Tag Archives: prairie

New Home for an Old Granary

Out on the prairie, east of Stonebridge where our highway meets the interstate, a granary sat empty for years. Granaries are structures for storing grain, in this case a wooden building once filled perhaps with wheat through a door in the roof. Where I’m from in North Dakota, “granary” is pronounced “grainery,” but there “threshing” is called “thrashing” and a “creek” is a “crick” too. I prefer the older pronunciation, with “an” like “grand”; it lends elegance to the building’s simple construction and mundane use. Today grain elevators have replaced farm granaries but many still dot the countryside in this part of the country. You may have passed one without even noticing.

At Stonebridge, we like making old buildings useful for our needs as a small commuinity farm today. After renovating the few built here a century ago—the chickenhouse turned guesthouse, the hog barn turned community room, the farmhouse refurbished, the barn repaired—we were looking for another old building to restore. We wanted sleeping quarters for friends to visit and writers to retreat, so we asked our friend and scavenger extraordinaire Jon to keep an eye out for us.

On one of his jaunts out east, he found the granary on an abandoned farm sold for development that hadn’t yet reached the eastern edge of its forty acres. The houses are coming its way, though, and we thought we might as well move the granary to our farm than let it be bulldozed for subdivision sprawl. Jon found the owners living down the road and asked their permission to take the granary to a new home at Stonebridge. They’d bought that old farm at the edge of the highway a couple decades ago to try their hand at farming and raising hogs. But as the edge of the city moved closer, they were ready to sell when the right offer came through.

The granary sat empty for years, but it isn’t the worse for wear. The building houses three rooms: a center room for storing grain; a small side area with a ladder for checking the grain at the top of a wall that doesn’t quite reach the ceiling; and a larger storage room on the other side with a chute near the floor on the inside wall for filling grain bags.

Besides the door in the roof through which grain could be poured into the center room, the building has an outside door to the storage room and a small door into the space with the ladder. Despite sitting unused for years, the building is pretty clean. We found some grain sacks and a wooden box, a little dust, and some old lumber. A few mice have undoubtedly made their home inside but no one has bothered the building, graffitied the walls, or been up to mischief there as far as we can tell.

Moving an old building requires a lot of effort. Jon, Joe, and Peter spent hours on cold, windy days in February and March removing the roof shakes and rafters so that the building would be low enough to fit under wires as it came down the highway on a flatbed trailer. While they were at it, they took down 200 feet of old board fence as well, using some of the pieces to panel the outside of the “bluehouse” they reconstructed this winter for growing this spring’s lettuces and next year’s winter greens. They’ll use the lumber to rebuild the granary on its new site at the edge of our meadow too. You can’t buy wood like that anymore, fine-grained and strong without chemical toxins, sounder and safer than the lumber euphemistically called “pressure-treated” today. A couple of the boards may even become a guitar someday.

Roof and beams removed, the granary left its original home last week to make its way down Highway 66 toward the foothills for its new life at Stonebridge Farm. The team jacked the building up on old beams four feet high to allow clearance for the 30-foot-long trailer.

The young man we hired to move it down the highway slipped the trailer underneath and belted the building from top to bottom, making sure each chain or buckle fit snugly around the frame. It was as wide as legally possible without requiring a special permit and, we would soon find, as wide as would fit through the space between buildings on the road at our farm. With the old building secured to the trailer, John and Jon loaded the extra beams into their trucks for lowering the granary at its new Stonebridge site. And then, we were ready to chivary down the highway.

Which didn’t take long. A granary on the back didn’t slow that truck down. I stopped for a picture of it coming west towards me on the highway but had to jump back in the car and speed to pass in the only multi-lane stretch so that I could catch it turning onto the farm. I don’t think anyone gave the granary a second thought, if they noticed it at all. Just an old wooden building coming down the road, not a piece of history moving from times past to a new home going forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our young trucker started driving machinery on his family’s farm at age nine but had never moved a building like this before. Nor had he navigated his trailer through such a narrow path as between our barn, community room, and glass greenhouse. He even stopped a couple times to take pictures of how tight it all fit, but by pulling a few fence posts and turning up the corner of a metal roof just in case, he got granary and trailer through without a scratch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We all breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled the trailer out into the wide meadow, hauling the granary as close as he could to its future site. The crew stacked timbers underneath onto which the building could be set as the trailer moved out and then they jacked the whole thing down onto longer beams newly milled for the foundation. As soon as we can, we’ll move it with the tractor to its proper angle facing the meadow.

The granary doesn’t look like much right now without a roof or proper windows or doors. In time, we’ll clear it out, hose it down inside and out, rebuild the roof, remove the low wall, cut another outer door, add some windows and a porch, and paint it white like it used to be. I think it will be prove a quiet space for writers and friends to relax and work and listen to the birds in the old willows along the ditch at the edge of the meadow. No one will suspect that it didn’t begin its life at Stonebridge, although they might wonder why there’s a door in the roof. We’ll leave that, evidence of its former purpose, to remind us how close we once lived to our food.

 

 

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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

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Sepia Prairie

When I was in high school, I found an old sepia postcard in my grandfather’s envelope of special photographs that he kept separate from family albums and treasured for his own reasons. In this photograph from the 1910s, his older sisters Myrah and Lerah pose with a woman identified only as “the friend from town” whom my grandfather believed worked at a North Dakota telephone company. The three young women are wading near the grassy bank in the wide creek, which is pronounced “crick” in that part of the country.

Myrah and Lerah, farm girls who probably didn’t have many afternoons free to go wading, look a little surprised to find themselves standing barefoot next to each other in the water, holding up the skirts of their long dresses with both hands and giggling for the camera. Lerah, the youngest, beams playfully in her pretty white dress and hair bow, while Myrah, the older sister who already worked hard on the farm, grins sheepishly in her wide-collared calico dress.

But turning away from the sisters, the young woman from town is splashing through the water in a fancy white blouse, sleeves rolled to mid-arm, her long, full skirt held above the water. Her eyes are closed, her smile wide, and her head thrown back in laughter. She was a town girl who probably didn’t spend many days wading in a cool summer creek. Town girls’ lives were undoubtedly easier than those of farm girls but a chance for an afternoon outdoors with friends was probably a treat all the same.

I was so taken with this photograph as a teenager that I made my grandmother write “Give this to Kayann Short” on the back. After my grandparents’ deaths, my mother brought it back from North Dakota for me and it’s been an iconic image for me all these years.

In this photograph, women’s friendships form the meeting place of country and city. Against the backdrop of sky, creek, and prairie, the young women delight in each other’s company and in the chance to move without restriction, breathe fresh air, touch the earth with bare feet, and be surrounded by the vast prairie stretching beyond them. The photograph even captures the fine detail of long grass as it bends in the breeze, a sepia whisper behind the women’s laughter.

I yearned for this place myself growing up, yet with which of the women I felt a kinship was unclear, despite my bloodlines. I was the town girl delighting in the country, her fancy clothes no longer a hindrance as she wades in the creek but an embellishment to the prairie behind her. She had come from the city to visit my great-aunts on their farm outside of town and found herself on the edge of cultivated space. When she returned to sidewalks and streets, she would remember the coolness of the creek bottom. There’s just more outside to life on a farm than “in town,” as my grandparents would say. But looking at that picture, I always hoped my life could include both.

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Marking Her Days with Grace

Recently I took out the few diaries I have from my Grandma Smith and re-read her sparse entries. A true farmer, she always noted the weather, both the high and low temperatures and noteworthy conditions like sheer wind or a blinding snowstorm. Some days in July she would just write “Hot.” My favorite weather entry reads:  Sat, Jan 29, 1966: This morning it’s 40 below so won’t be very warm today. Even in a North Dakota winter, that could be considered an understatement.

Another series of weather entries in 1966 reads like a poem:

Wed, March 9: 45 degrees above

snow melting

just like spring

Thurs, March 10: No need for a weather report.

Fri, March 11: Weather is fine.

Re-reading her diaries this time, I looked for clues about how she spent her days. She sewed a lot and she baked a lot of bread—six or seven loaves at a time. She kept her flour in a deep pull-out bin in the kitchen cabinet that held a 50-lb bag. She would bake once a week, making enough for morning toast, noon sandwiches, and evening bread and butter. Covered by thin cotton dishtowels embroidered with vegetable people or sunbonnet girls, her loaves rose high in their pans.

Sometimes she would make cinnamon rolls along with the bread, letting my siblings and cousins and me roll out the rectangle of dough and spread it with real butter from our uncle’s creamery. Then we would spoon on brown sugar and sprinkle the dough with cinnamon, roll it up tight, pinch the seam, slice into a dozen thick rounds, and pack them carefully in the cake pan to rise. Fresh and hot from the oven, the sugar and butter-filled rolls melted on our fingers and tongues. No “store-boughten” cinnamon rolls could ever taste as good.

Grandma Smith worked hard on the farm, even after she and my grandfather weren’t raising animals and crops anymore. A typical entry of her busy life reads:

Tues, Feb 11, 1966: I baked 2 apple pies/ put in freezer/scrubbed the kitchen floor/fed the cats at the barn/burned the papers/this pm I’m going out visiting.

I remember my grandmother down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor in case someone stopped by. I marveled that she wore dresses around the house with her old pantyhose, not wanting to waste a brand new pair. When I would ask her why she didn’t just go bare-legged, she would exclaim in disapproval, “No, I can’t do THAT!” She was fashionable her entire life, even when scrubbing the floor.

Because the Smith farm was on the highway into Williston, the county seat, many of my grandparents’ farming friends and relatives would stop by unannounced for coffee on their way to or from town. In her diaries, Grandma Smith noted who had visited that day and what she had baked, like lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, or a kind of cookie she called “Matrimonial Chews.” Visitors were so common at the farm that one entry comments on not receiving guests:  Sat, March 9, 1985: I was home all day. Baked a pie but no company.

My grandmother rarely noted her feelings or reflections about her life, but one of the few reflective passages she wrote makes me laugh: Tues, Jan 25, 1966: I’m cleaning the basement—and it sure looks better. That “sure” sounds just like her, a mix of practicality and positive thinking. If you’re going to do something, it seems to say, do it right—and be happy you’ve done it.

Why weren’t her diaries more personal, more revealing of her thoughts and feelings? I don’t think she worried about someone discovering them. After her death, we found these few diaries stuck in an old cabinet in the basement, more tucked away for safe keeping than hidden.  I think instead that she didn’t feel a need to express personal feelings in diary form. What was important was recording the everyday events of her life, keeping track of the weather and the visitors, the comings and goings of a farm on the edge of town.

In a few entries, though, I catch a glimpse of a more private side of my grandmother, moments of the solace she found in the natural world. In her diaries, she would note signs of the seasons changing, especially when a long, cold winter was turning away for spring:

Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

Tues, April 12, 1983: No snow yet. Cleaned house. Saw a meadowlark today. Gophers are running around and also saw a pheasant and two rabbits.

In entries like these, I can imagine her looking out the window over the prairie, although “prairie” is my word, not hers. She would say “pasture,” since the long grass is where my grandparents grazed their cattle. I can imagine her walking to the creek to look for mayflowers, grateful for a sign that spring had finally made its way to the north. She paid attention to the creatures around her because they inhabited the same piece of land. She marked her days by the weather and the seasons because they formed the backdrop of her life on the farm, determining each day’s possibilities. These diary entries reveal an intimacy with nature that seems a private part of my grandmother’s life, quiet moments of grace in the midst of her busy days.

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Silos

Bedtime is approaching at our grandparents’ farmhouse. The northern twilight has lingered as long as it can; now darkness spreads across the prairie, made even blacker by the absence of the moon.

My little brother and youngest sister have already brushed their teeth with well water splashed into a basin from the long-handled pump in the kitchen. (I would be a teenager before city water would be piped to the farmhouse and we could brush our teeth with water from a faucet.) Now in their pajamas, the two are tucked into the hide-a-bed in the living room, ready for the night.

But something is missing: my brother’s stuffed bear, Gentle Ben. The house is searched, but no bear is found.

“Kayann, can you find Gentle Ben? You know where you were playing.” My mother hands me a flashlight. I am nine or ten, the oldest of four children, and it’s my job to take care of my brother and sisters. We are visiting my grandparents’ North Dakota farm, as we do every summer, and my four-year-old brother’s stuffed bear is lost someplace in the tall grass where we had been playing. Without Gentle Ben, my brother will not go to bed. He is crying now as I take the flashlight in my hand and open the screen door off the kitchen porch where my grandfather processes the milk from his few dairy cows each day.

That afternoon, my two sisters and brother and I had been down in the tall grass by the narrow dirt road that crossed the countryside in front of my grandparents’ farm.  Years later the road was paved to create a highway between the Canadian border and the county seat 25 miles from the farm, but in my childhood it remained a rural road, travelled mostly by farm families heading back from the city or by tractors coming in from the fields. In the summer, we can spot a car in the distance by the dust it raises before we can see the car itself.

The roadside seems an odd place to play, but the grass is highest where the spring rains run off the road into a ditch along the edge. The ditch is dry now but the moisture has done its work: the grass is taller than my littlest sister’s head. On hot summer afternoons until dinner, we play hide and seek by tromping the grass into shelters under which we can burrow. Gentle Ben must be there now, hiding alone in the dark.

Flashlight in hand, I step out into the darkness. Sunset comes late on the North Dakota prairie, so as kids we often go to bed before the sky is truly dark or the stars have emerged, but this night the search for Gentle Ben has delayed our bedtime and the sun has already fallen behind the long horizon.

I don’t know how far the farmhouse is set back from the road, but it surely seems longer than a city block at home. I walk from the kitchen door to the end of the stone path that meets the edge of the driveway stretching down to the road. Silent barns stand across from the house, the chickens and cows long since sleeping.

I’ve never been outside alone before, at least not like this. The night is blacker in the country where no lights can be seen. Within the glare of street lamps or the glow of a neighbor’s porch light slanting across a lawn, cities are never really dark, but nighttime in the country is complete.

Shining the flashlight across the gravel, I start toward the road and the grass where we played. In the dark, I can’t see where I’m headed, but I know which direction to walk. I swing the flashlight’s beam to the left across my grandmother’s flower garden and then right against the wheat silos standing sentry at the farmyard’s end. Acres of pasture lie beyond those silos. Wandering there, I could truly be lost, so I turn the flashlight back to the driveway and keep walking.

I don’t remember ever being afraid of the dark, even though I sleep alone in a basement bedroom at home, but inside and outside dark are not the same. Until tonight, I have never seen the sky so black nor so filled with stars. How could a universe so large consider the smallness of me worth protecting as I walk slowly toward grasses still lost from my view?

But I’m not afraid. I’m exhilarated to be alone in the world, without sisters or brothers to care for, without parents to tell me what to do. Darkness, I realize, is just a cover for sunlight. Everything at night is exactly the same as it is in the day; you just can’t see it as clearly.

When I grow up and live in the country, I’ll get a call in the middle of the night from the police asking me to check the license plate on my car. Another car with the same number has been involved in a hit-and-run accident. After verifying that it is the police who have called, I will fumble outside without caution or contacts, find my license plate intact, phone the police with the good news, and go back to bed. In the morning my partner will show me the bear prints near the back door. Maybe if I wear glasses, I will notice them.

But now another bear is waiting. As I edge down the gravel driveway toward the long grass that hides Gentle Ben, I turn off the flashlight and let the night sky conceal me in blackness. I don’t think of words like “shroud” or “cloak” for the dark and I‘m not afraid. I look back to see the light of the farmhouse shining through the curtains. Everyone else is inside that light. I am outside, alone.

Thanks to members of my ecobiography workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology for feedback on this story.

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