December 2007 Issue
As Ohio's old wooden barns empty and decay, we lose much more than a reminder of our agricultural past.
Ohio's barns grow up with us, rising from good glacial loam like the virgin hardwood timber that gives them strength and form.
They rose from the earth as working symbols of America’s great agricultural economy and life on the family farm, with all its beauty and all its hardship.
Now, as Ohio pins its economic future on a “knowledge” economy, as family farms go under and housing developments pour from cities into the landscape like spilled milk from a pitcher, we see so many of our old barns — the icons of everything beautiful in this good Midwestern life we love — are graying, drooping and returning to the soil from whence they came.
We see them there, conspicuously alone by the road. The house and corncrib and sheds that once stood with them are long gone. We see them surrounded by cul-de-sacs, where the fields that once filled them with grain and hay are sprouting new vinyl-sided houses and unnaturally green lawns.
They are still stately, still beautiful, these barns, even in decline. Every board, every beam, every peg, every nail, every shingle, bears the sweat and vision of its maker. The pitch of the roof, the scale of the doors, the louvered windows, the weathered siding, the rusty tin — they are all instinctively pleasing and familiar to us.
You want a “knowledge” economy? I will give you a knowledge economy. In a barn.
Go find an ax and some tools and go build a barn with them. Go figure out which tree would make a good beam. Cut it down, hew it square. Then take a mallet and a chisel and cut a mortise to make a joint to start your frame.
And before any of that, get your hands on some stone. Stack stone on stone, and make it solid and sure enough to hold up a barn, and horses and hay and tractors and tools.
Now, what are you going to do for a roof? Did you think about that? Get out your froe and your draw knife and your shaving horse. Stand a chunk of wood on end, drive in the froe with your mallet and split off a long, skinny board. Take the board to your shaving horse, clamp it tight, use your drawknife to shave it down thin on one end.
There. You have one shingle. Do this a few thousand more times and you will have enough for your barn.
This is knowledge, friends. Knowledge that is fading from our heads. Those neatly spaced chisel-ax marks on those beams are the signature of a long-ago carpenter. He is dust now, but the barn is still there, a testament to his skill, and would stand forever, with a little care.
They don’t go down easily. That is what makes it so sad to see a barn decline. So tightly knit by the old craftsmen, it takes decades of gravity and neglect for them to go over. It starts with one raindrop, the way a forest fire starts with a spark. One raindrop drips through one crack in one slate of the roof, or begins a February ice dam that causes a rain gutter to give way. A scavenger peels off the siding, exposing the skeleton to the elements.
That is the end of a barn. Those beams that are like steel when they are dry turn to powder after the old wood drinks too much rain. A corner buckles and it begins to lean, or the roof sags, like a swayback horse.
Ohioan Louis Bromfield, the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer and conservationist, knew about barns. As a boy, he traveled the Richland County countryside with his father. When their errands kept them out after nightfall, farmers invited them to unhitch their horse and bed themselves in a sweet-smelling hay mow. The barn was the best room in the house.
World War I drew Bromfield to France and World War II chased him home to Ohio. He wanted a barn, like those he remembered from childhood. He found what he was looking for, in more ways than one, as he wrote in Pleasant Valley:
“... I pushed open the door and walked into the smell of cattle and horses and hay and silage and I knew that I had come home and that never again would I be long separated from that smell because it meant security and stability and because in the end, after years of excitement and wandering and adventure, it had reclaimed me.”
Bromfield believed the animals and grasses and grains stowed in barns made the barns alive, in a way. The heat and moisture they generated was absorbed by the wood, making it somehow supple and satisfied, the way a humidifier feels good to our skin and lungs in dry winter weather.
Take away those things from a barn and the wood dries and splinters; the building seems to lose purpose and becomes vulnerable to time and mischief. There is a sadness to an empty barn.
It has always seemed to me that you could — when no one was looking, of course — put your face close to an old barn beam, near where the wood is cracked and checked, and breathe in the air of 17th- or 18th-century Ohio. There has got to be something there still living, deep in the cells of that old chestnut or beech timber, remnants of the clean rain and air and sunshine of ages past, organic matter from the forest soil where the magnificent trees grew, waiting for us.
Having had a detour of one or two centuries to enrich our lives with their presence in the landscape, our wooden barns now fold gracefully back into the earth as ash and sawdust, with a few strands of straw for memory’s sake, taking their place in the vast order of all living things.
And when they return to the soil at last, what stories they will have to tell.