Tag Archives: barn

Horse Barn, Milk Barn

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.

The Smith Farm in later years. The horse barn is farthest right; the milk barn-turned-garage with white doors is directly to its left

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.

Milk Barn on the Smith farm

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. 

Playing with Poochie in the Short milk barn as cousin Debbie watches from the doorway

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.

The Short farm with the milk barn to the far left; even then it was starting to shrink

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.

My dad in front of my mom's horse barn in 1960, a year after I was born

Leave a comment

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Red, Red Barn

2011 marks not only the 20th season of Stonebridge’s CSA but the 100th anniversary of the farm itself. To celebrate both, we decided to paint the barn. We’re not sure when it was last painted, but judging from the weathered red wood, probably 30 or maybe even 40 years ago. We thought it was time to give this century barn a new coat of good paint to help it last another 100 years, so we invited our members to a community barn painting and pancake breakfast to kick off the morning’s work.

I have to admit that ever since I’d come up with the idea, I’d been worried about this barn painting business. Our barn is a former dairy barn, a huge building with high sides on the east and west and old wood that looked like it could soak up buckets of paint. I worried about people climbing ladders and falling off the roof and finding the right color and feeding everyone while they worked. I worried we wouldn’t get it done in a day, leaving us with a half painted barn.

But when I woke up the day of the barn painting, I decided I didn’t need to worry any more. We’d finish what we could. If we didn’t get it done, we’d get to it later. I mixed up enough batter for three huge batches of oatmeal/cornmeal/whole wheat pancakes (you can find the recipe on our website) so I knew we’d have enough food. And then as I walked outside in the fresh morning air, I realized that I wasn’t going to have to paint that barn alone. Like everything we do at Stonebridge, the community pitches in and the work soon gets done.

After 20 years of CSA, Stonebridge runs like a well-oiled machine—most the time, anyway. We trust each other’s skills and count on each other’s enthusiasm and support to accomplish whatever we need to do, not only on Saturday mornings when we get the vegetables into the barn, but any day when something needs doing. John and I make sure the supplies are handy or the prep work done—like buying the paint, power-washing the barn walls, or mixing the pancakes—and then our friends take it from there.

Tim flips the pancakes, everyone brings toppings to share, Sarah and Hunter mix gluten-free batter, and after everyone eats, Sandy and Rajni do the dishes. Michelle, Eva the Younger, and Eva the Elder start painting the sunny south side before the day gets too hot. Lisa, Steve, and Joe (still glowing from headlining the local festival the night before with his band Crow Radio) are joined by Jenny, Mike, Sarah, and Angus on the tall west side with brushes and buckets of Country Redwood. Seeing 10-year-old Angus with a paintbrush can’t help but remind me of Tom Sawyer’s trickery–make the work seem like fun and everyone will want to do it.

Soon, the lower part of the west side is done and we start to worry that we’ve got enough paint, but everyone votes to keep going, even though we’re starting to sweat in the late morning sun. Michelle and Luca cheer us on from the tire swing. Lloyd volunteers to climb up to the roof to paint the cupola, so John and Tim join him and soon it’s done.

Then Gretchen, Michael, Avi, and Sharonah arrive to help finish the short south side with a couple buckets to spare. Eileen shows up as reinforcement and doesn’t mind painting high on a ladder to finish the west side, so we haul up the ladders for Gretchen and John to join her, while Mike, Lisa, Tim, and Julie climb up to finish the east. Good thing we have a lot of ladders.

In the midst of this work-turned-party, a dear former member arrives with a beautiful engraved stone for our entryway, so Joe, Lloyd, and Mike dig a deep hole to set it in place. We stop to admire the new look of our entryway and then head back to finish the west side and clean up. We’ve painted the entire barn in a little over three hours with a half-bucket of paint to spare! Hungry again and not ready to break up the celebration, we fire up the griddles for another round of pancakes with Jenny’s peanut butter ice cream, some cold watermelon, and a few beers.

Why did I worry about painting the barn? I should have known from years of experience on this farm that many hands make light work. This is the crew that can polish off a weedy bed in the remaining minutes after a pick; the same folks who show up when the tomatoes need harvesting before an unexpected first frost; and the same people who keep Stonebridge going year after year.

And now, the barn is done, except for a little white trim that we’ll get to when the crops have settled down and the days are cooler once more. I doubt John or I will paint the barn again in our lifetimes and that feels good. Good to know that the hard work of the best kind of people can carry on beyond our time. This is how work used to get done on farms–from barn raising to threshing crews to harvesting. We’ve lost that tradition in this country but maybe, in these times, working cooperatively will come back, not only out of necessity, but from desire for community.

Stonebridge is more than a Tom Sawyer farm. We don’t have to trick anyone into anything here because we all realize what we have. We know we are lucky to share this piece of land that sustains our families while bringing us closer together in joy throughout the seasons. Closer in comfort and care for the land and each other–that’s the true meaning of the “C” of CSA.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Farmhouse Ghosts

And here is a sunrise to set on your sill
The ghosts of the dawn moving near
They pass through your sorrow and leave you quite still
Sitting among souvenirs.
Dan Fogelberg, “Souvenirs”

When I first moved to the Stonebridge farmhouse, two of my favorite things were the ornate brass doorknob and backplate on the old French door leading to one of the bathrooms. I assumed they had been part of the original house so recently, when we remodeled that bathroom, we planned to use the knob and plate on the replacement door that better fit the new opening, itself a vintage pine door scavenged from my grandparents’ farmhouse in North Dakota.

But yesterday when I took the knob off the original door, I found a “Made in China” sticker on the back of the plate. I had to laugh at my antique assumptions but I polished the brass and put the knob and plate on the bathroom door anyway because they had been a part of the farm for at least 20 years and still look right to me.

This farm has many ghosts living in the spaces of the house, barn, and outbuildings. Some of the ghosts I know but most I have never met. As we’ve remodeled this old house, we’ve come across many souvenirs of previous owners or tenants in the 100-year history of this place.

In the bathroom we just remodeled, for example, we uncovered several layers of wallpaper: the familiar pastel lily pad pattern of the 40s, a lighthouse scene with seagulls from before that, and a red calico print underneath it all, probably from when the room was a laundry and washroom rather than a bathroom with plumbing. Here the original farmhouse walls are plaster and lathe, uneven and heavy in their mass, nothing like the lighter, smoother drywall of today. These old walls were built to withstand northern Colorado winters and the spring Chinooks that follow, as well as cool the house in the summer for sweating farmers coming in from the fields.

When we remodeled the kitchen, we took sledge hammers to some of those walls in order to open the room up to the living room and adjacent pantry, which itself had probably been a small bedroom off another bedroom but had been walled off from that room and joined instead to the kitchen later. We found a recipe for green beans in one of the walls, although how it became emtombed between the lathe slats I’ll never know.

As we’ve remodeled, we’ve added windows throughout, some double-paned modern types that open easily and some antique stained glass we’ve found at flea markets, all bringing brighter light to corners previously shadowed, not to scare away the ghosts but to let us see them more clearly.

But besides adding more light and space, we haven’t tried to make the farmhouse look like a new house. Even if it were possible, we like our old house with its unsquare corners and less-than-level floors. We like our old windows with the wavy glass even if they’re a bit drafty in the wind. We’ve just weathered a terribly frigid winter by heating with our woodstove and a few electric heaters when needed. On the coldest morning this season, the indoor thermometer read 53F and we shivered while we waited for the fire to heat up the kitchen and living room, but it wasn’t so bad and I think the ghosts must appreciate our fortitude in living within the comfort the house provides.

We’re pretty much finished with the changes we’ll make to this farmhouse and we’ve done lots to the other buildings as well. There’s still a second round of reconstruction on the barn to do, having shored up its sagging beams a decade ago and adding a sandstone floor a few years later.

While searching for the door from my grandparents’ farm last weekend, we came upon a few more old windows up in the barn rafters and decided to use them in the back of the barn when we remodel someday. More light can’t hurt, we figure, as we bring currently underused space into the everyday flow of our farm work.

After I retire from my other job next year, I plan to do some historical research on our farm. I want to find out more about our ghosts and how they lived and loved on this land. Someday we too will be ghosts here and I’d like to leave a record of what Stonebridge has given us for future folks who sit among our souvenirs.


Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture

As You Like

Our 100-year-old barn is a favorite spot at Stonebridge, our CSA (Community Supported Agricultural) farm. Each Saturday of the six-month growing season, members come to the barn to weigh, count, and bag their weekly subscription of just picked vegetables. Because we’re a “share the harvest” rather than a market farm, members know they’re getting the best the fields have to offer and they’re excited each week to see what’s waiting in the produce rooms.

But often we have vegetables remaining after Saturday’s pick-up that will easily hold for another week in the cool room rather than go to the chickens. Sometimes we harvest the beginning or end of a crop in quantities too small to fill every share, and every week we pick a few “scratch and dent” veggies like sun-scalded peppers, blemished tomatoes, or misshapen carrots that are still good enough to eat but not perfect enough to be counted. So rather than go straight to the compost pile, these leftover, extra, or cosmetically challenged veggies go on the As You Like table for anyone to take. Too many zucchini? Never! The table is always empty by the end of the day. When I clean up the barn on Sunday morning, I’m always happy to see that even the lowliest vegetables have found a new home.

Our members know the value of real food: they know with a little paring, those vegetables will make a delicious and nutritious meal. Zucchini can be grated and frozen for winter breads; even the ugliest carrots and beets can be juiced. But the AYL table isn’t empty just because people feel they’re getting something for nothing. AYL, I think, is a symbol for our farm as a whole.

Stonebridge is more than just a trendy place to get produce. Our members understand that behind each vegetable are people who have planted and watered and weeded with thoughtful intention to care for each other and the earth. Behind that lies the land and all it offers. We work, we wait, and the land gives again. This philosophy is what we call farmgiving–the boundless and bountiful generosity created by placing our lives alongside the land on which we depend–and in our 19 years as a CSA, this generosity has never failed us.

But from abundance, we also learn thrift. If we waste what the earth so generously provides, we not only fail to appreciate those gifts, we miss our chance to be generous with the earth’s abundance in return. We need to think about what we can do with what we have, whether it’s a few vegetables that could create a delicious dinner, or a whole farm that can raise vegetables for many, many dinners. At Stonebridge, we say, “When the community feeds itself, the land and the people prosper.” When we practice As You Like, we all have an opportunity–and a responsibility–to do our best with what the earth provides.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture