Requiem for the Barn


Farmland and weathered barn in the Catskill country New York State June 1943 Kodachrome transparency by John Collier - Courtesy of Shorpy.com

Farmland and weathered barn in the Catskill country New York State June 1943 Kodachrome transparency by John Collier - Courtesy of Shorpy.com

One of my favorite memories of growing up were visits to my friend Dan’s family farm out on Bank Street Road. His family had lived and farmed the land for 5 generations, although by the 70’s they were leasing their fields to the Hawley’s to farm. The farm predated the Thruway, which cut through their property, and backed up to the Community College. A fine piece of land with fields, woods, and a man made pond stocked with bass.

On summer days we’d walk down the lane to the pond, through rows of corn stalks, usually accompanied by the family dog. We’d catch grasshoppers and crickets in the field and throw them into the pond to watch the fish jump at them. Starting in about 5th grade we’d camp overnight in the woods down there, about a half mile from the house. It was my formative experience of camping, not with parents, but with two close friends. Hard to imagine parents letting fifth graders camp out alone in the woods these days.

For a city kid like me, the trips out to the farm were special. I loved the smell of dust and cobwebs in the barn. I was always envious of Dan’s family, and their connection to the farm. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed like that connection instilled a certain patience in his family. It was something we didn’t have living cheek to jowl with the neighbors at 20 Prospect.

One of the little mentioned aspects of the decreasing rural population, and the industrialization of farming during the last half century, has been the effect on the rural landscape. Not the natural landscape per se, but the human landscape. While the fields are larger, and more productive than ever at yielding crops, there are fewer and fewer house and barns interspersed within them. Driving across the open prairie of Minnesota and Iowa you can see the islands of trees where once farmhouses stood. Look close enough, and you can often find the remains of foundations, or outbuildings amongst the weeds and brush.

Growing up in Western New York I can remember family drives where my Dad would always point out ghost signs painted on barns. Faded billboards advertising Mail Pouch Tobacco along the side of rural highways. As I have grown up, I continue to look for them, but have noticed how one by one, they have disappeared, slumping slowly to the ground, or sagging like a swaybacked old nag.

chew mail pouch

What farms are left have either worked to keep up the old barns, or replaced them with new sheet metal pole barns. A much cheaper, and more practical construction, but one that lacks the romance of a faded red barn. At our own ancestral home on 20 Prospect, our barn was pulled down in the mid 80’s after about 100 years of service housing carriages, horses, and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of a century of inhabitants. Near the end the roof was full of holes, and raccoons wood peek out from time to time. It had developed a significant list to starboard, but it still took significant coaxing to pull the thing down. When we surveyed the remains it was amazing the workmanship that went into it.

Not to belittle the work that goes into putting up a sheet metal pole barn, but there is a lot less craft involved, and something about that makes me kind of sad. As one by one our barns succumb to weather and gravity, I can’t help but think that a part of our past is being lost. In 100 years the old red barn will be a registered landmark that people will be working to save. Let’s hope there’s still some left to preserve.

For more Mail Pouch Barn photos check out the loving tribute at The Barn Journal

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3 thoughts on “Requiem for the Barn

  1. Tom,

    I discovered your blog by way of the FPR. Great posts, great writing. You have put into words the thoughts and feelings shared by many of us expat Batavians. We were just down to visit Dan this weekend. He and I were talking about how few people still live in the same place they grew up and how lucky we were to grow up on the farm.

    The farm itself is in good hands. Mom and Dad are still in the house they built. My sister Jean and her family moved into the old farmhouse, making her children the sixth generation of the family to live there. The big barn got an new roof this year, and the land continues to produce grain, vegetables, firewood to heat the house, and venison for the table.

    A Historical footnote: In April 1881, our great-great grandfather, John Welker, was shot and killed by his hired man while out working in the field. The culprit, Charles Stockley, was tried, convicted and executed that summer – the last execution by hanging in Genesee County.

    • Hey Steve,

      Thanks for the kind words. It’s nice to hear that you and your family are doing well. Six generations on the farm is something to be proud of. I am heartened to hear it is still in the family.

      Fascinating story about your great-great-grandfather. I never knew that. I will have to do some research on that, I know the N.Y. Times free online archives go back into the 1880’s, and would report news from Upstate back at that time.

      Peace,
      Tom

  2. Pingback: Clear Water « 20 Prospect

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