out the loft of old hay, farm equipment, tools and a few critters which had made the loft their home.

Though the barn was structurally sound, the floor of the hayloft wobbled like waves in the ocean. Steve braced the floor with posts and leveled it out making sure it would hold the extra weight of a lot of people. When they were ready they invited the community of Winigan to a dance and more than 100 people attended. Since that first dance in 1996 the gathering at the Young farm has been a twice annual event ever since.

Steve and Debbie believe that in many small towns the sense of community has all but evaporated as people go about busy lives. They believe their barn dance has helped spark that sense of kinship once again. And dances encourage local musicians to keep playing.

Most communities in Missouri have musicians who are keeping state’s musical traditions alive. Steve believes by organizing dances, fiddle contests and jam sessions in rural communities local fiddle players and other traditional musicians are encourged to keep playing.

To help do just that Steve and a several fellow Missouri fiddle players have organized a group called the Missouri Traditional Fiddle and Dance Network which is working with communities to organize traditional square dances, fiddle contests and musician jam sessions.

“We provide a core of musicians and we encourage anybody, all styles of local fiddlers to play,” says Steve. “They don’t have to be old time or bluegrass. If someone wants to play old-time country or rock and roll, we welcome them.”

The idea, says Steve, is to build community ties and create more interest in Missouri’s musical heritage. Steve and Debbie have done just that despite a warm night, which hasn’t stopped anyone, young or old, from dancing away the evening.

For information about the Winigan barn dance or the Missouri Traditional Fiddle and Dance Network contact Steve Young at (573) 874-1052.

 

 

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