A few weeks ago, I enrolled in an online Memoir writing class to give me a goal and purpose during this time of staying close to home. Our second assignment was to write a piece about a sense of place. The story I created is below, I’ve added photos to help illustrate and visualize the sense of place.
I was raised in a barn. No, not the pejorative; “were you born in the barn?” RAISED in a barn! Oh, we had an old farmhouse where we slept, ate our meals, and watched TV but the barn is where most of the action and income was made on our small dairy farm on the semi arid plains of western North Dakota. Milking cows on our farm took all hands, so Mom would bundle up us kids and off to the barn we went, in the morning if we were awake and almost always in the evening. When we were small, we played with Duke, the dog, and the many gray, orange and calico cats that roamed the barn, always congregating at milking time to wait for their share.
As we grew older, we became a part of the milking crew, first feeding the calves out of a bottle or bucket, then washing the cow’s udders, and helping to clean the milking machines after the last cow was milked. When we were deemed “big” enough we began to help with milking chores: handling the stainless steel milk buckets, squeezing between the cows to attach the hose to the vacuum line, adjusting the strap that wrapped around the cow’s middle to support the milker, and attaching suction cups to the cow’s teats. With any luck, the cow didn’t kick or swat you in the face with her wet, dirty tail. If your mouth happened to be open, you got a taste of the earth! As the oldest, I also helped with the feeding, first by throwing hay down from the mow, then grinding oats (my least favorite and the dustiest task on the farm), and eventually wheeling corn silage from the big pile on the east side of the barn to the feed trough.
My Grandfather Henry Miller and his brother Albert built the big barn in 1925. It had a gambrel roof in the Dutch style to maximize the height of the hayloft for the winter storage of hay (for feed) and straw (for livestockbedding). The main floor of the barn had two large rolling doors, one on each end. Down the middle was a wide alley. On the left, facing the west wall, was a row of stanchions that held the cows. In front of them was a narrow alley where they were fed ground oats, corn, or barley year round and corn silage and hay in the winter. The cows stood on thick wooden planks and behind them was a concrete gutter to catch the waste. On the right were two calf pens: one for the newborns that needed to be fed milk and the other for older calves that could subsist on grain and hay. On one end there was a stable for horses, a place for the bull, and when needed it served as a maternity ward.
On the other end near the front door was a small milk house where the milk was separated into cream. Early on, there was a wood stake water tank where the livestock were watered during the very coldest days of the winter. There was a full length lean-to on the east side of the barn used for storing oats for the animals and wheat as a cash crop.
Painted white, the barn stood tall on the treeless prairie at the intersection of two country roads. It was often used as a point of reference when locals gave directions; “Turn right (or left) when you see the big white barn close to the road.” The long strips of lap siding kept out the rain in the warm months of the year, the snow in the winter, and the ever-present wind all year long. The thousands of cedar shingles covering the rafters were like an umbrella that allowed the rain to run off the roof and make little streams that drained toward the creek that flowed to the Missouri River. The four-pane windows took the most beating, allowing the sun to light the barn in the summer and covered with frost an inch thick during the coldest part of the winter when the moist heat generated by the cows met the frigid air. They were also subject to “accidental” breakage from rocks thrown by a naughty boy or from an errant BB shot in the direction of a sparrow or pigeon, at least that was the story provided to the disciplinarians!
The barn changed from season to season. In the winter, the door opened to the sweet smell of fermented corn silage, alfalfa hay, and the chug of the milking machine’s vacuum pump. During the coldest part of the winter, the cows stayed in the barn except for two short periods in the morning and late afternoon when they were let out to stretch their legs and fill up on water. During this time, the gutter was cleaned of manure, piss, and straw bedding. As I got older, it was my job to pile the effluent in a wheelbarrow and run it up the manure pile out back of the barn. Early on, I wasn’t strong enough to push the weight uphill so it was often dumped on the side of the frozen path. This met with disgust from my Dad; it wasn’t until after I fully developed my adolescent smart-aleck attitude that I had the courage to tell him to do it himself. He never did but bought a mechanized gutter cleaner after I left home!
In the summer, the doors of the barn were often wide open to air out the building for the coming winter. The cows were only in the barn for milking. The rest of the time they were let out to pasture to graze, lounge under the few trees or stand in the stock dam during the hottest part of the day. If the wind was blowing, the buzzing of flies wasn’t too bad. But in the barn and out of the wind, the flies were annoying both to the cows and the humans. After the milking was done, the cows were given a good dose of approved fly spray. At the next milking, one could still smell the fragrance of the insecticide that rubbed off on clothes providing some protection from those wicked biting flies. The chickens sometimes ventured into the barn during the day to peck at the uneaten grain or scratch through the hay and straw. They also deposited their waste, requiring one of the hands to sweep out the barn before the cows were let in at milking time.
During the summer season, the haymow was restocked. The big door to the mow, hinged at the bottom, was carefully be opened. This allowed the fresh hay to be placed on a sling that was lifted by way of a pulley to the rail that ran from front to the back of the barn. The sling was then propelled into the barn on the rail until it was in place, the sling tripped, and the hay deposited in the mow. The sling was pulled back to the front and lowered to the ground. Repeat until full. The hay had to be quite dry; many barns burned down during haying season from damp hay and spontaneous combustion.
Cows knew their place. The boss cow was always the first in the barn and the rest filed in, entered their stanchion, then patiently waited for someone to come by to lock it and provide them feed. When a first calf heifer got close to calving, the training began for her to take a place among the fifteen slots in the barn. We had fawn-colored, medium-sized Guernsey cows that were gentle by nature, and tame, as we raised them from birth. Most of the time, with a little coaxing and some grain, they soon learned their place. Occasionally, a wild, mind-of-his-own heifer would come along. They usually didn’t last long; compliance meant a long career in our barn.
It wasn’t all work and no play on the farm. The barn was where we often played, making forts out of straw bales or nurturing a new litter of kittens. Dad mounted a metal basketball hoop on the front of the barn where I would shoot baskets while the feed grinder was churning away in the dusty lean-to. On Sunday afternoons, the boys in the neighborhood would gather to play HORSE or some other game. The ground was uneven and sometimes the ball was flat but it entertained us for a couple of hours until chore time.
The smell of a dairy farm can be quite strong but only visitors from town seemed to notice. The entrance to our house also had the essence of barn; it still does these many years later. This is where our outside coats, hats, gloves, and boots resided when not in use. In 1956, I started first grade at the little country school a half-mile down the road from our farm. Nobody noticed the faint odor of the barn—we all smelled the same. Five years later, our country school closed and we were bussed the fifteen miles to attend school in town. There, the farm kids stood out among the town kids after one whiff. We country kids were taunted by the less smelly until one day during recess, one time too many, the playground bully called us smelly farmers. My classmate and fellow farm kid, Regina, took down and pounded the tar out of the bigger, stronger boy as we cheered her on. It was much quieter after that incident.
The barn evolved over the years. First, a milk house was added to hold a 300-gallon tank to accommodate selling milk in bulk. This milk house was constructed out of used lumber purchased when the theater was torn down in nearby Riverdale; a town built in the late 1940s and early 50s by the Corps of Engineers for the construction of the Garrison Dam. Then the calf pens and stable were removed, more stanchions added, and the worn wood planks replaced with concrete. A few years later, a lean to was added to the back of the barn for even more stanchions and cows. At some point, a pipeline was installed to take the milk directly from the cow to the bulk tank. Milking in the barn ceased about twenty years ago when the physical labor became too much of a challenge for my parents. The major change came last year when the barn was carefully disassembled to be repurposed after 94 years of standing tall on the prairie. Well-done, old barn.
You’d be wrong to think this was an unpleasant childhood, being raised in a barn. Sure, there was the constant twice-daily milking, some dirty jobs, and just enough free time to think we weren’t burdened. There was plenty to eat, unlimited milk to drink, and a set of values shared with us by our parents and the community. Most of those things were learned in the big white barn.
This is my story of the barn, I’m sure others in my family will have other stories to tell or even question what I’ve written here. That’s the beauty of a memoir, each person will remember something different from the same experience. One feature I didn’t include in the story above are about the initials carved into the inside of the front door. Below is a panoramic photo I took seven or eight years ago to document the history from my grandparents, Henry and Minnie, and their kids, Don, Edris, Mardel to my parents, Don and Margie, and their kids, Tom, Jocelyn, Janet, Tim and Laurel. Plus a few other friends and relatives. This was preserved when the barn was torn down last year.
Hope you enjoyed my story of a sense of place.
Until next week, happy virtual travels!