I never saw a horse in the horse barn, but harnesses hung on the weathered walls and hay still covered the loft floor. My grandparents didn’t like us climbing up there because we might fall through the slots in the planks where years ago the hay was pushed down into the mangers below for the horses to eat. But sometimes we’d sneak up the steep stairway along the barn’s thick, wooden wall, our feet fitting the hollows grooved into each step from years of burdened climbs. At the top of the steps, we’d peek into the dark vault of the gabled roof, smell the stale hay, and wonder what treasures lay hidden in the loft’s dusty depth, abandoned when the horses were no longer needed for farming and now long forgotten.
According to my mother, the family historian, the horse barn and other buildings had been moved to the Smith farm when my great-grandmother Flora’s sister Edith—who was a Crum, as they used to say after a woman married—left her nearby homestead to go “out West” with her family. “Out West” was another colloquialism I heard growing up, usually referring to the two states most west of North Dakota—Idaho and Washington—Montana lying geographically in the right direction but not far enough away to constitute the “out” part.
My great-grandparents farmed with horses in the days before combustion tractors, so a horse barn was a valuable building, providing shelter not only for the horses, but for their feed. Hay could be brought to the barn by wagons after it was cut in the fields and then hoisted by pulley to a door at the top of the barn loft and stored there through the winter. But after tractors replaced horses, the barn stood empty, inhabited only by the farm cats, who would have their kittens in the soft hay. Then my grandmother would take us up in the loft to find the newborns before they’d even opened their eyes.
On our summer visits, one of our chores was feeding the cats in an old bowl outside the horse barn. After each meal, Grandma Smith would scrape the plates and pans for leftovers—skin, bones, crust—into a clean ice cream container from our Uncle’s creamery, adding a little milk on top for the mother cat. My sisters and brother and I would take the scraps out to the barnyard, hoping to catch a glimpse of a cat, but they were wild, having found their way to the farm on their own or having been abandoned by the side of the highway on which my grandparents lived, their city owners hoping that this farm would provide a more convenient home. My grandparents fed the lost cats and even gave them their shots if they could catch them. In return, the cats would keep the farm buildings free of mice.
Across the barnyard from the horse barn stood a gambrel-roofed milk barn, but my mother’s parents quit milking cows before I was born, so that barn was cut down in later years to make a new garage for my grandparents’ car. Even though baby pictures show me and my mom in the farmyard with the milk barn towering in the background, I don’t remember it.
But I do remember the milk barn at the Short farm. It didn’t have a high loft like the other farm’s barns but was a lower-roofed building into which the cows plodded from the pasture every evening. As children, we didn’t understand how the cows knew when to come to the barn, lining up in their stalls to be milked by my grandfather. We didn’t know how cows worked, how their udders would fill with milk after pasturing all day, but we could watch my grandpa squirt the milk, creamy and white, into the stainless steel buckets, keeping an eye out for a stray hoof as the cows switched their tails and waited patiently for my grandfather to finish. That cream would be separated from the milk in a round-topped machine on the back porch of the farmhouse and taken to the creamery in town once a week for pasteurization and sale. We children never drank that fresh milk because my parents were afraid we’d get sick from stray bacteria. Now some nutritionists say we’re all less healthy than when we lived on farms because proximity to animals strengthened our immune systems.
In later years, after Grandpa Short gave up raising cows, the milk barn slowly leaned inward and collapsed, as if swallowing itself. The barns on the Smith farm were torn down after my grandparents’ death when the land was sold to a neighbor who would farm it along with his own hundreds of acres of wheat.
Until I was older, I didn’t realize that barns were special because they symbolized a part of my family’s farming history that was being lost on a national level as well. Barns once stood at the center of our farmyards and our food system, but as this country has turned away from its rural roots, barns have become an endangered species. Once families depended on them to house the animals and store the food required for survival, but as agriculture became first mechanized and then industrialized, barns like those on my grandparents’ farms no longer held what was needed to live.
Our own barn at Stonebridge is a part of that rural history, but it’s not the same as those old barns were to me. Our barn was saved because it continued to fit the needs of small-scale farmers on a farm that was preserved by our forward-thinking predecessors. We’re lucky to have our original barn, but it lacks the mystery of my childhood barns. Those barns were imposing, larger than the life that had been lived in them because, even when I was a child, that life was fading away.
Built for a kind of farming that died out with my grandparents’ generation, the horse barn and the milk barn could not outlive their use. Nor could I imagine that one day, like the farms themselves, they would be lost and my childhood summers left behind. So I conjure them here in words that can only tell my part of their story. Preserved in memory and old photographs, those barns still stand against the prairie as hay turns to dust, boards sink, nails loosen their hold, and rusty chains drop coiled to the floor.