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THE BIG BARN

YPSILANTI, N.D. - From a distance, you can tell that the Peckham barn is different. It's a big one all right - 44 feet at the peak. And there's that distinctive "L" shape. But what you won't know - unless you're World War II vintage or stop to ta...

YPSILANTI, N.D. - From a distance, you can tell that the Peckham barn is different.

It's a big one all right - 44 feet at the peak. And there's that distinctive "L" shape.

But what you won't know - unless you're World War II vintage or stop to talk to LaRell and Stacy Peckham - that is that this once was known far and wide as "Peckham's Big Barn" - where dairying and dancing went together. It's a story that isn't likely to be repeated in today's modern dairies. The Peckhams are working to preserve a piece of the region's colorful history.

There have been Peckhams in Stutsman County since 1914.

LaRell's grandfather, Arthur LeRoy "Roy" Peckham, moved to North Dakota from the state of Michigan. Arthur first rented a place about a mile southeast of the current farm, which is about 12 miles south of Jamestown, N.D., just east off of U.S. Highway 281. He married Mable Trowbridge of Montpelier, N.D., in 1916 and moved to this place in 1926.

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The Peckhams had four daughters and two sons. There were older girls, but the eldest son was LaRell's dad, Dale Peckham, born in 1921.

In 1938, Arthur decided he needed a bigger barn. He'd been milking about 30 cows in an old barn and wanted to expand. It was a tough time to build a barn.

"Grandpa had to borrow money, but nobody in the area - 'Ypsi' - would lend him the money," LaRell says. "So he went to Jamestown."

The new barn cost $4,600. It was finished in fall 1939. It was a stanchion barn in two alleyways and up to date for its day, with a concrete gutter for manure. The main west part measures 40 by 80 feet. An east extension is 40 by 40. The roof rafters were curved, made from hand-sawn 1-by-12s - each rafter from five boards, staggered so the splices weren't in the same place. Jules Naze of Montpelier was the head carpenter.

"It was Grandpa's own design," LaRell says of the barn. "The neighbors said he should have a barn dance to celebrate, so Grandpa did. That's how it got started."

He expanded the dance schedule in the next year.

Dairying and dances

In 1940, Arthur Peckham started advertising weekly dances in the barn. The dairy cows would be out of the barn during the days that time of the year.

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Soon, Arthur tried to heat the barn to make the fall dances more comfortable. He bought a wood furnace at the Montpelier lumberyard. He built a floor vent that would take heat up through a floor grate in the east loft. Fred Jorgenson of Ypsilanti built a 50-foot-tall brick chimney. People marveled about how he got it so straight.

Also in the early years, he built an 8-foot-tall "stag"" for the dance bands - 10 feet wide and 24 feet long. He bought a used Hamilton piano that was put in place. It remains there, but is out of tune.

The dance floor below the stage was 40 feet wide and 70 feet long, with benches around the perimeter. For the dances, the Peckhams sprinkled the floor with "spangles," like wax shavings, to make the feet glide easier.

Dale married Lillian Erickson of Ypsilanti in 1944 and had a wedding dance in the barn. Lillian helped sell tickets and helped Grandma make hamburgers on an oil stove.

Dances ran from the end of May to about mid-October. Most of the bands were local, but Arthur contracted with a booking agent who sometimes brought in big-name bands from Kansas and Denver.

People came every Tuesday and holidays. Dancing ran from about 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. The place was filled, mostly with people in their 20s and 30s.

"They liked waltzes, polkas and straight two-steps," Lillian recalls. "They didn't have square dancing."

The Peckhams had a license to sell cigarettes and candy bars, but not liquor. Dancers could either drink soda pop, or buy a bottle of liquor elsewhere and mix it with their Coke or 7-Up at the dance.

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The sheriff or a sheriff's deputy would attend each dance. Party-goers weren't allowed to drink in the barn itself. Things didn't get out of hand, but there was an occasional incident.

LaRell says one story was that Ralph "Riley" Baenen of Montpelier somehow forgot the barn was on the second floor and "walked out" of the loft doorways on the north side of the barn - falling to the ground.

"He was laying on the ground and the guys looked down and said, 'Riley, are you OK?' He just said, 'Watch out boys, that first step is a sonofabitch." He wasn't seriously hurt.

Dances drew 50 people some nights and 400 others times. People parked on the yard, Lillian recalls, but on big nights parked on the road to the west.

Women paid 25 cents to get in. Men paid 50 cents.

For the Peckham family, the dances represented not only money but responsibility. Every Sunday afternoon, the Peckhams spent time sweeping the barn.

Lillian says the most memorable dance for her was in 1945 when World War II ended in Germany.

"We had quite a crowd that night - quite a celebration," she recalls. "I think we had nearly 1,500 people out there."

After the dances, Arthur stayed out through much of the night, walking around the barn, making sure no one had thrown a lit cigarette that might burn the barn down. He also was patrolling for bottles.

As one story goes Grandpa Arthur picked up partially emptied bottles after the dance and poured the remains into another bottle and would sell the mixture at the next dance.

"I guess a lot of those guys didn't care (what was in it) at the end of the night," LaRell says.

The dances would continue for 10 years, through 1949, after WWII, which ran from 1941 to 1945.

"The dances paid off the cow barn," LaRell says. "They quit having them in 1949. Night clubs were starting to come in in Jamestown (N.D.). Other people were starting barn dances, too."

The farm got rural electrification in the early 1950s. Until that point, the Peckhams lit their barn with a 32-volt wind charger and a row of glass-lined batteries in the milk separatioin room. Fixtures were enclosed in Mason canning jars to keep the cobwebs from accumulating around the light bulbs and starting a fire.

Dale continued milking cows by hand and quit in 1966 to concentrate on a farm of about 1,640 acres.

"He never got a milking machine," LaRell says. "We had Columbia sheep, too - 80 to 110 ewes."

LaRell was born in 1961. His older sisters had two class dances in the barn in the late 1960s, but the dance floor was largely idle until the late 1990s.

LaRell graduated high school in 1979 and soon started farming with his father.

The barn was the site for a big party on Dale and Lillian's 50th anniversary in 1994. There was a two-piece accordion band for that one.

In 1996, LaRell married Stacy, a Zap, N.D., native, who was working at Southwood Veterinary Clinic in Jamestown. It was quite a clean-up job.

"That was the last party," LaRell recalls. "The wedding was in the church in town, and the reception and dance was out here. We had 375 people."

The Erheart Country Band of Center, N.D., played on the raised stage.

Dale retired in 1998.

LaRell has about 78 beef cows and concentrates on his wheat, sunflower and oat crops. The chicken coop is used for storage. The big barn is used for the horses and for calving in the spring.

Son Will, 5, and daughter Leah, 2, have a swing and some other play things up in the loft.

LaRell would like to keep the barn intact, but that takes money.

Preserving a relicThe Peckhams' barn was recognized by the BARN AGAIN! project in 1992. BARN AGAIN! is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Successful Farming magazine.

LaRell says that every summer, at least two or three parties of motorists will stop by the farm - usually people from within 80 to 100 miles.

"They'll just say they wanted to look at it because they had such good memories there," LaRell says. Some will say they met their spouses there.

Now, the Peckhams are looking to get the barn on the National Register of Historic Places registered with the North Dakota Historical Society. Among other things, they'd like financial help for shingling the roof and protecting what's inside. It'd be cheaper to replace the barn or shingle with synthetic materials, but they don't want to do that.

"Cedar shingles are so expensive," LaRell says.

He should know.

A wind storm in 1995 tore off another bunch of shingles on the north side. LaRell invested $7,600 to reshingle a section that amounts to a little more than a quarter of the barn's roof surface. (Remember, the whole barn cost $4,600 to build.)

"You can figure I would take another $18,000 or so to finish it off," LaRell says, of the roof, which leaks in during every rain storm, but not as much as the holes would indicate.

Lillian says she thinks its important to keep places like that intact. The main reason to keep it is to save the aesthetics.

LaRell and Stacy don't plan to have dances in the barn on any kind of regular basis anymore, but LaRell thinks about it and wonders.

"We might have one more fling - one more dance in it - some year," LaRell says.

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