Old Barns

CarolinaFireJournal - Ken Farmer
Ken Farmer Barnyard Management
04/29/2011 -

One of the givens about living on a farm is that you always had a barn. We had a wide range of farm buildings on our small tobacco and cattle farm. We had over eight different buildings including a stable, four tobacco barns, a corn shed, a hay shed, a tobacco pack house and a tractor shed! As a result I have lots of memories and warm thoughts about the farm barns.


I remember many fun childhood memories of playing in the stable with cousins and friends, helping the cat chase mice at the corn shed, climbing on the tractors to act like I was driving them, climbing in the hay barn to the highest bales and looking down at the rest of the world, going to the tobacco barns during the curing season, and sit around all night and keep feeding the wood to keep the fires going that cured the tobacco until it turned into the beautiful golden leaf.

Of course with time and my growth, all those same places became places of hard work, sweat and sometimes a little pain! The stable became a place to milk our solitary milk cow at five in the morning and watch her kick over the full bucket of fresh milk as well as herding young calves into the stalls so they could be changed from young bulls into a steer.

The stable was the place of change. It was where I raised two 4-H calves to their full weight by stall feeding them for about three months and then they shipped off to slaughter for their beef. It was the place we brought all the cows as we selected several to be carried to market to be able to purchase new blood for the herd. It was the place where we brought the mules in to be fed and watered after a long day of hauling or plowing tobacco.

The tobacco barns each held special memories. I will never forget my first exposure to the local volunteer fire department. We were cooking dinner on the grill in the yard when all of a sudden I heard a loud boom and saw a dark column of smoke. Dad realized that our largest tobacco barn was on fire. I remember the noise, the smell, and the pain of the long night as we suffered the total loss of the barn and its contents, no matter how hard our neighbors fought the fire. We built the barn back stronger and even better. We even changed from using wood to oil fed burners for safety and efficiency!

Obviously each structure held memories of work, play, and good times in life. Sadly, when I return back home to visit the farm each of those buildings have grown quiet and passive as the farm has changed with time and progress. The old stable has fallen in and been removed. Most of the tobacco barns still exist but tobacco long ago went to being cured in small aluminum propane fueled structures. Gone are the days of hand bundling tobacco leaves, as they are now moved more with pitchforks than loving hands. Such is the way of progress.

A few months ago the tale of such another barn made the rounds on the internet in a story by an unknown author. I received my email courtesy of Chief Bill Killen now of Tennessee. It was titled “Old Barns and Old People” and can be found with a Goggle search of the title. The story tells about how a city fellow wanted to buy an old barn for the wood to line the walls of new homes being built. The old farmer is not very sure why the wood has such a value, but then observes:

“That set me to thinking. I walked out to the field and just stood there, gazing at that old barn. The stranger said he planned to use the lumber to line the walls of his den in a new country home he’s building down the road. He said you couldn’t get paint that beautiful. Only years of standing in the weather, bearing the storms and scorching sun, only that can produce beautiful barn wood.”

“We’re a lot like that, you and I. Only it’s on the inside that the beauty grows with us. Sure we turn silver, gray too ... and learn a bit more than we did when we were young and full of sap. But the Good Lord knows what He’s doing. And as the years pass, He’s busy using the hard weather of our lives, the dry spells and the stormy seasons to do a job of beautifying our souls that nothing else can produce. And to think how often folks holler because they want life easy!”

Barns are a pretty fascinating part of life when you think about it. I have spent many hours driving across this wonderful country of ours. Now that I live in the Maryland-Pennsylvania area, I see beautiful barns every day on local farms.

Barns are mostly remembered as big red structures that held hay, cows, horses and farm equipment safe from the weather and sun. Red remains the most popular color as red paint was the least expensive paint at the time and appealed to thrifty farm owners. White is used a lot for dairy farms to reflect cleanliness and purity. Black is even a popular color in Kentucky. Special trim and hex signs for decoration are very popular with Amish farms in Pennsylvania, and who can forget the ads painted on barns and roofs for Mail Pouch chewing tobacco (from Wheeling, West Virginia) which lasted from 1890 until 1992. At their height in the 1960s, there were over 20,000 such barns in over 22 states. You also remember the “See Rock City” (from Chattanooga, Tennessee) ads that were started in 1932. At one point the signs were painted on 900 barns in 19 states by one man, Clark Byers. Only 100 out of these original such barns signs remain today.

I did a little more research and it seems that our barns are disappearing from our landscape at a fast rate. In the 1800s there were over 34,000 farm barns in Vermont. Today only 1,200 remain.

A recent study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found there were still over 664,224 barns and buildings built before 1960. No one actually knows the exact numbers that are out there or exactly how many are disappearing each year. For over 200 years the barn has been the symbol of rural farms and the work ethic of America. The barns have always changed with the technology on the farm as we went from mules to tractors, from hand milking to machine milking, from small farms to mega farms. Sometimes these barns were transformed to meet the new technology or sometimes left behind. Just like people, business, and life, things change and we must change with them.

If you have been in the fire service in the rural part of the U.S., you have been to a barn fire already. It makes for quite a water supply and fire suppression challenge. More than not, we lose a large amount of the contents due to the hay, dust and design of these structures. Sometimes we get there at the right time and are able to do some great saves. I have been to both types more than once!

We all have fond memories of the good and bad times but we must all put those things behind us as we move ahead. On the other hand, we must never forget those things that establish our roots and values. We must use them to adapt to new times and new technology but at the same time, we must remain committed to those everlasting rules and ways that remain the correct thing to do, no matter what the time.

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