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100 years of memories at the Roller Barn

Neil Barn, known since 1950 at the Roller Barn, is 100 years old this month. The barn once housed cattle in the basement. Now that basement serves as a haunted house in October. The building
Neil Barn, known since 1950 at the Roller Barn, is 100 years old this month. The barn once housed cattle in the basement. Now that basement serves as a haunted house in October. The building's primary function is serving as the Boys & Girls Club of Oak Harbor.
— image credit: Ron Newberry / Whidbey News-Times

Even at 88, Helen Chatfield-Weeks is still known to do a little jig from time to time.

It makes her want to dance just knowing that a towering red wooden structure still stands tall in Oak Harbor.

The Neil Barn is home to many of her fond memories.

“I love to dance,” Chatfield-Weeks said, “and I loved to dance there. It’s really a sign of the olden days, you might say. That’s what people did in town; they had dances on Saturday night. It was what we did on the weekends.”

Feet have been pounding the floor boards of the Neil Barn in Oak Harbor for a century.

From its beginnings as a dairy farm, to its heydays as a roller rink in the 1950s, 60s and 70s until its current status as a boys and girls club, the Neil Barn has been a center for activity in Oak Harbor for generations.

Better known as the Roller Barn, a name it got in 1950, the towering wooden structure is 100 years old this month.

A century after Whidbey Islanders came by boat and horse carriage to dance the night away at the barn’s opening bash in June of 1913, a more mild party by comparison is taking place today to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the historic barn.

The Boys & Girls Club of Oak Harbor is opening the hatches on the barn for a free public celebration from 1-3 p.m. The party will include a barbecue, roller skating, a bounce house for kids and tour of the barn, which is located at 98 N.E. Barron Drive.

Not that Oak Harbor residents can’t spot it.

It seems every longtime resident past or present has a memory or story to share about the barn.

Sue Karahalios considers it a local icon.

“It’s one of the few historic things the city of Oak Harbor has,” said Karahalios, the former state representative and city councilwoman who’s lived in the city since 1963 and was president of the first youth center at the barn. “Hopefully, we won’t ever lose it. It is our history.”

Lots of dirt has been stirred up on the grounds since logger and dairy farmer James Andrew Neil ran a dairy farm on the property in the early 1900s and hired Dutch builder Otto VanDyk to construct what was at the time the largest barn on the West Coast.

The sight of cattle and horses turned to cars and teenagers after the barn was transformed into a roller rink by Soren Rasmussen and Darrell Ellis in 1950, and the barn has been a popular destination for youth ever since.

Karahalios, a 1967 graduate of Oak Harbor High School, remembers the teen dances in the summer the most and how they put her town on the map.

“KJR radio used to be the only rock and roll channel anybody would listen to,” she said, “and the Oak Harbor Roller Barn was on KJR. They used to talk about Oak Harbor’s Roller Barn. We had people coming from everywhere.

“Those dances were incredible.”

Over the years, the Neil Barn has survived the threat of a bulldozer and an arson attempt.

As portions of the property were sold off and apartments sprung up around it in the early 1990s, the Neil Barn was almost swallowed by residential development. The way it stands now, the barn is surrounded by apartment complexes, representing a stark contrast from the past and the present.

But in 1994, Whidbey developer Bill Massey sold the property to the Partnership with Youth at a generous price with the stipulation that the local landmark remain standing. The building filled a much needed void in the community at the time as a youth center for after-school and summer programs under the direction of staff and volunteers.

Partnership with Youth later became the Boys & Girls Club of Oak Harbor, which is a unit of the Boys & Girls Club of Snohomish County.

On a recent afternoon, dozens of kids were sprawled out at the center watching the movie, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” while others played basketball, foosball, pool and joined the staff in floor games. Some were fast asleep as the group had recently returned from swimming at the nearby John Vanderzicht Memorial Pool.

The boys and girls club recently began its summer camp program with more than 60 kids enrolled. The camp runs from 6:45 a.m. until 6 p.m. through Aug. 30.

Nikki Barone, the Oak Harbor unit’s new director, said between 60-100 kids show up in the afternoons during the school year.

“It’s busy,” she said, “but it’s fun.”

“I like it here,” said Xander Hodges, 7, who attends summer camp with his little sister Eden.

“I wouldn’t like it if it was still a barn.”

For about 10 days in October, Neil Barn becomes something all together different.

Since 2000, the ground floor of the barn has been transformed into “Frightville,” the most wicked haunted house on Whidbey Island.

The door to the haunted house’s entrance is visible as you walk into the Boys & Girls Club but remains locked. Inside the massive, musty basement that once housed cattle are haunted house props, including severed plastic body parts.

Volunteers come to Neil Barn as early as March to begin preparations for the haunted house.

“I have been downstairs working in the haunted house all alone and it can be really spooky,” said Duncan Chalfant, who is on club’s board of directors. “It’s big and it’s dark for the most part. There are times when the hair will stand up on the back of my neck.”

Chalfant will be on hand for the anniversary celebration and said the tour will include a walk through the area used for the haunted house. On the ceiling near the back of the basement, one can still see the black stains of smoke that occured during a failed arson attempt in 2011.

Once upstairs, Chalfant said he plans to open the ceiling hatch above the skating rink so guests may see a unique view of the rounded barn.

He said there’s about 30 feet of empty space between the ceiling and roof above it.

“There’s nothing there,” Chalfant said. “The roof holds itself up.”

Chalfant said the roof was inspected by a structural engineer about seven or eight years ago and it was deemed to be sound. The engineer told him heavy snow resting on the roof could pose the biggest problem.

Chalfant knows there will be a day sometime in the future when the Boys & Girls Club of Oak Harbor will have to look for a new home. The engineer told him costs would exceed $1 million to replace the roof.

“We’d like to stay there for as long as we can,” Chalfant said. “It’s the biggest place in town.

“It has its drawbacks, too. It’s a barn. It’s kind of cool in the winter time and kind of hot in the summer time. It is  a barn. Everybody there really likes the barn. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we realize it’s not going to last forever.”

But so far, it’s lasted 100 years and recently landed on the state’s Historic Barn Register.

“I am so happy that it is still being used by people,” Chatfield-Weeks said.

“It’s the heart, it’s the soul, it’s the spirit of Oak Harbor,” Karahalios said. “That is so important.”

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