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  • Writer's pictureRogene "Jeannie" McPherson, Country Notebook

Thinking of old barns

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

The Mound City Historical Society recently renovated this barn. (File photo)

Country Notebook by Rogene "Jeannie" McPherson

If I were an artist, I would paint pictures of vintage barns. An artist I am not, and even if I were to paint the actual barn, I would be messy and have paint on my face and arms.

If I were a photographer, I would take photos of old barns around eastern Kansas. I am not a photographer either, and the best I can do is an occasional photo on my smart phone.

If I were a storyteller, I would create tales of haunted barns leading to a hilarious ending. I’m not much of a storyteller either. But I am a writer of observations. This week I’m thinking about old barns.

From very early recollections, my Dad and Grandfather put up hay in mounds and then using a tractor and hay rack attached to the tractor moved them into the pasture or feedlot. In later years, a hay baler was purchased creating the small rectangular bales allowing the hay to be stored in a barn or shed.

Always before harvest, but after haying season, my Dad and brother put small bales on an open grain auger which pushed them into the barn’s large, second-story loft. My Dad still had a few milk cows and likely the hay was thrown into the hay trough below.

Along highways and by-ways, many of what I call the classic barn can be seen. With help from the internet, these barns have a gambrel roof with two slopes on each side. The upper slope is typically wider than the lower slope but not as steep. Each barn may have looked a little different than a neighbor’s, depending upon where the family originated. Often these were gambrel or mansard roofs.

Either design provided the advantage of a sloped roof to assist with snow melting while maximizing headroom inside. I can only imagine the challenges of shingling a roof of this type with the builders having good balance and a sense of adventure. My brother had a “classic” barn and roofers he contacted would not take on the danger.

My family’s barn is still standing, but has become home to critters like mice, raccoons and the occasional bobcat sticking his head out one of the doors. The barn is completely covered with tin, top and sides, thereby protecting the wooden interior, but the Midwest winds are harsh. First a corner of tin comes loose and then the wind gradually pulls up the entire section. One more building to tear down.

A lover of old barns, like me, wonders why we don’t salvage the historical remnants of years ago. With crop production bringing in the primary income, without cattle or other animals, restoration is cost-prohibitive unless the barn can be salvaged for other purposes such as storing farm machinery. I also love animals and am saddened that few cattle in today’s market will ever experience protection from the sun, hail, rain, or snow.

My research for this writing project is anything but scientific, but a guess would be that around one-third of the old barns are still standing, but with a newer metal roof. Many farmyards have replaced or added a machinery barn with new construction methods and building done by major suppliers. Part of the barn is built off site with remaining metal sides and roof done on-site in contrast to the barn-raising community events of previous centuries.

Time marches on and we can either accept the wear and tear of old barns due to weather and usage or we can look for ways to salvage all or part of the building. The tin on the old barn I described above will go to a recycling center.

I recently ran across a story my mother kept called “Old Barns and Old People.” (anonymous)

To summarize, a city dweller had plans to build a new home and wanted lumber from an old barn to line the walls of his den. The farmer laughed especially when the gentlemen called it beautiful because the winters had been harsh, the paint was all gone, and the sun scorched the wood.

Eventually the farmer sold the old barn to make something else beautiful, realizing that people weather, too, in dry spells and stormy seasons. At the end, our souls become beautiful. God, the builder, has a place for each of us in His heavenly house. Maybe I’ll become a rocking chair. I don’t think I will be handed a paint brush.

Rogene “Jeanne” McPherson, from the Centerville area, is a regular contributor to the Linn County Journal. She recently published a book about her experiences entitled Posts from the Country, Adventures in Rural Living. It is available online in both virtual and printed editions. Copies are on the shelves at all Linn County libraries.

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