Malabar Farm: Barn Dances
Former home of American author Louis Bromfield becomes merry gathering spot for barn dances
All is quiet inside the spacious barn, located in the middle of Ohio. It’s chilly outside on this late September evening, and the rising full moon is visible through a small window. The scent of hay prevails as a horse in the field whinnies.
Moments later the tranquility is broken by the cacophony of more than 300 people laughing, clapping and stomping their feet to the sounds of a square-dance band. The gala is called the “Harvest Barn Dance,” and it’s one of a half dozen barn dances held from April through October at Malabar Farm State Park near Mansfield.
- Former home of American author Louis Bromfield becomes merry gathering spot for barn dances
Many of the revelers have traveled hours from around Ohio to attend this wholesome, countryside event. They find good company. These happy barn dances are hopping with folks seeking out fun in a setting that reflects a simpler time.
“A square dance is a family event,” says Valerie Norman, who drove two hours from Zanesville to direct the moves of the participants as the event’s “caller.”
Barn dances at Malabar Farm date back to the late ’70s. Then, they were held in a barn built in 1890 that once belonged to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield, who lived on the property until his death in 1956. Bromfield, also an innovative farmer, hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities and even held his own barn dances. The historic barn burned down in 1993 and was rebuilt the following year in the same timber-framed style.
The farm in Richland County is a perfect setting for a square dance. Situated among rolling hills, it contains Bromfield’s original country home, fields of corn and wheat, and storybook woodlands. Meandering about the pastures are chickens, goats and draft horses. The scenic setting served as the wedding and honeymoon location of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1945.
The tradition continued on this starry night. By the start of the dance at 7 p.m., the parking lot is filled with cars, trucks and minivans. People saunter up the walkway to the barn carrying lawn chairs, as if they’re attending a family reunion. They prop them along the barn’s walls, claiming their spots for the evening.
The crowd’s a slice of Americana. There are chubby-cheeked toddlers towed by their parents, grandfathers and grandmothers hand in hand, and a fair amount of young adults looking for a good time. Sporting everything from worn jeans and cowboy boots to sparkly dresses and strappy heels, they eagerly flood the worn, wooden dance floor.
The Back Porch Swing Band, Malabar’s resident musicians, hits the unpainted, plywood stage. Fueled by Mountain Dew, the four-piece band quickly has the crowd tapping its toes. A fiddle, trumpet, guitar and standup bass provide the musical accompaniment to Norman’s rhythmic instructions to the dancers.
“Ready to have some fun?” she asks.
“We’re going to do-si-do our partner,” Norman says. “Does everybody know how to do that? Shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder, all with no touching. Then we’ll do it all over again.
“We’ll start out slow, then speed it up.”
They do Eastern-style square dances here. Also called traditional square dancing, it typically starts with four couples arranged in a square that moves counter-clockwise as the caller directs their movements. Every dance is explained before it begins, unlike the more advanced and less casual Western-style square dance, which requires participants to know the steps before they begin.
“We get greenhorn dancers, and we teach them,” Norman says. “If they come out and try on their own and go away discouraged, they won’t come back. We start with the very beginning steps, so they walk away confident that they’ve learned something and they’ll want to do it again.”
So participants need not be experienced dancers to have a good time.
During a break, my family and I mosey outside, where the barn stands as a beacon amid the pitch-black night. People step out into the air to cool off and buy a candy bar or popcorn at a makeshift table, set up by a local chapter of the Future Farmers of America. Teenagers gather, no cell phones in site, to chat.
After a bit, the band goes back to work. Fiddle player Adam Jackson, a three-time state champion from Buckeye Lake, gets into a frenzy. The energetic quartet transitions from the quick-paced folk song “Frog Went A-Courtin’” to Elvis’ “Love Me Tender.”
“We play a lot of Western swing, jazz standards from the ’20s and ’30s, old country tunes, all blended together,” says Pete Shaw, who mans a Gibson guitar. “We just love to play music. And when we get everybody up and dancing, we just love that.”
Malabar Farm State Park is located at 4050 Bromfield Rd., Lucas, Ohio. For more information, call 419-892-2784 or visit www.malabarfarm.org.
(A longer version of this article by Wendy Pramik published in Country Living in 2011.)