Dancing the time away

WHITE EARTH It is a bit of the Old West. At least western North Dakota, but it is showing its age.

A few friendly cats move out of the way for patrons wishing to get inside. Heat comes from a homemade fireplace that burns ash logs gathered from stands in the nearby White Earth valley. The pleasant smell of sweet burning ash fills the room, pushed by a jerry-rigged old furnace blower attached to the side of the fireplace. A dusty old trophy case contains a few momentos from the past, mostly from a long defunct local wildlife club.

On a wall near the entrance is a framed poster of L.V. Coulter, candidate for sheriff in Williams County in 1912. Behind the bar is an old cash register, the kind with the oversized keys and no electrical cord. Customer’s charges are shown on metal plates that pop up when a transaction is completed. Anywhere else the old register would be considered an antique, but not here. It is still used everyday. Welcome to Poncho’s.

Poncho’s was constructed by Francis William Royer. Royer was raised in Eugene, Ore., but was working as a welder in Yakima, Wash., when oil was discovered near Tioga in 1951.

“They struck oil in February of ’51 and in November of ’51 everything shut down on the coast,” said Alfred “Buddy” Royer, his son. “Dad got work welding in the oil field here so we came back. We lived that first year in White Earth. Then he built a house out here and after that a bar. Then he quit welding and just ran the bar.”

Buddy’s mother was from White Earth. Her parents homesteaded on land adjacent to where Poncho’s is located along old Highway 2 in the White Earth Valley. Francis “Poncho” Royer constructed the business in 1953. The floor for the 106’x54′ building was moved in from nearby Stanley. Poncho had purchased an old building known as “The Den.” He only wanted the floor.

“He moved the floor down here and built this building on top of that floor,” explained Royer. “The floor was the only thing that came out of that old building on the fairgrounds in Stanley. As I remember, it belonged to the firemen.”

Buddy Royer was 17 years old in 1953, old enough to remember construction of Poncho’s. He’s 79 now. He and his wife, Marge, have managed to keep the doors of the aging facility open.

“We put up a little kitchen off the bar quite a few years ago,” said Royer. “She mainly sells shrimp. She has nice, big shrimp she puts out. People come from quite a ways away to get a shrimp dinner.”

Poncho’s was known as a regional “hot spot” in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The big building featured a stage and dance floor. It was an attraction that appealed to people from a wide area.

“We had a lot of main bands here at one time,” recalled Royer. “We had T. Texas Tyler, one of the main bands back in those days.”

Today the dance floor area of Poncho’s is closed. It is used for storage. Francis Royer was known as a collector of many items, some of which remain housed in the building today. The bar area remains much as it was in 1953.

The White Earth Valley Wildlife Club used to hold regular meetings at Ponchos. Plaques and awards the club earned are still on display in an old trophy case. Most of the awards are dated in the 1960s.

“They all got too old, I think,” remarked Buddy Royer from the comfort of an old bar stool converted to a tall arm chair. The fabric coating the chair’s arms had long worn away.

Big change came to Poncho’s in the 1980s. Narrow and heavily traveled Highway 2 that ran immediately past Poncho’s was upgraded to a four-lane and moved south of the facility. That meant traffic no longer flowed past the club with the colorful Poncho’s letters on top. Bands became too big an expense.

Once off the beaten path, Poncho’s began to decline in popularity. Francis Royer passed away in 1985, leaving Buddy and Marge to operate the facility.

“Some people maybe thought he was Mexican but he wasn’t,” said Royer. “He was French and Irish. He was a little, short guy. He’d get so bundled up that I guess the other oil workers thought he looked like Poncho Villa. That’s where the name came from.”

Royer said he had a potential buyer for Poncho’s several months ago. A Minneapolis group expressed interest in rejuvinating the building and converting it into a steakhouse and lounge. According to Royer the deal fell through when it was discovered that Poncho’s was never zoned for commercial activity.

“When he built this there wasn’t even zoning, you know. Not in the small towns and out in the county especially,” explained Royer.

By the time Mountrail County approved a zone change, the purchasing party was no longer interested in the property.

“It’s okay. We live right here anyhow and didn’t really want to leave,” said Royer.

Today White Earth and the surrounding region finds itself undergoing even greater change than it did in the 1980s. The area is well inside the Bakken oilfield. A number of camps have sprung up in White Earth and traffic on Highway 2 is constant. With so much activity in the area, Poncho’s had picked up a few new customers too.

“We still have the locals and a lot of people working the oil fields come here,” said Royer. “We don’t seem to have much trouble. They have to get to work early in the morning.”

Deer season brings in a few additional customers to Poncho’s every November. This year, with fewer licenses available, Royer wonders how many hunters show up. Minnesota Vikings football is still a draw on Sundays.

“We get a few for that. They like it and we put out a little buffet too,” said Royer.