Saturday History: The Importance of the Barn
Letty, 89, addresses some of the structures on a farm that were important during the Great Depression.
Today when we think of structures on a property, we tend to think of houses that people live in. To farmers, some of the other buildings, namely the barn, were more important because they housed the animals. The animals had to be protected. There were two barns- a main barn and a barn for the large animals. They were not connected to each other. The ‘lower barn’ was divided into stalls for the cows and horses.
Barns were constructed from timber off the property such as oak or walnut. Red was not a native color to that area of Missouri at that time, so the barn was the color of the natural wood. It had a metal roof and gutters that led into barrels. The collected rain water was used for cattle water, chicken water, and also to wash clothes. Kids were told to stay away from the barrels because if you fell in, you couldn’t get out. One child drowned after climbing into one of the barrels. The design of a barn was not hit and miss and it involved science, although we may not think of it that way today. People who didn’t know about farming failed.
It was important for the interior of the barn to be dry. The harnesses, tools and hay couldn’t get wet and the hay crop had to be kept dry and protected from mold. Bundles were pulled to the barn with a tractor, or with horses, and the hay was lifted by a fork to the hay loft. The hay was loose hay, for the most part. Some of the chickens favored the barn over the chicken house, so they could roost, lay eggs and hatch their own chickens. To prevent chickens from getting into the hay loft to lay eggs, the trap door in the hay loft floor was kept closed.
Perhaps the most difficult but the most pleasing job I did on the farm during those years was a winter job. In the off-season we repaired the gunny sacks for the wheat. There was no time to do this job in the summer; nobody had time to patch their sacks while tending to crops. Since we could not have the gunny sacks in the house, we would sit in the barn and patch the sacks using heavy thread and darning needles.
The hay loft was good for something else. When the folks left, the kids could jump out of it. We could have broken every bone we had, and the folks would have had a fit if they’d ever found out. The loft was also a haven, as a place to bring books and dolls.
Outside the back door of our house was a tool shed. Behind that was the outhouse. My mother would have preferred it to be behind the chicken house if possible because she was so meticulous. In the first place, there wasn’t any toilet paper in those days. We used catalogs that usually hung on a hook on the wall.
Kids used to experiment with smoking corn silks. If they could find an occasional cigarette paper, they could roll the corn silks in that, but if not, they experimented with other papers. One time a neighbor boy was in the outhouse on his farm- their outhouse was located behind the chicken house- and he lit a page of one of the catalogs. It caught fire, so he threw the paper down the toilet hole. It was a dry day, and the burning page, having fallen onto a dry pile of Sears and Roebuck pages in the hole, quickly lit the pile of pages. The outhouse caught fire, fell onto the chicken house, and that lit the chicken house on fire. Fortunately the chickens were out in the yard scratching around, but people came running with buckets of water for what was becoming a multi-structure fire.
Every farm house had an anteroom that people entered before entering the house. This was one hundred percent standard operating procedure, and the room had a place for boots, and a wash bucket or a large bowl for water. Some called this room a “summer kitchen,” because it was a room where, for example, hog intestines were cleaned for use as casing- a task for a sort-of-outside room.
We were also always bottling the lambs. I do not ever remember a year when we weren’t nursing lambs behind the stove in the house. There was always a mama who had triplets or twins she didn’t like or that were born early in the cold, and we brought the orphans into the house and fed them out of bottles with rubber nipples. The lambs were tame and very hungry and they got strong in a hurry. They would butt their little heads against you, and when they were old enough to run, we sent them back to mama. We always had an area behind the stove fixed for the bottling of the lambs.
Barns in America have almost become icons, and the styles and purposes are different from one place to another. Our barn was constructed in 1925-1926.
Creative Commons photo (barn) courtesy Nicholas A. Tonelli on flickr.