Memories of the Barn Dance - Keith Roulston editorial
It was stunning so see by the special edition about the Barn Dance Jamboree/Campout in last week’s Citizen that the event is the 25th anniversary of the event. How time flies!
It was also surprising to read that the Jamboree/Campout was prompted by the Blyth Festival’s 1996 production of Barndance Live! which recalled the glory days of the CKNX Barn Dance which ran through the 1940s and into the 1960s. Eric Coates, an actor in the cast of Barndance Live! in 1996 and again in 1997, (and later the Festival’s artistic director) was the master of ceremonies for the first Jamboree/Campout.
Barndance Live! had been brought to the Festival by director Paul Thompson, who spent part of his youth in Atwood and attended some Barn Dance events in Listowel where he “wandered in” near the end intending to go to the dance that followed, where the performers who entertained at the live radio broadcast also played.
Younger than Paul, I was the opposite when the Barn Dance played at the Lucknow Legion and I was there for the concert, not the dance.
The Barn Dance was a product of the unique sensibilities of “Doc” Cruickshank, a giant of the broadcasting industry almost forgotten now. He created the station to fight boredom during a snowstorm at his radio shop on Wingham’s main street in 1926. Using parts he had on hand and instructions in a magazine, he built a transmitter, only learning when someone called him later, that his experiment worked.
After years operating an amateur station, he finally got a commercial licence and worked to make the station popular, broadcasting, for instance, from different Wingham church services each week.
In 1937, the first Barn Dance was held at the main street studio using recorded music.
Three months later, the format changed to live music by local country and western performers.
In 1942, Doc hired Johnny Brent and put him in charge of the Barn Dance and he took the show on the road, building the popularity of the station throughout Western Ontario by performing in a different town every week.
But Doc was ambitious. He also wanted a television station and after much manoeuvering and persuading, he got it. On Nov. 15, 1955, he made his first broadcast from the new station built within the walls of the old high school on Carling Terrace in Wingham.
We got our first TV in the later 1950s, a gift from my sister who had a nursing job in Toronto. That’s where I really became familiar with the musicians, many of whom played at the Barn Dance, but also had jobs at the radio or television station. The Circle 8 Ranch gang included Rossie Mann, Ernie King and Don Robinson and the Ranch Boys. In a later time slot came the Golden Prairie Cowboys, with Earl and Martha Heywood, and the remarkable fiddler Al Cherny, who later became even more famous when he joined CBC.
The fame of the CKNX shows was such that inspiring performers sought them out, including Tommy Hunter, who has since played at the Jamboree/Campout, and even a very young Shania Twain who journeyed down from Timmins for an early performance before she went on to becoming one of the biggest names in country music.
Doc’s early station was destroyed in a fire in 1962 and many predicted the end of his magical efforts, but there was more magic to come. Other stations rushed spare equipment to Wingham and by nighttime, CKNX-TV was back on air from nearby F.E. Madill Secondary School. Doc rebuilt the station in the current building but the magic was running out. National advertisers didn’t want his limited audience. He was also an old man. He had died by 1971, when the television station was sold to CFPL, whose owner pledged to keep programming the same. But that owner, too, died and his family sold the two stations. Today there is no local television programming from Wingham.
But through the Barn Dance Jamboree and Campout, one of the successes of Doc Cruickshank has lived on, 50 years past his own lifetime and also past the death of Johnny Brent, who is so linked with the event.
But there’s also something sad about the last Barn Dance Jamboree and Campout. One of the achievements of Doc Cruickshank was that he gave a distinction to western Ontario.
His little station, first created in winter boredom, helped create a feeling of community, that we all shared something. The Barn Dance was part of that, and like many of the shops we bought our groceries and clothing in, it’s all gone now.
There are only a few things, like the Blyth Festival, that celebrate what a special place this is. Much of that pride was created by the little radio and television station Doc Cruickshank inspired.