Anyone who grew up on a farm is very familiar with this imposing structure, which was really the centerpiece of a farming operation. There was the sight of the barn as I tried to make it out in the darkness of the night or in the blinding snow; there was the smell of the barn that after a visit there, followed me all the way into the house where everyone then knew where I had just been; and then there was the comfort of the barn where I could forget about all the cares and trials of the day as I listened to the animals communicating in their own separate ways.
Some have referred to the barn as the “cathedral of the cow.” I never had that impression at all — it was rather the “devil’s domain of the bull.” It was the bull, who was not confined to the stanchion who greeted me if I dared to walk into his domain, and even if he did have a large ring in his nose, that I was told to grab and twist if he gave me any trouble, that was something I never had the courage to do. So I would leave to return later when he was wandering about in the pen outside the barn.
Our barn was not the imposing structure that my brother’s barn was, so when I visited him, I liked to climb the straight-up ladder to the loft, which was full of loose hay in the summer. I liked to find the spot that was right above where my brother was seated milking a cow, and would drop the loose hay down through the space between the floor boards until he yelled at me to “stop that.” When my friends visited, we would walk the half-mile over to his place where we would play hide-and-go-seek in the loft. It was always a shock when I was trying to find the neighbor boy, looking from one end of the loft to the other, and then he would suddenly jump up from a pile of hay that he had burrowed into. And how I loved to stay up there until it got dark and it seemed like I could reach out and touch the stars — if it was dark enough I could not even see the ground below. That was when I knew that there was a God up there who had created this wonderful sight.
Back at our own farm I could visit the barn anytime I wanted — it wasn’t as big or as majestic as my brother’s, but I felt I had a certain kind of ownership there. Yes, the barn stunk — but it wasn’t all that offensive. Of course the prominent smell was that of the manure, but there was also the smell of the hay, the smell of the rain when it leaked into the barn and the smell of the feed the animals were eating. I did have to be careful not to step into the fresh manure as it was slippery and one could easily slip and fall – then you had manure not only on your shoes but also on your clothes. And there was always fresh manure, as the animals were not inclined to use the manure trough that ran parallel behind the stanchioned cows. Cleaning off my shoes before going into the house was very important, as my mother did not appreciate my tracking manure onto her clean kitchen floor. It was not always easy getting the manure off the shoes, so I would rub my feet on the grass, scrap them on the steps, or just take them off and leave them outside for a later wash-down.
The sounds inside the barn were always peaceful and comfortable. The cows bawling as they ate their supper, the sheep bleating at each other, and the pigs grunting as they made room for themselves at the feeder. And I loved listening to the milk hit the tin pail as my brother milked the cows — sometimes squirting some milk into the waiting barn cat’s mouth. After we got electricity on the farm, the boys brought an old Admiral Radio out to the barn, and it seemed that the “twangy” country-western music soothed the soul of the human and animal alike. Then there was the time that my younger brother was out in the shed trying to crank-up his car before heading out to pick up his date for the night, and the engine started on fire. He yelled at me to “go get your brother,” who was milking, to come and help. When I relayed this message, he took the full pail of milk and ran to the small fire and doused it with the milk. Then he instructed me – “do not tell Dad that I used the milk to put out the fire.”
Cleaning the barn was a ritual that had to be taken care of before the manure piled up to high along the back wall of the barn. To do this the manure-spreader would be parked outside the barn door and the manure was shoveled-up and pitched into the spreader. We usually had hired men on the farm, and I remember the one hired man that my father described as “simple.” Every time he carried a shovel of manure out to the spreader he would hit his head on the low ceiling beam. Each time he hit his head he would exclaim, “Oops” — but he never remembered to duck under the beam — so by the end of the day he had a big, shiny red bump on his forehead.
In the spring of each year I loved to go to the barn to greet the newborn baby sheep, pigs and calves. But if I was there when a cow came “due” my father would tell me to “run for the house as fast as you can, because the stork is coming with a baby calf, and if you are here then the stork will pick you up and take him back with him.” So unlike most farm kids I never witnessed the births that took place in that old barn. I did not see a cow deliver a calf until I was all grown-up — and then I was kind of glad that that was not one of my memories.
So many of the barns are gone now. They have been replaced by huge milking barns and long narrow pig houses. But when I travel out East I am amazed to see old barns that have been left along the roadsides, a reminder of a simpler time. My grandson drove me along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania one June where I could look up on the hillside of the Kittitinny Mountains and see the palatial houses of today — but close to the road there would be a barn of yesteryear, majestic and proud and forever standing the progress of time.