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Historic dance venue for sale

Brian and Becky Johnson stand in front of the old barn Friday, near Arthur, N.D., that has hosted dances, concerts and receptions since the 1950s. Brian is struggling with Parkinson's disease, so they decided to sell the farmstead. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

ARTHUR, N.D. — An old barn on a Cass County farmstead that’s housed dances, country bands, rock musicians and wedding receptions for more than 60 years will be changing hands.

Johnson’s Barn and the farmstead on which it sits between Arthur and Hunter, are for sale, and whether the longtime dances go on will be up to the buyer.

“I would like somebody to continue it if they could,” said owner Brian Johnson, 62, who is retiring from farming due to a battle with Parkinson’s disease.

It will be a big change for the family because the dance barn has been a tradition for three generations.

But the choice was a family one, made by Johnson, his wife Becky and their two children, Eric, 30, and Adra, 24.

“It was just a hard decision, but it was the best decision,” Brian Johnson said.

Steve Johnson of Johnson Auction & Realty, which is listing the property, said the couple is asking $300,000 for the barn and three-bedroom house on the 15-acre farmstead, along with grain bins, a grain dryer and a machinery storage building.

The family will keep and rent out most of the farmland it owns. “Enough that my parents will have steady income for the rest of their lives,” Eric Johnson said.

A family affair

While it’s tough giving up the 100-year-old farmstead, losing the barn will be worse.

“The barn is so unique and so special, that’s the hardest to part with,” Eric Johnson said.

Eric Johnson has worked alongside his father since he was a child – farming full time for the last seven years.

“The reason we make a good team is he loved to be in the tractor, and I was the maintainer,” the son said.

Putting on the dances has also been a family affair. His parents have always booked the bands and private events, while Eric and Adra helped make sure the barn was ready.

After every big dance, Eric cleans up the barn then tackles the maple floor – first stripping and waxing it, then buffing it to a shine. He also mans the door for every show.

While Adra is now a teacher in Turtle Lake, she still returns home for most of the dances.

Johnson’s Barn has bands booked this fall through the end of the year, starting with The Roosters on Friday.

But any events after year’s end will be in limbo, pending the sale.

Regardless of when the exact end date is, Eric Johnson said there will be a big final sendoff.

“I’m going to make sure it happens — if not for the barn, then for my dad,” he said.

Rich history

Oh, the stories Johnson’s Barn could tell, if only the walls could talk.

In a way, they do, in the photos of performers and dancers from every decade, pasted on the walls.

“A lot of people met their significant other at the dance hall,” Brian Johnson said.

The dances began shortly after Brian’s father, Herb Johnson, moved the barn from Grandin to his property in 1952, replacing a barn that burned down.

Herb Johnson held a fundraiser for the local fire department, and it was so well-attended, he decided to start hosting his own shindigs, Brian Johnson said in a 2007 news story.

Eric Johnson said one of his favorite memories is when rock band Ded Walleye performed when he was in high school.

The band’s lead singer would climb up on speakers to the two large windows at the back of the barn and stand, singing, on a ledge no more than 2 feet wide.

“He was a little crazy,” Eric Johnson said.

He listed some of the bands that have played over the years, from the all-black band Preston Love and Orchestra in the 1950s, to the Uglies in the 60s and 70s.

The dances took a downturn in the 1980s, in general, but resurged in the late 80s and early 90s with Pure Country often selling out both Friday and Saturday nights.

‘Always fun’

In the 2000s, when Johnson’s Barn celebrated a half-century of fun, the band Avalanche was the big draw.

Brad Wilson, who played in Avalanche and performed at the barn about once a month for eight years, remembers the time with great fondness.

“First and foremost, it was always fun,” he said.

Wilson remembers loading the band’s equipment into the barn’s hayloft on the Johnson family tractor, equipped with front-end lift and platform.

It usually took three trips.

“When it was 40 below, that tractor would move awful slow,” said Wilson, laughing.

Up until five years ago, the Johnson family still had pigs in the barn below the dance floor.

The smell was part of the ambiance.

“You’d get used to it after a while,” Wilson said.

Shows would start at 9 p.m. When the band took a break around 10, Wilson headed outside for fresh air.

“You could see the cars coming in the distance, and the next thing you know, the barn was packed full, with 500 people,” Wilson said, “sucking the energy right out of you.”

When the show was over, as the band loaded up its equipment again, Brian and Becky Johnson would cook up burgers and sloppy joes for the band members.

“They were just great people, so nice to everybody, just top shelf people,” Wilson said.

“You can’t beat ‘em,” he added.

Future plans

Brian and Becky Johnson plan to move to Fargo after they sell the farmstead and barn.

Eric Johnson is still deciding what he wants to do, but said he’ll probably work in the agriculture industry.

The family hopes the dances will somehow live on with a new owner.

Eric Johnson said the barn is special because of the people who came to it.

“If it goes on another 60-some years, it’s always going to be special,” he said.

Robin Huebner

Robin Huebner is also a 5 p.m. news anchor on WDAY-TV.

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