Wineka column: After 50 years, Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel still draws a Saturday night dancing crowd

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 9, 2014

SALISBURY — Willie Shaver cuts a sharp image in his black cowboy hat, bolo tie, vest and pointed boots.
He has been coming to the barn dance at Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel since he was a teenager — close to 50 years — and Shaver looks forward to the nights when he can dress up. He takes it seriously.
“This is a public place,” Shaver explains.
Early on this Saturday night, sitting alone, Shaver watches a group of Wagon Wheel patrons to his right go through the up-and-back, side-to-side patterns of a line dance.
“What they’re doing,” he says, “I can’t do that. I think I have three left feet.”
But when the band announces a Paul Jones dance — a “get-acquainted” exercise in which men and women change partners whenever a whistle sounds — Shaver maneuvers quickly through the tables and onto the dance floor.
Forget the three left feet. Shaver glides from lady to lady, dancing like Fred Astaire.
And so it goes every Saturday night at Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel — a unique country and western venue on U.S. 601 that will celebrate a half century in business next Saturday night.
“I love the people here, and I love to dance,” Angie Basinger says. “It’s like a second home to us.”
Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel remains a good place to meet people of every age and status — whether it be young, old, single, married, widowed, divorced or just friends.
There’s also nothing wrong with a woman asking a man to dance here. Many men and women have first set eyes on each other at the barn dance and later married. Children who came here with their parents are now bringing their grandchildren.
“It is like family,” Billie Menius says. “As a matter of fact, there’s a 2-week-old baby over there.”
Throughout its 50 years, the barn dance has been associated with one family — the Shoafs. The roots of their passion actually go back almost 65 years.
As early as 1950, Jim and Vera Mae Shoaf used to entertain friends at their Rowan County home on weekends with country records played on a Victrola. During the summer, folks would gather in their front yard to dance under lights Jim Shoaf strung from trees.
In the winter, everyone would pile into the Shoafs’ basement to dance, sometimes bringing a covered dish to share.
Shoaf, who had a 42-year career as a brakeman with Southern Railway, eventually needed a bigger weekend space. He moved his round and square dances to Ellis Crossroads and a local VFW hall, then a gymnasium.
When he started charging 25 cents at the VFW, his friends complained, so he resorted to passing the hat to cover his expenses.
The Shoafs later rented a place in Mocksville, before hiring A.L. Jarrell & Sons Construction in 1963 to build today’s 10,240-square-foot structure about 5 miles north of Salisbury.
The steel-and cement-block building featured an oak dance floor, still in place and continually praised by today’s hoofers. It included a 32-foot-long, 16-foot-deep stage, more than accommodating for the house band.
Shoaf also built a snack bar and benches all around the outer perimeter. The industrial-type rafters and curved ceiling still give the place the feel of an old gymnasium or airplane hangar.
Suspended from the ceiling, old wagon wheels became the signature decor, and the family named their place “Jim Shoaf’s Barn Dance.”
On the dance hall’s first night, Feb. 15, 1964, an all-day rain made the gravel parking lot a muddy mess, and men carried their wives and dates from cars to the front door.
It was an auspicious beginning, but people kept coming back. In the barn dance’s heyday, crowds typically numbered 250 to 300 people, and folks came from as far away as the mountains.
Saturday nights still draw a good crowd.
Jim Shoaf expected his customers to dress appropriately and leave alcohol outside the building. At first, Shoaf wouldn’t even allow cowboy hats — a stipulation that faded away with fashion.
But today’s rules for attire, posted on the front door, remain simple: “No baseball hats. Men’s shirts must be tucked in (and have sleeves). Pants must be worn around the waist.”
“You wear what you want to,” says 77-year-old Carrie Ray, a regular to the dance since the mid 1990s, “but I like to dress up on a Saturday night.”
On this night, she wore a shimmering white jacket.
From the beginning, Jim and Vera Mae Shoaf wanted their barn dance to be family-oriented — and it always has been.
“I feel like it’s a safe environment for children to be around music and dancing,” says Christina Lucas, who recently spent a Saturday night at Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel with her daughter, Aubrey, 9, and son, Clayton, 5.
Lucas’ father, J.L. Lucas, used to play the bass and sing at the barn dance, where he met Christina’s mother.
Christina later came here as a teenager, “and now I’m bringing my children,” she says.
For decades without fail, the barn dance was open Friday and Saturday nights — now it’s only Saturdays.
The Shoafs always arranged their vacations to make sure the barn dance was open on the weekend.
As Jim and Vera Mae grew older, they turned over the operations to son Jimmy Shoaf and his wife, Jean, who met each other at the barn dance on July 4, 1964.
“She’s been hanging around ever since,” Jimmy protests. The couple have been married almost 48 years.
Over time, they made significant cosmetic changes to the property, adding the siding, metal roof, lighted sign and paved parking on the outside.
Jimmy, a retired conductor with Norfolk Southern, also introduced the tables and chairs around the dance floor — a major change, but something he thinks his customers appreciated.
In addition, the Shoafs remodeled the stage and expanded the women’s bathroom, because of the long lines.
“It has changed,” Jimmy Shoaf acknowledges, “but it stays the same.”
Jimmy and Jean’s daughter, Tonya Barber, also has assumed a big role in the dance hall’s operation, and the family changed the name a couple of years ago to “Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel.”
The entrance off U.S. 601 is marked by a wagon wheel and a red caboose, reflecting the family’s strong connection to the railroad.
“That’s a good landmark,” Jimmy says.
On dance nights, Jimmy Shoaf often sits on the left side of the stage. Tonya mans the entrance and collects the $8 admission fee, and Jean oversees the concession stand.
Tonya’s husband, Jason, handles a lot of errands, while Jimmy and Jean’s five grandchildren are scattered about. There never have been any paid employees.
Jim Shoaf died in 1993; Vera Mae, in 1996. “These dances were his life, and they became mine,” Vera said back in 1994.
Jim Shoaf always liked for “Tennessee Waltz” to be the last song of the night. Jimmy Shoaf now prefers “Last Date.”
The square dancing of the old barn dance days has given way to line dancing, two-stepping and slow and fast dancing to vibrant country music.
Mostly local bands take their turns at the Wagon Wheel, rotating in about once a month.
Despite the Wagon Wheel’s long history, misconceptions still abound. It once had a reputation as a rowdy place, probably because of the crowds gathering in the parking lot during breaks in the music.
But alcohol has never been allowed, and the Shoafs always had a good handle on crowd control. Today, hardly anybody goes outside, except maybe to smoke near the wagon at the front door.
The Shoafs still run into local people who think the Wagon Wheel is a restaurant or have no idea what’s inside the big building on the hill.
“You’d be surprised about how many people in Salisbury don’t know about it,” Jean Shoaf says.
Edward Williams, a retired textile worker from China Grove, says he came to Jim Shoaf’s Barn Dance the night it opened in 1964.
He met his long-lost sweetheart, Mary Ruth, here and is a regular every Saturday night, dancing with as many different women as possible.
“You’re talking to a man who has seen it all,” says Williams, 86. “I just love to dance. This is my home away from home.”
Makaleigh Lowder, 8, and her brother, Gabarian, 6, sometimes come to the barn dance with their grandmother, Barbara Lowe.
“It’s a very good family place to come to,” Lowe says.
Bea Raymer says the barn dance is safe, plus, “You can pay $8 and have $1,000 worth of fun.”
Douglas and Betty Drye often make the trip from Rockwell. “We just try to stay active,” Betty says.
Patricia Howard says she grew up at the Wagon Wheel, and her family never makes Saturday night plans without the Wheel’s being at the top of the list.
Eric Tyner, 14, and Gage King, 11, figure they started being buddies about five years ago at the Wagon Wheel. They’ve become accomplished Western-style dancers, and they acknowledge it’s a good way to meet girls.
“We work together, basically,” Gage says, and the boys share a laugh.
Tom Blackwelder of Mooresville and Sonny Stroud of Advance, both 71, have been making the Wagon Wheel part of their Saturday night routine for the past eight years.
Blackwelder says he meets up with his “sweetheart” at the Wagon Wheel.
Blackwelder went to school with Jean Shoaf, and he remembers coming to the barn dance when it first opened in 1964.
Blackwelder raves about the dance floor, “and we really like the band,” he says of the Delmonicos, who are playing this particular night.
For the Shoaf family, the Wagon Wheel is an integral part of life, maybe even a lifestyle. As a business, family members always treated it as supplemental income.
“We didn’t make a fortune,” Jimmy says, “but it paid for itself.”
At the concession stand, Jean sells nachos, slushies, soft drinks, popcorn, candy bars, pickles, hot sausages, Rolaids and Goody’s headache powder. She also makes sure Carrie Ray has a coffee waiting for her when she comes through the door every Saturday night.
Tonya Barber, who works full-time at the Hefner VA Medical Center, conducts Zumba classes at the Wagon Wheel three nights a week. She also heads the Wagon Wheel Cloggers, who practice here.
The Wagon Wheel also has become the Franklin Precinct voting location, and it’s often the home for weddings and political meetings.
The Shoaf family puts considerable time into decorating the barn dance for holidays, especially July Fourth, Christmas and New Year’s.
Jimmy and Jean live next to the dance hall, and they often maneuver around their family compound in a golf cart.
Jimmy says he’s proud of the Wagon Wheel and thinks his dad would be, too. It never gets old for Shoaf, because of one thing.
“I have bunches of people coming to see me,” he says, “and I look forward to seeing them.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or