Summer 1998

 
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Reflections on a Barn

by

Robert J. Gregory

When I was a boy, my Dad took me to the woods, where I learned to use a cross-cut saw—and a lot of other things as well. Three giant pine trees and quite a few smaller pines sup-plied the timbers and the boards for our barn, and their use provided many lessons for me. My father was a big and strong man, and learning to run a cross-cut saw with him taught me how to anticipate his movements, to pace my effort, and to synchronize our work. Oh, the gut-wrenching experi-ence of sawing trees to fell them and bucking logs into timber lengths with a two-man cross-cut saw gave my arms, and back, and legs the exercise that brings soreness, tiredness, a ravenous appetite, and, in time, more strength and endurance.

Work in the timber with Dad and the cross-cut was only the first step. Next I helped drag the logs to the road with our Ferguson tractor using a heavy logging chain. A truck hauled them away to the nearby sawmill.

Cut and seasoned, and hauled back to our farm, the sawn timbers, the smaller dimension pieces of two-inch thickness, and the one-inch-thick wide boards provided us the material to build a barn. First we set up the massive posts and beams, then the rafters and finally the walls and roof. We worked together, Dad and I, for more than a year, sharing the adventure and the risks, and ultimately the rewards, of erecting and fin-ishing a barn by ourselves.

We celebrated the completion of our barn in late 19S4 by inviting neighbors, friends, and relatives to a square dance. Naturally, the dance was held right on the new barn floor. I will never forget the caller and the crowds of happy people and the ringing out of the calls: do-si-do, allamayne left, and so on into the night. o

The barn became the center for our dairy farm. The purring sounds of my Fergie tractor or the clunk-clunk of Dad's old John Deere echoed often in that barn. Stored within, the tractors emerged to plow fields, cut silage, and make hay.

Big wagon loads of hay bales were hoisted and stored in the mow for winter feeding—what delicious smells! The cows were fed and milked in the barn, and in the winter the cows and their calves were housed there. The facts of life: sex, birth, and death, became evident when the artificial breeder came and later the calves were born, and still later, when sadly, the elderly cows were shipped away to be sold for beef.

Our barn was the center of our farming activities that re-quired contact with our larger world; the feed and grain store, the artificial breeder, the monthly cattle auction, the farm equipment dealer, the bank and its manager.

Like may other children who grew up on dairy farms in and around Chemung County, New York State, I learned about plant and animal life through all the seasons. We saw and helped with planting, making hay, pasturing the cows and calves, cleaning the stalls, spreading manure on the fields. We took part in or were aware of the care and the processes performed for the well-being of the soil and the growth of the grass that magically became milk and meat for our food and to sell for our other necessities and enjoyment.

I learned that although supplying abundant nutritious forage, plentiful water, and essential diet supplements was a continual struggle, that when our animal's needs were anticipated, and their comfort provided they responded with greater production, but when they were neglected or were fearful of me they de-clined, failed to gain weight, and gave less milk.

Enduring man-animal relationships were forged, whether it was with our faithful cow-chaser dog, Lily, working to bring the cows home, or with the barn cats catching mice and lap-ping fresh milk.

Our family learned to work together to each play our part, and that if anyone slacked off, the rest had to carry the load. The work had to be done seven mornings and seven evenings every week of the year; there was no escape from responsibility.

Throughout the winter, I shovelled manure from the barn, returning trailer loads to the fields to help change the barren snow-swept soil to rich luscious clover and timothy grass or yellow-flowered birdsfoot trefoil in an annual cycle. Getting stuck and then unstuck in mud, with wind blowing snow and sleet, gave me fortitude and a realization that things would work out eventually. Words are not sufficient to describe those efforts. Chopping a hole in the ice for the cows to drink in the stream at 6 o'clock on a 15-degree-below-zero morning taught the real lessons. The values of traditional America were engraved deeply for me, and for my mom, dad, and younger brother.

My life revolved around that barn and the hard, but good, work so essential to small-scale dairy farming. No one then could imagine that the small dairy farms, the family farms, would ever disappear.

My return this past spring to the farm brought back many memories. I walked the familiar roads to take pictures of my neighbors' barns, and I dreamed many thoughts. Can I or can someone else rehabilitate those barns, renew the extended families, regain the rich and positive lifestyle, and even restore the land?

Local timber provided big beams, rafters and roofing and siding for barns. Now 40 years on, the strength is still there, reflected in the structures—I see my dad's design and our collective work still standing tall.

Our barn stands vacant now, like many other barns in the region. Our family is scattered all over the world. My dad passed away a year or two ago, joining my mom who died back in 1969. The fields are reverting to brush and yet...and yet...I have noted a few proud trees emerging and struggling to reforest some of the land.

And yet, just as with the now empty barns, the nation is missing something profound, valuable and dear. Can some force, someone—anyone—somewhere regenerate the rich and warm, the honest and decent and hard-working, the truly American life we led?

Until a renewal occurs, at least some of the lives of those who were influenced by the barns and their surroundings long ago continue with pride and courage.

1998, Robert J. Gregory
 
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