Home and Shop Companion 0143
Home and Shop Companion 0143

Rural Ramblings – Winter 1983
Ralph C. Miller

“So,” she said, “suppose he does write about where he’s been – does he always have to go around Robin Hood’s barn to get there?” – I have no defense for that accusation, nor do I apologize for my penchant for old things. After all, as the wife of an octogenarian archeologist once said, “After he has spent a lifetime studying old bones, you’d be surprised how young mine look to him.” Sometimes old is more fascinating.

That brings me right back to where I finished up in the last column – talking about the old barn I had noted in Washburn County, Wisconsin. I spend a good deal of time looking at barns as I travel, especially the old ones. Now I wasn’t born in a barn – my dad built the house first – but the barn was a close second. It must have arrived about the same time I did, and my earliest recollections always included the barn.

Like many of you out there, on a visit, often as not, I’d wind up in the barn. I guess I just felt more comfortable there. I still usually get there eventually when I go to a farm. It’s natural to so many of us, and yet odd as it seems, there are thousands, maybe millions who have never set foot in a barn. Nor do I mean only city folks; there are farm kids, farm owners and even farmers who have never known barns, nor feel the need of them. I have trouble relating to that and I admit my prejudice – How can you be a farmer without a barn?

No, my oft referred to cave dwelling herder didn’t have a barn, nor have I ever seen a record of when they were first constructed. We might suppose the earliest buildings to house animals were erected in northern Europe – some cold climate surely – and at an educated guess were joint affairs. I’m relatively sure those earliest structures were to keep the elements off humans and animals alike, and the reason for that extended down to fairly recent times. Not only was doing chores easier when you didn’t have to brave the cold and snow, but the body heat of the animals was certainly a contributing factor in man’s survival. The Scandinavians and early Dutch settlers probably brought the idea to the new world, along with the French in Eastern Canada. I don’t think it was that prevalent in England, at least not since 1600.

Although some Scandinavian buildings had humans above and cattle on the ground floor, more of such arrangements probably separated the uses all in one story, with the hay, grain and threshing floor in the center. I spoke, in a column on Milkmaids, of having been in a barn like that in the Netherlands back in the 1960’s. I have seen a building in Oregon that is purported to be stables below and living quarters above, but not having been in it, I can’t vouch for the truth of that. From time immemorial, hired men and travelers have bedded down in the hay; I have slept in a barn loft or three myself on occasion. That’s no longer a primary purpose for most barns, however.

The name barn (as we know it) is of comparatively recent origin. For a long time in England, a barn was a building for the storage of hay, grains and forage crops, and was usually built around a threshing floor. The grain was spread over this and the kernels beaten out with a flail, or animals were driven round and round to dislodge the grain from the heads. Through ventilation from prevailing winds, most of the chaff to clean the grain was carried away. The grain was then stored in bins in the same building until needed. Animals were housed in separate buildings, cow ‘byres,’ ‘sheep folds,’ ‘sties’ for pigs and ‘stables’ for horses.

Some of those names have come down to us, but as we combined the purposes we lumped them all into the umbrella term of barn. We Americans may have special purpose structures which we call barns but mostly refer to buildings which house both animals and their provender. That’s the type of barn I generally speak of.

Although this is a Journal for Small Farmers, I make no distinction as to size – I look with almost equal pleasure on the huge buildings often found in Pennsylvania, Ohio and my native Wisconsin, or the smaller barns built to house only a couple of animals. Big barns are frequently impressive by sheer bulk, but oft times the smaller ones have more character. You can tell something of a farm and its owner by the barn.

A long ago good friend, Lynn Matteson, who was our County Agricultural Agent (it’s no coincidence that he and Lynn Miller have the same first name) used to say that you could always tell who was boss in the family by the comparative size and lavishness of the house and barn. Big barn – the farmer was boss, especially if the house was small or drab. Conversely, if only the house was new and imposing, it was probably the farmer’s wife who ruled the roost. In our state, there were possibly more big barns, but there were many in the undecided column as well.

Joking aside, I suppose it’s often true that the barn is a reflection of its owner and has a story to tell. Actually, I guess I just like barns for their own sakes. And I’m obviously not alone. Old barns have been a favorite subject for artists for time out of mind. I know of one fairly well-known artist who admitted to having painted one particular barn from different angles, in different lights and seasons, no less than 23 times. As I said – character!

Some age gracefully, with fading paint or time silvered boards, but standing sturdy withall through the years and the elements. Some lean drunkenly, bow or sag as a sot in the last throes of dissipation; and some just seem to sink into the surrounding landscape, crumbling to dusty nothingness, leaving scarce a trace of a once proud stature – a sad commentary on the durability of once bright hopes.

We had a recent letter from reader Sig Langhei of nearby Lebanon, Oregon, who spoke of spotting some old timbers stacked in a field. Sig was impressed by them and wondered if we might someday do a column on the almost forgotten craft of such building without bolts or nails. That poses a subject in itself, but it does bear on that durability I mentioned. Those big timbers from enormous trees, cut, hewn, mortised for tenons and drilled for pins, provided the reason and circumstance for the barns which have withstood the ravages of time the best. A hundred years is nothing to barns so constructed. Would that more such craftsmen had the time, skill and patience to duplicate them today.

Many consider the Log Barn an American invention, although it probably originated in the forests of northern Europe long years before this country was settled. There were no log barns in England as far as is known, although the French Canadians used them early on. They are usually smallish structures, of hewn or squared logs, and belong to the class that ages well and gracefully. I appreciate old log barns immensely and the labor and craft that constructed them.

Plain and utilitarian structures, even past their prime, have the charm of worth and dignity of years, but every once in a while I encounter a real gem. Something beyond the ordinary, that by virtue of the imagination and inventiveness of the originator, becomes of itself a treasured recollection. There are cupolas that spring to mind, window treatments, unique brick or stone work, even lightning rods or wind vanes. Sometimes it is the shape, as in round or octagon barns, or the way it takes advantage of the surroundings and lie of the land. Sheet metal roofs add nothing to the character, although they may be eminently practical, but old shingles, shakes and the few thatch roofs I have seen lend themselves to pleasurable viewing.

Sometimes the character of a barn is set by no more than colorful painting. If you are old enough or fortunate enough, you may be able to recall the days when many a barn was backdrop for painted signs, as enterprising merchants and businessess engaged barn walls to tout wares and services. Campbell’s Soups, I recall, Fiske Tires, the inevitable Coca-Cola and the granddaddy of them all, ‘Bull Durham.’ Of course barns were often billboards, forerunner of modern outdoor advertising. The ones I remember best were always circus posters or for the Chatauqua, but they were many and varied.

Not all barns are painted, of course, and some people may think that odd. I remember querying Lynn Matteson about his father’s outbuildings, which were as the lumber came from the saw. He said it was a dollars and cents decision. It was cheaper to build new buildings than the expense of keeping them painted. The cost of materials and labor in these days probably changes that picture. It isn’t always possible to organize a barn raising ‘bee’ anymore, either.

I have to confess that the barn on our place was never painted, nor was it ever very old. I think it only stood something like 30 or 35 years, but it’s a very prominent part of my barn recollections. A high gabled structure across the back for a hay barn with a shed or lean-to roof covering a lower portion for the animals. It is a style frequently found even today, but whereas the larger structure is usually constructed first and the shed added later, ours was built in reverse order.

We had a hay fork on track and trolley, for raising the loose hay into the barn. After a disastrous house fire in 1929, we tore down the hay shed to use in rebuilding the house – then the same track and hay fork was moved to Grandpa’s barn on the next farm. I stacked hay in both, as well as riding or leading ‘Babe’ to pull the hay fork up; hot and sticky work, but I always enjoyed it.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t around the barn while they were putting in hay. I think I wasn’t five years old yet when Grandpa threw his big barley fork down from the top of the mow and asked me to set it up in the loose hay. He was 6’2” and 240 pounds, so he used the big six tined fork. Very carefully I got hold of the handle and jammed the outside tine all the way through my bare foot. Sixty odd years later, you can barely see the scar, but I learned a quick respect for sharp tools.

An even earlier episode in that barn also made me smart. We had an old dark red cow with a lot of Devon blood and a lot of the Devil, as well. She was a kicker and was usually hobbled with kicking chains when being milked. One time when I was about three, I was standing directly behind her when she wasn’t hobbled. She caught me right on the forehead and knocked me against the outside curb where I lay stunned. Finally Dad decided she wasn’t worth the effort to gentle her and she turned up a bit later as a warm, lined cowhide robe. That lasted about 40 years, I guess, and my own children used it eventually.

The hayshed section had a couple of open panels and my White Holland turkeys preferred to roost on the cross members of the two bents that braced the high roof. Up there, they were high enough that nothing could get to them except perhaps an owl; the owls seemed to prefer something a little easier to tackle than a turkey.

Owls often live in barns; they can hide there in the daytime where crows can’t pester them, and they can feed off mice, snakes and other varmints (sometimes an unwary chicken, if it comes too close). On Lynn’s Home Farm, there is a big old barn, 80 – 100 years old, and it is home to a big white owl. Lynn thinks it’s a snowy owl, but I suspect it is just a barn owl that has lived there so long he’s a little grayer than usual. I suspect, too, that he has done away with hundreds, maybe thousands of rodents over the years. Since the barn is a long way from the chicken house, such temptation is slight.

Like owls, mice are quick to adopt a barn as home, which usually means cats and kittens are encouraged to take residence. The fat tabbies of the hearth may be mostly decorations, but barn cats earn their keep. Not just mice, but rats, weasels, gophers and other rodents frequent barns and granaries. A good hunting cat was always a fixture in our barn; fresh milk morning and evening was a fringe benefit. Even though I no longer have livestock in mv barn, our cat sleeps out there.

We have run some excellent articles on barns of various types lately, from Mr. Russell and others, and there are some fine strong buildings being erected. I can’t fault folks for wanting the latest in modern techniques, all wired, plumbed and with the newest, fanciest gadgets. If you can afford them, why not? Also safety is a prime consideration, and that must include adequate ventilation. When I was a boy (as well as in most older barns I see), ventilation was hardly that much of a problem. If the farmer happened to step on one of the cats I mentioned, it could probably go right through a crack or a hole in any wall. With loose hay in the mow, you had to leave lots of cracks to lessen the risk of fire.

There is something about being inside a haymow on a bright summer day – it is usually cooler there or at least the dimness gives that illusion. Then from every crack and pinhole springs a beam of sunlight with a million dancing motes of dust. Probably most farmers don’t have the time to relish that, but farm boys do; or else things have changed more than I think.

On choreless Sundays, especially rainy ones, the barn was often a country boy’s equivalent of TV. Two boys or a half dozen could spend a long afternoon lying in the mow (and lying to each other) while raindrops droned overhead. On a busy farm, such stolen hours were all the sweeter for being so rare. There were houses in our neighborhood that I seldom entered, but I knew all the barns intimately. On the rare occasions when a sufficient number of children gathered, our game was usually Hide ’n Seek with the barn the primary focus.

Barns were a neighborhood center in many ways. There was the occasional auction, often attended by an undercurrent of tragedy – that Depression made this recent one look like a picnic. Happier times included barn raising bees and of course the frequent barn dances. I’m not sure if any are held today, but I went to many as a boy and young man, and approved of them highly. As social events, as wholesome family entertainment, even sometimes as fundraisers, barn dances were a community tradition.

Aside from local musicians playing a variety of instruments that almost automatically included the fiddle and the ‘cordeen’ (it wasn’t necessary that they played well if they kept time and could play loud), all you needed was an empty hay mow. That meant only at that time of year that the cows had finished their winter supply and the fresh crop wasn’t quite ready to cut. If barns were a long standing tradition in the country, so were June weddings. I always wondered at a possible connection!

Wisconsin has been a dairy state for generations, so it follows that it has always had some notable barns. The years between the world wars were great ones for new barn buildings, and through much of that period they also contained provision for horse stalls. Most of them were wooden buildings or with frame above a lower story of stone or cement block. My grandfather’s barn was block below and he built it all himself, even made his own block a few at a time until he had enough. It’s still standing. I saw it this spring, although ours has been gone for nearly 30 years.

Progress is inevitable, I suppose, but I mourn the passing of so many of them. With smaller acreages being swallowed up by the bigger places, old barns seem superfluous and just in the way. Of course some are still standing, silent anachronisms entirely engulfed by cities. The craze for old barn boards as a hot decorator’s item caused many a downfall as well. Barns disappeared into such unlikely places as dinettes, taverns and executive boardrooms, a piece at a time. My personal preference would be to reverse that trend. I think a few of those might profitably be turned into stables and serve a much more useful purpose.

Barns, at least the type we have been speaking about, usually denote a diversified agriculture – the kind most ecologically sound and economically stable. Barns are a symbol of the farmer’s commitment and intention, and the good ones last long after the originator is gone. Many a barn has served generations of the same family and stands like a monument to their thrift and industry. It would be a sadder and emptier world if the day ever dawns on landscapes without barns.

Home and Shop Companion 0143

Home and Shop Companion 0143