The sun was just beginning its ascent into the eastern sky as I walked across the yard to survey the site. A few chunks of what had been structural beams continued to smolder, all else was quiet. A variety of implements stored in the upstairs area now lay on the stable floor, welded and distorted by extreme heat and dozens of steel support posts stood like headstones. The concrete silo cracked and blackened, appeared tall and foreboding as it towered above the charred ruins, while scores of sheets of roofing steel blanketed the burnt out site. I felt a wave of sadness as I imagined the countless man-hours that had gone into the construction of this building…
“Frame a barn with elm and it will be standing in a hundred years,” said my great-grandfather when he set out the framing plans for our barn in the autumn of 1907. Throughout that winter he and his family had worked cutting trees and skidding the de-limbed trunks to the local saw mill. Once the snow melted in the spring the logs were squared to the desired dimensions and hauled back to the building site. At this point all the proper mortises and tenors were cut and formed and countless holes drilled into the newly cut timbers. This was exacting work with no margin for error, like a jigsaw puzzle every piece marked and numbered for proper assembly. One of the great events of that era was the day of the actual “raising,” when often 40 or 50 men would arrive for the actual construction and almost as many women to provide the banquet. With an undertaking of this magnitude, food and beverage were paramount. The main wooden sills that lay atop the stone walls and the floor had been roughly laid by the time the main framing began. Each section of frame was assembled on the ground and with the aid of poles, bars, cables, winches, ropes and sheer muscle, hoisted into position. While these sections were held in place, others hurried about on the newly-installed beams, hammering wooden pegs into the pre-drilled holes. Once the main frame was secured, the rafters and other support braces were fitted and by days end a fully framed structure of hardwood timber stood watch
over Lot 23 Concession 9.
Our barn was already a half century old by the time I became aware of its magic. I remember the windmill that was positioned just outside the building’s west wall. A small wooden enclosure surrounded the base and for a little boy it was a wonderful place to be on a humid summer afternoon, watching the sucker rods cycling up and down and listening to the water gurgle away to the huge cement trough in the stable.
The barn was the nucleus of everything that was happening. A dairy barn especially, was much more than just a shelter for food and animals. It was a forum where current and world events, politics, weather, family problems, crop analysis, milk production, financial obligations and a dozen other subjects could be discussed and debated. Also, it was a centre where friends, neighbours, cattle buyers, rural and urban relatives and sales personnel pushing everything from molasses to manure spreaders, congregated.
Recalling milking time, it is sound, as much as image, that comes to mind. Two rows of Holsteins shuffling about in their stalls, chains rattling, impatiently waiting for their share of the season’s harvest. Calves bawling their heads off, while a clatter of pails signalled someone readying their meal to shut them up. Perhaps as many as a dozen cats swarming around, eagerly waiting that first pail of warm milk and Dad making it clear that most of them should be out “mousing” rather than lazily hanging around the cat dish. The swishing of the milking machine pulsators, CKNX crackling from the tubes of our Stromberg-Carlson radio, the Surge vacuum pump droning away in the background, plus three or four, maybe five people talking at once, only added to this orchestra of sound.
As a farm kid knows only too well, cleaning stables is the most time-consuming job in a dairy barn, an operation handled at our place by a litter carrier. Some guy from the city must have figured “litter” was a more proper word than manure, but however undignified the task and regardless the title, removing tons from the gutters was simple necessity. I recall when a stable cleaner salesman would call, Dad would end his sale’s pitch right away. “I don’t need a stable cleaner”, nodding towards us boys. “I have all I need.”
Fashioned from galvanized steel, the carrier bucket sort of resembled an old fashioned bathtub. To fill, it was lowered to the floor on a chain by a winding mechanism then when loaded raised to a height some four feet off the ground. A simple shove would send the outfit clattering along its steel track suspended from the ceiling. Once outside, a long, swinging pole allowed the track to arc to any degree. A tug on the release lever dumped the bucket, although ours was overly sensitive and often unloaded prematurely.
It’s easy to look back 40 or 50 years and paint a wonderful warm portrait of our old barn, conveniently discounting what made it less than perfect. Nevertheless by the 1960’s it was showing its age, especially where younger cattle were concerned. Our homemade wooden and wire gate partitions were forever being challenged by spirited animals who could entertain themselves all winter with escape attempts. Baler twine was our main fastener, but through time and patience, enterprising heifers soon learned by chewing long enough, twine could
The old stable was eventually updated with the addition of steel partitions and support beams, ventilating fans, and despite our father’s suspicions, an automatic stable cleaner. So although the interior had undergone a makeover, the unmistakable presence that only a barn can convey, remained intact…at least until that September Friday afternoon.
Just after one o’clock, a spark caused by an electrical short, burst from the base of a neglected receptacle onto the thresh floor. It took only a few seconds for the loose chaff to ignite and in no time a carpet of flame had spread across the straw-laden floor. Almost immediately the entire upstairs section was turned into an opaque, white cloud of smoke, its thickening plume billowing from every crack and crevice. By now the eighty plus year old timbers were supplying all the fuel needed to feed the fire. When the fire department arrived only minutes later, the entire barn was but a huge orange ball of flame. Only the superstructure remained visible and the silo appeared as a giant smokestack. A few more minutes passed, the main structural beams yielded to the inferno, sending a shower of fire-laden debris out into a nearby field as they fell. At this point, I could do nothing but stand alongside the gathered crowd and watch…
This morning I’m standing within the weathered walls of my neighbour’s barn, or more accurately what remains of it. The farm was sold many years ago and the barn ignored and forgotten except for pigeons and sparrows. With each passing year its decay broadens. Huge doors that protected decades of produce, swing on rusted hinges, while loosened sheets of corroded steel scrape quietly overhead. The structure groans and creaks at every joint as the wind sifts through the numerous missing sideboards. Much of the thresh floor, once able to support a year’s harvest, is now rotted and collapsed, as endless seasons of rain, snow, temperature and humidity variations take their toll.
Why this empty building should affect me as it does, I don’t know…barns such as this exist all across Ontario. I observe them everyday in my travels. Barns once full of feed and livestock stand desolate and dilapidated, advertising the flow of rural families that have left to pursue some other avenue. Maybe the reason is simply I have to look at this particular building every day. As I witness its agonizing departure, my mind returns to that fateful Friday concerning our own barn. As traumatic and tragic as it seemed at the time, its demise came quickly, perhaps not such a bad way to go…anything would be better then what this fragment of Canadian history is experiencing at the moment.