As I work to finish the last few chapters of the draft of my book, The Far Field Farm Stories, I’ve been thinking these days about the barn on the farm, its solid stubborn architecture hewn of oak by German hands, the cornerstone 1888 GDX, for George Drexler. I wish evidence remained of the Native Americans, first peoples of this part of Wisconsin — the Menominee and Potawatomi who were driven out by the white settlers, but all physical traces of them were gone when my parents bought the farm in 1951.
A Barn is a Home Too
There is a photo that was never taken, or, if ever taken, has been lost. It doesn’t matter; I want to share it with you anyway. It is one of my earliest memories of childhood, probably 4 or 5 years old. We are all down in the barn, my sister Robin, my parents and I. It is the snowy dead of winter, so Robin and I are “bundled up” in snowsuits so thick we can barely move. The only lightweight down vests in those days were worn by geese. (Photos of these fashion statements will be found in the book.) Robin and I interrupt our parents’ barn chores for a mid-morning “snack break”, a highlight of our day. Although it’s freezing outside, the barn is snug and warm and steamy from the heat of all those big cow bodies, looming black and white, gently heaving with breath, and chewing, chewing, rhythmically chewing, always turning hay to milk.
It must have been very snowy because the cows are not outside at mid morning. Robin and I sit atop the line of hay bales along the West wall; they are radiating the smell of summer’s sweetness to mingle with the scent of cow manure. Pa stops his chores to sit with us. Mom brings out warm milk and graham crackers. Ahhh, it doesn’t get better than this!
We sit and share the milk from a little plastic pitcher with a light blue lid. I rediscovered it out in the tool shed last year, on a shelf above the window. It is still there because, truth be told, my father is incredibly sentimental. When I saw it again, some 50 years later, it nudged my memory and out popped this “photo” in my mind’s eye. Family. Farm. Barn rituals. If home is where the heart is, then every family farm has two homes – the one for people and the one for the beloved beasts that ensure livelihood and well-being. The barn is our home away from home—about 25 yards away.
The Hub of Life
I’ve wondered why Pa’s journal of the first year of farming mentions the barn so seldom when I know he spent so much time there. Granted, there are entries about expensive “improvements” like installing a glass block window for more light or drinking cups for the cows. His entry for January 7 reads: “Made the last barn door. Finally seeing end of Grade A repairs.” A week later on January 13 he writes: “Cleaned out barn for first milk insp. Also limed the floors.” Little did he know there was to be a constant stream of expensive improvements needed to satisfy the health inspector because they were going to produce the highest grade of milk for drinking.
True, Pa had little time to wax poetic about anything in those days with the crush of work, but I’ve come to realize the main reason why the barn is mentioned so little: It simply is. The barn is the cod in your Friday night fish fry. The sack that holds the grain. The spring from which the water flows. The little metal bucket once used for calf feed that now holds the dull pocketknife to cut the baling twine that binds the cakes of hay together. One hundred and thirty years old this year, with a new-ish roof and some mortar patches Pa made last fall, it simply is what it is.
So fundamental to farm life is the barn, that in a sense it makes everything else possible, and all else an embellishment. It was the hub of the dairy farm, then the hub of the horse stable, now home to Rainey the horse and Josiah, the donkey. And most recently, it is the posh winter residence for Ma and Pa’s granddaughter Angela’s flock of chickens.
The old barns are disappearing in Wisconsin, not as useful to farmers under pressure to increase the size of their dairy operations. Some are torn down, sometimes replaced by low-lying sheds for larger numbers of cattle. Others, left to time and the elements, are slowly collapsing, deflating like angular balloons. Still others are seeing creative re-use as hunting lodges, art studios or country wedding destinations. The barn on Far Field Farm remains, sheltering its motley and beloved collection of beasts, heading into the next 130 years — come what may.