Tuesday, August 1, 2006

The Barn

Will Rogers said “I never met a man I didn’t like”.

I have never met a barn I didn’t like.

The old barns that we see today were one the most wonderful places on earth. They were here, not only for their practical purpose, but for children to form memories of times past and to form character that led you into adulthood. Barns, like people, are all quite different; they each have their own distinct look and personality. There are no two alike. Barns weather all four seasons, looking forward with anticipation to the next season for each one brings its own bounty to be stored within. They are built on strong foundations, which have carried them through years of keeping families together. Families of people and families of animals.

Granny’s barn was the one place I so looked forward to spending time in. Time all by myself to get in touch with my own mind, or to get away from my mind, to figure things out, to cry, to rest or to laugh. The big double doors in front hung a little askew on hinges that had been forged on an anvil long years ago by someone unknown to me. They would swing wide, like open arms to welcome you in for whatever reason you were there for. Never refusing you, never failing to give you comfort and never failing to leave an indelible memory that would follow you throughout the rest of your life.

Affluence back then was measured in how many barns you had. If you had a stock barn, an equipment barn, a tobacco barn, a hay barn, or combinations of all the above, you were considered wealthy. Our one barn incorporated all of the above. The foundation timbers had been leveled long ago on huge boulder like rocks for the cornerstones. Most of the timbers were oak that were 2-3 feet thick, worn slick over years of wear, barkless and hard as the rocks they were sitting upon. There were notches cut out for the cross braces. Some of the nails were also hand forged, especially the older parts of the barn. The sides of the barn were weathered and gray sawmill lumber that had hung there and aged through the years. Some of the wood had become so hard it was near impossible to drive in a nail, the nail would just bend double the first time you hit it with a hammer. There had been additions hammered onto the existing barn as funds and needs permitted. There were stalls with half doors for the horses and a stall for the cow. The pig pen was attached part inside and part outside. Most of the time the other animals were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Sometimes they could be found in their stall resting when the sun was unbearably hot or when the ground was frozen and a foot of snow on the roof. We kept fresh hay for them to lie on, cleaning it out each day or every other day with a pitchfork and putting the muck in a manure pile out back to be used on the crops next spring. The cow had a calf each year and there was a stall for the calf when we separated it from its mother. Granny had a galvanized bucket with a rubber “udder” near the bottom that would be filled with fresh milk from its mother. That way, there was a bucket full for him and a bucket full for us. The calf would butt and pull on that false udder to try and get more milk out. I loved to watch them do that. When the calf got big enough to be weaned from the “udder” bucket, it would be taken to the stockyard and sold, then we would have fresh milk until the next year when the old cow went “dry” and we had to take her and get her another calf so we could begin getting milk again. The cow stall was where we milked and went through all the trials and tribulations of that event. The smell of the stalls was never distasteful to me; it seemed a comfort to be in there with the animals.

Beside the big front doors was a section to store tobacco sticks. These were 6’ long oak 2x2 inch sticks that had been used year after year until they were smooth as a baby’s behind, no splinters or anything to be rough on your hands come tobacco cutting time. They had been used for many years to spike the ripe burley which would be hung between the tier poles to dry. There was a tack room where all the bridles and harness were kept, mended and oiled. This was the one room that had a wooden floor with 4 inch wide oak boards that were also worn slick by many years of use. The horse shoes and horse shoeing tools were kept in there. One of the work horses feet were so big, the hooves had to be trimmed with an axe, a regular hoof knife wouldn’t budge them. The smell of neets foot oil, saddle soap and leather polish penetrated the age old boards in the tack room. The floor of the barn was dirt, packed from years of use. It was swept occasionally when the barn was empty of hay or tobacco. Above the stalls was a loft where the hay was stored, timothy, fescue, oats and combinations of all three. The absolute best place in the world was lying up there after a fresh cutting of hay had been baled and brought up there. One of our horses, old John, would wait in the barn when we were putting up hay and sneak a bite as the bale went by him on its way to the loft. The smell of new mown hay was a happy smell. When all the hay had been ricked, I would make a little tunnel between the bales. The tunnel would wind its way back behind rows of bales. I then moved the bales around to make a little hidden room. I could pull the bales in behind me and just hide and think. It was a great place to pretend, to dream, to escape or to just lie and look through the cracks at the world around me. There were holes above the animal stalls leading to feed troughs in the stalls below, so all you had to do was go up to the loft, cut the bale and put the slices down for the animals.

The other side of the barn was row upon row of tier poles. These were poles of young trees that had been cut and stripped. They were all about the same diameter and the same length. They were spaced an equal distance apart and they went all the way to the top of the barn. Come tobacco cutting time, the stakes of tobacco would be brought into the barn and handed up to a person stationed on each tier, filling up the top of the barn first. There the tobacco would hang, turning from yellow to brown and curing as the autumn winds swirled through the barn. Further on into the fall, we waited until the right time for the tobacco to come in “case”, at which time, the hanging process was reversed, only starting at the bottom of the tier and then taking the load of burley to the casing house. Being in “case” meant the leaves had cured and contained just the right amount of moisture so it could be handled easily without being brittle and breaking apart. The casing house was a small separate structure that was used to hand grade the tobacco and get it ready for market. The bottom part was made of rock (remember we grew an abundance of rock each year on the farm) and was set into the side of a hill. The back side of the casing house was dirt, as was the floor. The upper story was built of chestnut lumber. This was where the tobacco was packed on packing crates and kept until all was ready to take to market. The lower story was damp and the tobacco would stay in case so it could be handled easier. The leaves were stripped from the stalk and the tobacco was “graded”, according to the size and quality of the leaves. The leaves would be gathered in your hand, ends together, for as long as you could hold them in one hand without dropping any, then the ends were bound with another leaf and they were placed in the tobacco crate and readied for market. Thus comes the reason I never smoked but one cigarette in my whole life. I decided one fine day I would make me a cigarette and start smoking. It was really cool to smoke. I had seen mama and papa and all my uncles with cigarettes and granny with snuff, so it seemed like a good time for me to start. Uncle Ed had his tobacco in a flat, red Prince Albert can. He would take a real thin piece of white paper, sprinkle some Prince Albert on it, roll it until it was about as big around as a pencil, then lick the paper to hold it together. My mind absorbed most all the details, so I figured I could do it without any problem (I knew everything back then, don’t you know). I took a good looking brown leaf off a stalk of tobacco hanging in the barn, crushed it up and wrapped it in a brown paper bag. I even licked the ends of the paper to hold it together (but the thing turned out to be much bigger than a pencil so I knew I had to practice more). This being done, I hid in one of the stalls and “fired up” my rolled cigarette. It wasn’t long before I was green as a gourd and the absolute sickest I have ever been in my entire life. When I finally made it back to the house, after fearing I was going to die before I got there, I feigned the flu or the plague or some other such disastrous illness. It took me about three days to get over that error in judgment. I told myself “self”,” “Anything that makes you that sick is bound not to be good for you”. Granny gave me a cure all dose of castor oil anyway. I don’t think I had her fooled for a minute. I have been smokeless ever since.

We never painted our barn, it was just the plain gray boards, weathered and warped and some replaced. The roof was tin. Rainy days were wonderful lying on the hay and listening to the rain on the roof, maybe brushing the horses while they nibbled. The barn was used for storage for seasonal items that weren’t used year round, like the molasses mill, the cider press, the tobacco canvas and the yoke that fit around the cow’s neck to keep her from jumping the fence. It was sometimes used as a home for the barn owl and the barn swallow. Sometimes you would see a barn with “See Rock City” painted on the side. I think the Rock City owners paid the farmer a pittance to paint this advertisement on their barns.

Are barns built from a set of blueprints? I don’t think so. I never heard of them if there were. No matter what part of the country you travel to, each demographic has its own unique style to their barns.

Now the farms are slowly dying, not being able to sustain themselves any longer. They are giving way to developers who build mirrored McMansions that have no personality. As we travel the roadsides, we can see that usually the barns are the last to go. Maybe they think if they cut all the trees down and leave the barn; it will seem to be more “rural”. It breaks my heart to see that. The barns are standing there, all alone and abandoned. It is like destroying a piece of history, a piece of the framework that built us into what we are today. The barns are sad, they have lost their families. Their families of horses, cows and people. The stray chickens are gone. Gone is the day an old hen would break away from the chicken house to nest in the barn or to roost on one of the tier poles.

Folks love to photograph old barns and to paint old barns on canvas; but unless you were there in the time when the barn was an essential part of life, you cannot add the personality that the barn emits. The photo or painted canvas lacks the soul and heart and memories that the barn has stored for all these years. Those of us who have been blessed to have spent part of their lives with a connection to a barn have grown closer to the land, to the environment and have learned that the biggest and newest is not always best.

Written by : Judy Ricker