Video: Hall in the Family; East Thetford Barn Restored to Former Glory as Huntington’s Pavilion

Sunday, September 07, 2014
East Thetford — Stepping out on a recent Saturday evening, m ore than 100 people headed to Huntington’s Pavilion. As they crossed the threshold of the once-thriving dance hall, many were also stepping back in time.

Freeman and Nonie Robie, of Piermont, had frequented the East Thetford barn in the 1940s.

“Back then, they had a dance hall in every town,” said Freeman, 89. “The dance halls have all been disbanded.”

After serving as a workshop for decades, the barn opened last month for a public dance, the first in more than 40 years. Transforming the space to suit its original purpose required years of effort.

“We have this dance hall in the family,” said Merit Scotford, whose mother, Anne Scotford , owns the property on Pavilion Road. “It needs to be a dance hall.”

It seemed, that evening, that the dancers would agree. Many sporting big smiles, they whirled across the floor, which vibrated with their energetic steps. Some had brought bright flowers from their gardens, decorations for the tables draped in blue-and-white checked tablecloths and laden with homemade goodies for a dessert potluck. A warm light seeped from the windows into the dark , cool night.

John Huntington built the barn on his property around 1930, and for the next three decades it was among the region’s dancing hot spots. It was rebuilt following the hurricane of 1938, which tipped the whole upper structure onto the railroad tracks, Merit Scotford said, but the well-loved wooden floor survived.

The hall closed in the early 1960s when the property was sold, according to an article by Larry Coffin, president of the Bradford Historical Society, published in the Journal Opinion in 2008. Anne Scotford bought the place in 1972 with her husband, who used the barn as a woodworking shop. John Scotford, a designer for Dartmouth College, grew up during the Depression and never threw anything away, Merit Scotford said in a telephone interview. Over the decades, the red barn filled with typesetting equipment and tools, lumber, doors and windows.

After he died in 2000, the family decided to clean out the barn. Guided by Anne Scotford, they gave away or sold the miscellany her husband had collected.

Merit’s sister Martha Scotford, a now retired North Carolina State University professor, chipped away at the project every summer vacation for almost a decade. A huge fan donated by their sister and brother-in-law, Sara and David Pierson, cools the place “so we can dance in the summer,” Merit said.

Other family members and friends also applied plenty of elbow grease, painting and making repairs, and last year the floor was refinished.

Arriving at the barn Saturday night, Phil Greene, of North Andover, Mass., was impressed with what he saw.

“This is a really nice floor,” Greene said. “I’m excited to dance on it.”

Avid dancers, he and his girlfriend, Mora Thornton, had made a special trip to take part in the East Thetford event. “It’s a very strong community,” said Thornton, a student at Colby-Sawyer College.

Greene ran a stiff wire brush over the soles of their dance shoes, which harden over time, he said, and then the couple joined the scores of people do-si-do-ing and promenading to tunes played by the Blind Squirrel s .

Some of the dancers, like Thornton and Greene, were experienced. But novices needn’t have worried. Caller David Millstone skillfully led the crowd through contra and square dances, reminding them of the steps along the way.

“David is a fabulous caller,” said Merit Scotford, who caught the contra dance bug in the early 1970s. “If you can walk and count to eight at the same time, you’re good. By the end (of the night), you feel like a dancer.”

But not everyone came to dance. Some, like Arthur Pease, spent the evening chatting about old times, adding color and texture to family histories they have pieced together, story by shared story.

Copies of promotional posters from half a century ago line the walls inside the barn. One promises prompting by Arthur’s father, G lenn Pease, who led dances at the barn, which was also known as East Thetford Pavilion.

Born in 1946, Arthur Pease missed out on that era, but he has collected the family lore.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, his father and siblings “would pile into the farm truck” and head off to a weekend dance, said Pease, a retired history teacher whose brother Gerald also attended the dance. “I remember as a kid hearing the stories.”

In his article, Coffin said large crowds of area residents turned out for the weekly dances at Huntington’s Pavilion, which was known for its fine dance floor.

The hall and others like it played a part in what he calls New England’s “long history of dancing,” which included balls held in homes and hotels, junkets in farmhouse kitchens, and, eventually, the commercial dances held in “converted barns, halls, inns and pavilions.”

“Opportunities to dance to live music blossomed at the end of Prohibition and continued into the ’70s,” said Coffin. “Almost any night of the week, blue laws allowing, one or more dances were held in the area. They provided a social highlight for singles and married couples.”

In a telephone interview, Coffin said he learned to square dance in Orford Town Hall under callers that included Pease and George Smith. The older folks were really good about encouraging young people to learn, he said. “It was great fun.”

Merit Scotford said she hopes the old-fashioned barn dance will become an annual tradition.

“This is what the building was meant for,” she said, watching the couples swing and swirl. “It’s very nice to have it back.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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