Friday, 03 May 2013
Skatin' Along in the Hog Barn
PERSONAL NOTE FROM RONNI: One of The Elder Storytelling Place's most prolific contributors, Nancy Leitz, lost her husband this week after a long and wonderful marriage. There is a story at Time Goes By today.
By Dan Gogerty who blogs at Cast
Decades ago, the Ritland family didn’t worry about opening up their farm to the public — they encouraged it as long as folks were willing to trade their blue-suede shoes for roller skates.
In 1949, the Ritland brothers figured roller skates would produce a better profit margin than livestock on their central Iowa farm, so they talked their dad into building a barn that became a magnet of entertainment during the next 15 years.
They installed a maple hardwood floor so the skates would run true and when the barn was finished, a couple of the boys used a rope to pull a bicycle to the top. They planned to ride along the peak of the barn to celebrate the completion but Momma Ritland took the air out of that idea.
Instead, they placed a string of colored lights on top and the livestock barn became a beacon for surrounding small towns.
The 140-foot long, 60-foot wide floor would often hold 150 to 200 skaters of varying talents. Wednesday nights drew a large contingency of couples and the Ritlands might play the 12th Street Rag over the sound system so skaters could two-step, or a Glenn Miller tune so the floor would turn into a rotating waltz.
Romance came during the Moonlight Skate as the lights went low and couples floated around the mirror ball hanging from the center of the rafters.
The rink was a social hangout throughout the fifties with open skating three or four nights a week and parties scheduled on demand. Friday night crowds were younger and livelier so the Ritlands spent time fitting shoes on squirming feet and serving food to teens who wobbled on their skates like deer on ice.
As the 50s morphed into the American Graffiti Era, they started playing tunes by Buddy Holly and the Del Vikings. They showed teens how to skate with the new beat of rock and roll — including the “tangle-foot,” a type of toe-dance with a bit of Elvis-swivel thrown in.
Their limbo skating contests offered prizes and showed that Iowa had both talent and klutzes during the Eisenhower administration. Those with the best moves eventually took center stage and the usual crowd flow might stop to watch a couple waltzing backward or a show like the match-lighting act.
Irvin Ritland would skate in the middle while swinging his friend Kenny by one leg. Kenny had a wooden matchstick in his teeth and as Irvin twirled him around, he would eventually get low enough so he could light the match with his teeth by scraping it on the wooden floor.
We preteen novices were impressed by the “cool skaters.” Our night was successful if we could skate through the swinging doors of the toilet without rolling headlong into the urinal.
After a few weeks, we could maneuver up to the food counter without spilling someone’s cherry Coke and this is about the time we’d get suckered into a “crack the whip” episode.
So-called friends would skate by, reach out a hand and say “grab on.” After pulling us long enough to build up speed, the prankster would whip us around and catapult us toward another struggling skater or toward the wall in the shadows at the north end of the rink.
With special fifties-style uniforms on, the Ritlands kept the music flowing and the skating fun. On certain nights they organized activities for church groups or 4-H clubs. Sunday was “white shirt night” and on occasion, they would host high school class parties or Halloween costume contests.
They worked hard to entertain their customers with events such as the Grand March. While Souza music came over the speakers, four-somes or six-somes would move in formation, build archways and carry flags or banners.
The “bell skate” was also popular, especially with those hoping for a touch of romance. At the ring of a bell, couples would change partners and the object was to end up with the person “you were sweet on.”
By 1964, the colored lights went out for the last time, and eventually, the classic floor was sold. The building is now home to hogs, hay and tractors while cattle feed in the lot next to it.
Some of us can squint and see the Studebakers and Chevys parked in the glow of the yard light as the barn vibrates to the sound of Fats Domino and skates-on-wood, but “Skating Elvis” has left the building for good.
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