Another Barn Falls In
by Brandt Ainsworth of Franklinville, NY
artwork by Brandt’s son, Nicholas
The barn was built around a century ago. A pair of double doors on the front flapped when the wind blew, and a short service door was on the side. It wasn’t a big barn, about 30 feet wide by 40 feet long with a small hay mow above. It had a couple of windows for light, and of course a window in the peak. There was a hitching rail outside that gave it a certain welcoming charm. A charm that seemed to say, “tie up to the rail, and c’mon in.” Maybe it looked welcoming because it had more the shape of a house, than the shape we picture when we think, “barn.” It wasn’t really much of a barn, but it was different, and I always admired it. I often wondered if it was a blacksmith shop in the old days, despite being so far from the village.
I saw the old barn just yesterday, when I was headed home with a load of fence posts. Nobody was around, so I tied the team to a rotted pair of ropes on the the hitching rail and poked around. I fought with small boxelder and sumac trees as I walked around the outside. Looking from the South, it was clear the barn had a definite lean; probably beyond repair. Probably nobody cared anyway, but me. The roof was in good shape, and after nosing around inside, I figured a little work could save it. I knew, however, that there’s nobody who cares enough to do the little work.
I climbed the ladder to the mow, and saw that it was empty except for an old pair of fly nets. I watched my step as I walked around the hay mow. I saw the name, “Edgar”, carved into a rafter with a jack knife. I strained to get close to see if there was a last name I could make out, but slipped on some hay chaff. I caught my footing before my leg went down the hay chute. It took me back to when I was a boy carving my name with a jack knife in an old barn not far away. It also took me back to when I was a 13 year old boy, who became a thirteen year old man when my Dad fell down a hay chute and spent two weeks in the hospital; leaving me to run the farm mostly by myself. My rattling around caused the door to the mow to blow open giving enough light on the wall so I could read some faint words written in pencil. The lettering was the kind taught in a one room school house, and said: “first load of hay put in this barn on June 29, 1914.”
I went back down the ladder. There wasn’t much left downstairs either. A moth-chewed, tick-faced collar, a set of dusty hame covers and various other draft horse supplies nobody bothered to take when they left. The old cider barrel was still in the rafters by the door, but there was no more of the good hard cider in it. A couple of tin cups hung on nails by the barrel, one I think used to be a strip cup for milking, before the old timers used it just for the more fun chore of consuming last fall’s apple crop. I thought about taking one of the cups with me as a keepsake, before the old barn falls in, but it would look out of place with nothing hanging from the nail where the cup hung for so long, so I left it there. My tribute to the old cider drinkers who liked to haunt this barn.
I walked back out the front doors that were stuck open, and gathered up my team. I gave the old barn one last look, before I remembered that I had fence to build so I wouldn’t have to chase cows. As I drove posts, and pounded staples, I thought about what barns used to mean.
Our language is full of expressions about barns. We often use them, but don’t think of the meaning. A show off is said to think of himself: “He thinks he’s so big he can eat hay over the big beam.” A poor shot “can’t hit the broad side of a barn.” Lots of fun stuff happened “out behind the barn.” One with poor manners was “raised in a barn.” A lively event is “a real barn burner.” There’s also proverbs like: “Rain in May – barn full of hay, a wet June will change that tune.” We use the language, but forget how central barns were to our lives.
Growing up on the farm, we always appreciated the content feeling of a full barn in the fall. When the hay mow was full, the straw mow up to the first hip, the grain bins heaped up and screened off from cats, and all the livestock was inside. It was a feeling of accomplishment, relief, contentment, pride, safety, and readiness. “Bring on winter, we’ve got all we need right here in this barn.”
The old timers were justified in their pride for the barns they built and filled. These men were farmers who built these impressive structures, they weren’t professional engineers, designers, masons or even carpenters. They were men that tilled the fields and raised stock who built some of the most impressive, efficient, and picturesque architecture in America. Whatever the type, one hip, two hip, round roof, gamble roof, mail pouch tobacco painted barns, stone walls, board siding or whatever you picture in your mind. You have your old barn, and I have mine. No matter how different the design, it’s still the same.
We’re in the process of building a barn as I write this. The same 30 feet by 40 feet as the nearby barn that’s about to fall in. It will have a good size mow, and more stalls than I need for my horses and oxen, and some overhang lean-tos for equipment. The truth is it will be a dream come true. My first real “horse barn,” not a modified dairy barn. I can picture leaning the collars against the door, drying the sweaty pads in the sun. I can see, possibly next spring, unhooking the black oxen from the Leroy plow, after turning perfect furrows all morning, and taking off the ten and a half inch yoke in the doorway, while the team waits patiently. I can also see, someday, coming home with the big trophy from the horse pull and putting it just inside the door as I pet the team after winning a big pull.
I’m sure the old timers had similar dreams when they built their masterpieces. Maybe their dreams were more practical than mine, my dreams are always bigger than my actions. Maybe their dreams were of simple self-sufficiency with the new barn. I can’t be sure. I can be sure, however, that these men would roll in their graves if they saw their once stately barns falling in, or being torn down to save on taxes. Maybe I should downsize my barn dreams to a simple dream of not having to watch this barn fall in someday while nobody seems to care but me.
Brandt Ainsworth trains horses and oxen.