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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Fifty years is a long time.
Fifty years of rehearsals.
Fifty years of members coming and going.
Fifty years of all kinds of weather.
And now, 50 years later, the Dunn County Barbershoppers will be performing their 50th annual harmony show April 13 at Colfax High School, “Malt Shoppe Mania.”
Dave McNaughton, the only remaining charter member of the original Dunn County Barbershoppers, provided some of the history of the organization to the Colfax Messenger.
“It was during the hot summer of 1967 that talk of singing barbershop harmony began to be heard in the Colfax, Wisconsin, area. Dr. Harlan Earnhart, druggist Juul Noer, Dana Bronken, and two or three others decided to meet regularly and share their love for singing that a cappella, four-part, close harmony known as barbershop,” McNaughton wrote.
“It was not too difficult, it was fun, and it helped a guy to feel good all over — so they began to spread their enthusiasm and invited their friends to get together, to sing in quartets, and even to form a larger group,” he said.
McNaughton served as the musical director for the Dunn County Barbershoppers for 38 years. In 2016, McNaughton decided to join the chorus as a baritone, and Dan Heike took over as musical director.
Gary Thorson of Colfax, who has been a member of the Dunn County Barbershoppers for 42 years, brought a picture to the Colfax Messenger office from the early days of the Barbershoppers.
Longtime residents of Colfax who look closely at the photograph will recognize a few familiar faces: Joe Alms, Dr. Earnhart, Tom Earl, Bill LaRue, Juul Noer, Erling Peterson, Juel Stalson, Gaylord Thorson, Ken Valaske, Tim Vettrus.
According to an article published in the April 3, 1969, Colfax Messenger, the Colfax Barbershoppers were ready to join the national barbershoppers organization that spring.
“The Colfax Barbershoppers, to date an independent organization, is soon to join forces with the national group, The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. (SPEBSQSIA).
“A licensing night is to be held by the local group at the village auditorium on Wednesday night, April 16, starting at eight o’clock. At this meeting a field representative, Lloyd Steinkamp, will be on hand to help tie up any loose ends as concerns the local group being licensed.
“Advantages of being affiliated with the national group are many and varied which include identification with a strong administrative staff dedicated to making each member group a strong success.
“Each barbershopper, past and present, will be contacted either personally or by phone to determine his availability of attending this meeting. Wives of the barbershoppers are invited to this meeting on April 16. Refreshments are to be served following the meeting.”
By the spring of 1970, the “Colfax 7” had grown to an excited group of 35 men, and the charter night show was held on May 1, 1970, McNaughton said.
“The Dunn County, WI, Chapter quickly became one of the most enjoyable musical performing organizations in Western Wisconsin,” he said.
“It was the way that four voices could blend to make such a pleasing sound and, also, how singing together seemed to chase away the cares of the day that drew men to the Chapter,” McNaughton said.
“The guys loved to sing, and they soon found that they were also being helped to become even better singers. They liked the idea of ‘outreach’ performing to serve the area communities, service clubs, hospitals, nursing homes and schools. It was the barbershop music that brought them together, and the bond was the friendship and fellowship,” he said.
Quartets have always been an important part of the Dunn County Barbershoppers, and soon after the chapter was established, quartets began performing around the area.
The first quartet was the Mellow Four, featuring Terry O’Connell, Earl Knight, Harold Moy and Art Barnhart.
Then Harlan Earnhart convinced three other men to sing with him, and the Red Cedar Sharps were formed.
The Dunn Four, featuring Dave McNaughton, Ken Valaske, Wally Bjork, and any tenor they could convince to sing with them, soon followed, and “the establishment of the Chapter’s quartet-singing emphasis was adopted,” McNaughton said.
In the history of the Dunn County Barbershoppers, the longest lived quartet was Hometown Harmony from 1977 to 1996, known for their “good, tight harmonies and interest in entering the Barbershop Harmony Society contests for the enjoyment of rubbing elbows with other barbershoppers and for the improvement gained,” he said.
Also from the beginning, the Dunn County Barbershoppers Northern Lights Chorus has also been active in competition with other groups, McNaughton noted.
“By the 1990s, the chorus contest awards for exceptional performance were regularly being earned. Gentlemen have come and gone for various reasons, but the Northern Lights family has continued to produce over 15 performances each year … (and) the chorus has been the centerpiece of the annual spring shows,” he said.
February to May
In the early years, the Dunn County Barbershoppers shows were as early as February and as late as into May, Thorson said.
The time varied depending upon when they could get the guest quartets to come and perform, he said.
“We perform in area churches one Sunday per month, and that’s been ongoing ever since the very first. We perform for Music in the Park [in Colfax], at the Ludington Guard band shell [Menomonie], banquets once in a while, singing Valentines, all those kinds of things,” Thorson said.
Thorson’s father, Gaylord Thorson, was in the Dunn County Barbershoppers almost from the beginning as well.
For many years, the Dunn County Barbershoppers harmony show has been held in April — except for 2018.
“It was the first time in 49 years we had to postpone the show until the second of June,” Thorson said.
On that weekend in April when the show was scheduled in 2018, a snowstorm was predicted. Because the Barbershoppers come from all around the area, because people who come to watch the show come from all around the area, and because the guest quartets come from farther away, the decision was made to postpone the show in the interests of safety.
“Over the years, we’ve had international champions on the show a number of times, district champions, comedy quartets. All kinds of fun stuff,” Thorson said.,
While Thorson said he has always enjoyed singing, he did not sing at all while he was in high school.
“My dad was with it, and I helped do the staging on the shows for a while before I joined. It was Al Meyer who invited me along to sing. I thought it was kind of fun. ‘I’ll have to do this,’” he said.
The Dunn County Barbershoppers are always looking for people to sing with them during the summer, and some of those people enjoy it so much, “they gravitate into membership,” Thorson said.
In years past, Barbershoppers would bring their sons and grandsons to join.
“That has not happened now for a long time. Their kids have all grown up and moved away,” Thorson said.
The Dunn County Barbershoppers are proud to have one high school student in their midst from Colfax, Dalton Bradford, he noted.
“Today’s members hail all the way from Bloomer to Mondovi and Eau Claire to Menomonie, and the circle of musical companionship continues to expand,” McNaughton said.
Malt Shoppe Mania
Each Dunn County Barbershoppers harmony show has a theme, and this year’s theme for the 50th show is “Malt Shoppe Mania.”
The show will be performed at the Martin Anderson Gymnasium at Colfax High School on Saturday, April 13, at 7 p.m.
In addition to the Northern Lights Chorus and the Heartstrings and Colfax Crossing quartets, the show will feature Storm Front, gold medal international quartet champions, and St. Croix Crossing, the 2018 international senior quartet champions.
Tickets are $12 at the door, and $3 for students under the age of 18. The “Afterglow” is $2 and will be held this year at the Whitetail Golf Course south of Colfax.