Emmitsburg man keeps barn dancers dancing HOEDOWN HEAVEN


EMMITSBURG -- When the scaly swamp monster last crawled out of the slime here at Sugar Tree Farm, it left a key that God-fearing men believed opened the gates of hell.

The creature lurched back into its mythical world of darkness after three shotgun blasts at close range failed to fell it. That was 40, 50 years ago, and no one has seen the monster since.

No one saw it Saturday certainly, although a few costumed creatures showed up for Slim Harrison's barn dance and potluck dinner. Slim, who's been 6-foot-5 since he was 15, owns a chunk of Sugar Tree Farm, and he puts on what he believes are the last, regularly scheduled, genuine barn dances in the state.

"They're the only ones I know of," says Slim, standing outside his farmhouse as tall and straight as a cornstalk. "There used to be lots of them. Talk to the old-timers, and they'll tell you there used to be one every weekend."

Slim's 37, son of a Methodist preacher, and he plays old-time music on a myriad of instruments, teaches country dancing and American folk music in schools all over Maryland, and keeps an old-time tradition alive by holding square dances in his barn twice a year -- the first Saturday in May and the Saturday closest to Halloween.

The hoedown Saturday in Slim's old barn was the culmination of a magical day at Sugar Tree Farm, which has an Emmitsburg mailing address but is so far back in the woods of Frederick County you half expect a scaly monster to slither out of the darkness into the glowing circle of Slim's bonfire, especially after Slim starts telling Halloween stories.

Below the barn is a pasture of grazing sheep that slopes down to a pond, and beyond the pond across the dirt road is Eyler's Valley Chapel, a lovely stone chapel built in 1857.

In the late afternoon the view from Slim's of the pond and the chapel and the mountain behind the chapel is stunning. The setting sun beats on the mountain -- actually, Round Knob of College Mountain -- and the reflection of yellows, oranges and rusts splashes onto the mirror surface of the pond.

When the sheep scamper along the pond's edge they seem to be rushing past a pit of growling fire. That's as close as it gets to hell at Slim's, even though he relishes telling the tale of the swamp creature and its key to the seething lower world.

This setting is closer to heaven, really, and you know it at dusk when, down at the stone chapel, the soft glow of candles appears in the windows. They're holding a candlelight wedding.

Up at Slim's, they're having a hoedown. In the spirit of Halloween, kids have carved pumpkins, lit them with candles and lined the jack-o'-lanterns along the path from the farmhouse to the barn. Outside the path it is black as a monster's eyes.

From the barn comes the crackle and the whine of banjos, guitars and fiddles, and the singsong cadence of Slim calling dances. He stands tall behind a microphone in a denim jacket and bluejeans, strumming a banjo and occasionally blowing a whistle in a holder around his neck.

When you step through the flimsy wooden door into Slim's dimly lit old barn, you feel as if you're stepping into a page of an American history book. Square dancing is "the true folk dance of America," says John Kaltenthaler, executive secretary of the International Association of Square Dance, based in Pocono Pines, Pa.

Settlers forging West would no sooner erect a barn than they'd hold a square dance -- hence the term "barn dance." But barn dances are rare in 1990. You're more likely to find a square dance in a resort hotel.

Slim started going to square dances in the 1960s when he was in junior high school in Harford County -- dances in barns, fire halls, schools, churches.

"It probably wasn't cool," Slim says now. "But we lived in the country, and there probably were only two cools kids in the whole school, and they'd moved up from Baltimore or something."

Slim's father the preacher loved bluegrass, and his mother played the piano and autoharp and sang songs, some of which, Slim says, really weren't fit for a pastor's wife. So Slim grew up around music, a variety of music, and around people who weren't afraid to dance to their musical fancies.

A preacher friend of his father used to form jug bands in the kitchen of his farm, and Slim remembers folks playing spoons and pots and pans, washboards and even an old plow blade hanging from a pipe. As it turned out, years later, Slim bought a portion of the man's farm, Sugar Tree Farm, and now lives in the farmhouse and holds dances in the barn.

After holding his first dance in 1979, Slim tried putting them on monthly. Not enough people showed up, so he cut back to two a year. Plus, he couldn't spend all his time holding free dances. He had to make a living.

Slim had patched together a career as a musician after years of picking apples, washing dishes, working as a camp counselor, leading canoe trips and trimming trees. He had learned from friends and relatives to play the fiddle, banjo, autoharp, mandolin, guitar and dulcimer -- not to mention the spoons, Jew's harp, washtub bass, jug, mouth bow and whammy-diddle (an instrument made out of a tree branch and a Popsicle stick.)

He worked out residency programs with the Maryland State Arts Council and the Institute for Early Learning through the Arts in which he visits schools and teaches students (teachers, principals, custodians, too) about folk dancing and, as he calls it, "good-time mountain music."

"It introduces them to something besides New Kids on the Block," he says.

And twice a year Slim sends out word that he's holding another barn dance, and he builds a bonfire out back by the barn and sets up speakers in the barn and hopes for a clear, chilly night, like Saturday night, when scaly monsters with keys to hell lurk in the swamp, as meteors in dazzling streaks dance and die in heaven.

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