“Barn talk” is trendy these days. There are websites, seminars and speaking engagements, books and art exhibits dedicated to barns. Rescuing and restoring old barns is a passion for some folks. My barn can only be rekindled in my memory, and I have been doing this for years, not really realizing that I was not the only person to have a personal relationship with a barn.
When it was created in the 1920’s in Dundy County Nebraska, the family farmstead consisted of a house and a barn. The original barn was an upright red building that later had sheds tacked on three sides. It really wasn’t a very distinctive structure, just functional as a place for hay storage in the center. Stalls with mangers abutting the haymow on the east were added for the workhorses and their harnesses were hung on the sidewalls. Cows were milked as they stood in these stalls. The west shed housed cattle during storms and the north shed alternately shedded the family car or served as a pen to catch cattle or hogs for a loading alley. Other than going out to the barn to listen to the pigeons cooing in the boxes that Dad had hung up for them near the rafters, I have few memories of that building.
We first visited The Barn in the autumn of 1950. The Bureau of Reclamation had proclaimed that all farm sites in the Republican River Valley in an area between Stratton and Trenton, Nebraska, would be removed or if left would be covered with a body of water that would establish the Trenton Dam. Dad and Mom had decided that a well-built barn would compliment our farmstead and buying and moving a barn from one of these sites would be an economical and efficient way to achieve their dream.
We drove to the farm site that gray, Sunday afternoon and I remember walking through the front Dutch door into the large, strange darkness for the first time. Even as a ten-year-old, I knew that this was a momentous time in our family’s life. Mom had brought the camera to begin recording the new life of The Barn. She never “wasted” film, but the importance of the occasion is still evidenced in the family photo album by the number of black and white photos of different angles and shots of The Barn.
The die was cast. Time was of the essence, as the Government was ready to begin the evacuation of everything in the valley. The house mover was contacted and the site selected in our yard for the foundation. The barn was jacked up on stringers and the mover’s truck was positioned at the helm for the journey from the rich river bottom home, up and over the hills the twenty miles to our home on the north divide in another county. From the photo in the album the barn crouches like a large tumblebug, caught in motion as it follows the tiny movers’ truck across the cane field just east of our house. While I was away at school, it seemed to have appeared in our yard from out of nowhere. This large German styled barn with the gambrel roof seemed larger than life when it was finally sitting in its appointed place across the yard facing the house. That spring Dad hired a handy man to help build wooden corral fences and to paint them and the barn with white paint.
The forty-eight foot long aisle from the front Dutch door to the far end of the barn was cement as were the floors in the feed room and granary, which were positioned on either side. Electric light switches were assessable just inside the door. But, to my mind, the most wonderful part of the barn was the actual stairway (not a ladder as in most barns) positioned along the wall leading up to the haymow. When you were at the top of the stairs, this vast open expanse spread out before you. Windows high up on either side of the peaks at each end allowed light to filter in, catching dust motes in limbo. The tongue-and-groove floor was the greatest for roller-skating. As time went by, Mom, who never threw anything of value away, decided that years of accumulated weekly Saturday Evening Post magazines that she had been storing in a bedroom closet would be safe up in the haymow. This became a favorite escape spot for me to while away summer afternoons.
By the time I was twelve, Dad decided I was ready for the 4-H “baby beef” project as we now had a corral and barn that would be an appropriate home for them. I was ecstatic. It was a win-win situation for all. Mom thought it was a good way for me to learn responsibility and earn some money. Dad thought it was a good way to “showcase” some of his Hereford steers. And I liked everything about the project for the next three years. The barn was synonymous with the calves—feeding them, currying their coats and training them to lead with a halter and lead rope for the show at the County Fair.
During the early evening of July 7, 1957, after a hot muggy day, clouds billowed and grew to nasty proportions in the western skies. The wind escalated and dust obscured the view of the out buildings from the house. As we looked out the kitchen windows, I think we all realized we would have been wise to have taken refuge in the basement. But the time for that was past and we simply sat around the kitchen table, listening to the roar of the wind and particles of windborne debris hitting the house and windows. Then the heavy rainfall began and the dust was gone. I don’t remember who first realized that the windmill tower just west of the house yard was gone, then, the red barn was gone and finally the white barn was just a heap of lumber to the east of its foundation. When the rain let up, Dad and I went out with a flashlight and discovered other out buildings were also demolished. My 4-H calves had escaped with their lives but were so wild that we didn’t attempt to get them back. Besides, the corrals were simply matchsticks like the buildings. I had been sleeping on the sunporch that summer to catch the summer breezes and I remember that as I got ready to lay down on the cot that night, I could not make myself look out the window at the devastation. The next day, we discovered nine cows dead along a downed “live” electric power line. I have no idea the monetary value that was lost in that storm. We had no insurance to cover the buildings or cattle. Although the house and garage were spared, rebuilding looked monumental to Dad and Mom. Before school started that fall, Dad and Mom bought a house in town at an auction and we became town dwellers.
Twenty-one years later, my husband and I and our three children moved back to the farm and cleaned up the rubble that had lain there so many years. Today we have no barn. We look at those pictures in the album and think what might have been. Every year on July 7th, I think of that night and the sadness remains in my heart to this day, nearly forty-five years later.
I think my barn was not trendy. A barn is the heart of the farm and my barn was and is a personal memory. I think it was a symbol of the independent spirit of a farm family.