The highlight of a Highlands summer was the excellent fiddling, buck dancing, and clogging found only at Helen’s Barn. Tickets to the dances cost 25¢ with upwards of 100 people in attendance. Off season dances for locals were free. In winter, a pot bellied stove—and lots of energetic movement—ensured that everyone kept warm.
Helen’s Barn was built in 1932 on four acres of land bought with the $2,000 received from the Carnegie Institute for the bravery of her husband, Charlie Wright. After his death in 1927, his widow—left with five children—decided to open a square dance hall. The barn was located in the heart of Highlands, on the corner of 1st and Main Streets, but burned suspiciously in 1934. Apparently, not everyone in Highlands appreciated the music, dance, and beer.
Helen Cabe Wright Wilson and her children hosted more than 50 summers of square dancing and brought visitors and local residents together to enjoy traditional music and dance. After Helen’s death in 1959, her children managed Helen’s Barn until 1984.
Re-built in 1934, the new barn was constructed in the center of Helen’s four acre plot. For 50 years, the site served as a venue for local exhibition teams who danced several times a week at the request of summer visitors. Because there were no other public buildings, roller skating, auctions, plays, craft shows, and reunions were booked into the barn.
The Keeners were a typical Mountain String Band with a guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin. Siblings Donald, Dixie, and Mel played at Helen’s Barn along with an unknown mandolin player. Proprietor Helen Wright Wilson can be seen standing at the far right in this photograph. The fiddler in the color photograph is Don Green, accompanied by his brother on guitar.
Clogging is a type of step dance in which the dancer strikes the floor to create a rhythm. While clogging is sometimes called Buck Dancing, in the latter dance, performers keep their bodies immobile and their steps low to the floor.
A caller would call out the steps to keep dancers together. All three types of dances are done to fiddle music and are common throughout the southern Appalachians.