The Last Dance: After 52 years, Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel will close Saturday night

Published 12:05 am Friday, August 26, 2016

By Mark Wineka

SALISBURY — Tonya Shoaf Barber doesn’t know what life is without the Wagon Wheel — this “barn dance” venue her grandfather started 52 years ago.

As a little girl, Barber wore a frilly dress, jumped up on a stage stool, and with Max Lanning playing the fiddle, she would sing “Walk Across Texas.”

Tonya grew up clogging on the Wagon Wheel’s wooden floors. On Friday and Saturday nights, she and her friends would take over a corner of this spacious place off U.S. 601, and as the years passed, they realized the barn dance was a good place to meet and talk about boys.

Tonya’s parents, Jimmy and Jean Shoaf, met each other here on July 4, 1964, during the first year of the barn dance’s operation. That’s just one more thing that makes closing Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel even harder.

Saturday night’s dance will be the last one.

“I can’t even hardly talk about it without being upset,” Tonya says. “I’ve done nothing but cry.”

It was a family discussion and an economic decision, says Tonya, who has been overseeing the Wagon Wheel in recent years with her husband, Jason. The Saturday night crowds had dwindled.

“I don’t know if it’s the changing times, but there are just a lot of other options people have — free options even,” Tonya says.

Saturday night’s dance will be held at the same time, from 7:30-11 p.m., and the popular band Double Shot will perform. Jimmy and Jean Shoaf will be there, of course.

“My daddy wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Tonya says. “What he is going to miss the most is the family he met up there. That’s his extended family.”

Jimmy Shoaf seemed to kiss every lady who walked through the door. And the Wagon Wheel regulars continually brought him gifts — such as watermelons and cantaloupes in the summer and cakes around the holidays.

Tonya Barber says she can’t say enough about the Wagon Wheel patrons who supported the place dance after dance, year after year.

While the dances will stop after Saturday night, the Wagon Wheel will live on. The Barbers hope to establish the Wagon Wheel Events Center, a place for functions such as weddings, receptions and family and class reunions.

“The options are limitless,” Tonya says. “We just have a great facility, and we don’t want it to go to waste. And who’s to say we won’t venture back into this again?”

The amazing thing about the Wagon Wheel was that it was always a Shoaf family operation. “We never had someone come in and run it for us,” Tonya says.

And there has never been a paid employee.

Tonya’s grandparents, Jim and Vera Mae Shoaf, used to entertain friends at their Rowan County home on weekends. In the summer, the Shoafs and their friends would dance in the front yard of the Shoaf home under lights Jim had strung from the trees.

A Victrola played the country music to which they danced.

In colder weather, the crowd would go down to the Shoafs’ basement, and it wasn’t unusual for people to bring covered dishes to share.

When the Shoafs’ home became too crowded for all the people showing up, Jim Shoaf rented places at Ellis Crossroads, a  local VFW hall, a gymnasium, then a spot in Mocksville.

In 1963, he contracted with A.L. Jarrell & Sons to build the 10,240-square-foot building off U.S 601 about 5 miles north of Salisbury. The oak dance floor is still in place, as is the deep stage to accommodate the house bands.

The ‘barn” has industrial-pipe rafters and a curved ceiling, suspended from which are old wagon wheels. For many years, the place was known as Jim Shoaf’s Barn Dance. It opened Feb. 15, 1964, with a gravel parking lot.

In the best of times, the Friday and Saturday night dances drew 250 to 300 people. As Jim and Vera Mae grew older, they turned over operations to Jimmy and Jean, who made a lot of improvements and cosmetic changes to the property.

Some years back, the family changed the name to Shoaf’s Wagon Wheel. The entrance off U.S. 601 is marked by a wagon wheel, sign and a red caboose, a tip of the hat to the family’s long connection to the railroad.

Jim Shoaf forged a 42-year career with Southern Railway as a brakeman. Jimmy followed in his footsteps as a conductor.

With the changing economic times, the Wagon Wheel stopped being open Friday nights and went to Saturday nights only. Like the Shoafs, many couples first set eyes on each other at the Wagon Wheel, and the place is old enough that children who used to attend with their parents now bring their grandchildren.

It has always been a family oriented place, with rules posted on the wall. The Wagon Wheel lasted more than a half century without serving alcohol.

Jim Shoaf used to like to end the dances with the “Tennessee Waltz,” while Jimmy Shoaf  came to prefer the song “Last Date.”

Saturday’s dance will end with Jimmy’s song. There might not be a dry eye in the house.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.