On shows like American Pickers or Pickers Sisters, every once in a while the pickers go into some unassuming building and find themselves someplace surprising, a place where the outside doesn’t betray what’s inside. It might seem like TV magic, something that doesn’t happen in the real world, but my Wifey and I ran into our own “picker moment” recently.
Just after Christmas, Wifey was hanging out down at the antique mall. While she was chit-chatting with the manager, a guy came in looking to sell some things. His mother had moved into assisted living and he had been put in charge of liquidating the farm, so he was looking for a picker to come out and buy some stuff. Wifey said, sure, we’ll come out and take a look.
We bought a vanload from him the first time out, and he had said that some other time we should come back and see what’s in the barn. Now that’s what we’re talking about: the good stuff is always in The Barn, at least from our perspective. We had been polite and taken time to talk with him about his mom, his family, and how hard it is to clean out a house, and we let him know how much we thought the various items were worth or how old it was, even if we weren’t going to buy it. It turns out he had talked to another dealer first — that dealer had been brusque, bought a couple things and quickly left. Little did that dealer know he missed out on the offer of The Barn by not taking his time as a picker to be polite and get to know the seller first.
Due to weather and other conditions, we couldn’t get into the barn at that time. Finally, this past weekend, Wifey got a text from him, saying we should come out to the farm again. We thought it was about some other stuff we were interested in buying but he hadn’t made a decision, but we didn’t go in the house — he met us in the yard.
Turns out, he wanted to take us out to The Barn.
The snow was a little over a foot deep, but we had brought our boots, so we started to trudge across the farmyard out to the classic gambrel barn at the north end of the property. The first floor was your average barn fare – bicycle parts, old farm tools, a rusty bedspring, so we made a pile by the door. While we were climbing on the piles of abandoned treasures, picking through buckets of doorknobs and pipe fittings, our host had disappeared. When he returned, he said, “all the good stuff is upstairs.”
He led us around to the side of the barn where he had pried open a door. We had to climb over an old rusty drag to get onto a steep set of stairs. As we climbed, D gazed at all of the old rough-cut gambrel rafters and said, “wow, all this wood is very cool.” I was just ahead of her, and when I reached the top of the stairs, I said, “if you’re impressed with that, just wait until you get up here.”
The floor of the hayloft looks like it hadn’t ever seen a single piece of straw. At the far end of the loft was a stage. The stairs we came up were the back stairs; on the other side was the main stairs, straight and not as steep, but blocked from the outside. Long benches flanked each side of the wide-open space. Signs warned against leaning on the hayloft door and advised care walking on the stairs. This wasn’t a farmer’s barn: this was a barn dance barn.
It didn’t take long for us to put two and two together. In the first batch of stuff we bought from this farm, we found a matchbook advertising Ida Carlson’s Barn dance-hall. I knew there were a bunch of barn dance-halls in the area back in the day, so I figured Ida’s barn had to be pretty close to Fargo. Standing here, at the end of a polished hardwood floor in the upstairs of a barn, I was actually in Ida Carlson’s Barn.
Our host was Ida Carlson’s grandson, and after Ida retired from the dance hall business his parents kept it going until the 1980s. The heyday of Ida Carlson’s Barn was the 1930s to the 1940s. The barn was built in 1934, specifically to host dances; it — and the outhouse, of course — were the first buildings on the property. Ida got her permit to run barn dances in May 1934 and ads for events at the Barn started appearing in the Moorhead Daily News almost immediately. She applied for a beer license, too, but the county declined, saying having beer and barn dances in the same place “would be against the public interest.” Ida Carlson’s Barn became a popular youth hangout for all the usual reasons that young people needed a place out of town, away from their responsibilities, to hang out with other youths. It’s where people met their life-long spouses, and the NDSU Spectrum even joked that the closest that their female students “have ever been to a cow, probably, is at Ida Carlson’s barn dance.”
The barn hadn’t seen a dance in about thirty years; our host’s brother has a band, and it’s his equipment on the stage today. Before we even started to look at treasures to buy, we got more stories about Ida’s barn and a brief tour, including the wooden railing where fifty years of bands wrote their names on the boards. When we finished our picking, as we drove away from the farmstead, our conversation was more about Ida Carlson’s Barn than any of the things we bought.