The old Barn

The old gray mare ain't what she used to be... 

The old gray mare ain't what she used to be... 

The Old Barn

At the Homestead we have a barn. It's an old building, and photos of the property suggest its age is probably similar to that of the house. As barns of the era go, it's in relatively good condition. But it's important to understand that relative here refers to the fact that many barns of the era, in our area, have fallen down.

This home, as I've detailed before, was my grandparent's house, was the house my mother grew up in. Some of my earliest memories involve being inside of this house, playing here. I do not have the same relationship with the barn.

As a child growing up in intensely rural Illinois I spent a great deal of time in barns. Although many of them were quite old back then as well, thirty-plus years accounts for a lot of deterioration. Most of the places I went out here, friends had barns that were old, often in limited use, but still sound structures. Many of them still had hay and straw in the loft, put there for a previous generation's animals, left behind when their families decided to move away from cattle in favor of corn and soybeans. They had multiple levels to explore, ladders to climb, ropes to swing from; in some cases there remained the pulley and track systems used for getting bales out of the loft and through the upper-story door. As a child those doors seemed a mystifying and amazing thing, doors to the sky, doors to nowhere.

Frankly, it's a wonder we weren't all killed playing in these places.

My relationship with our particular barn, however, is nothing like this. I spent a great deal of time at my grandmother's home, and played here often. But while the barn is on my property now, it wasn't on Grandma's property then. The building, and the land it occupied, belonged to my (Great) Uncle Bud; my grandmother's brother, who lived just down the road.

At the time Bud kept cattle, and the barn was at the edge of a pasture. Perhaps that was the reason, or perhaps it was something about the building itself but, as much fun as I knew barns could be, I cannot ever recall going into the building before moving here as an adult.

The building itself is quite old, but its appearance is a mashup of generational modifications. When you walk inside you can see the old wooden structures, the mortise and tenon joints. There is ancient, decaying animal tack hanging from the wall - old leather yokes and harnesses, bits of bridles. But at some point, perhaps twenty years ago or so, the center of the barn was modified to make it a grain bin. From the ground floor the new construction is almost a little hard to see if you don't know it is there, but it occupies about a third of the center of the building, as well as taking up the lion's share of the loft, dividing that space into two narrow rooms.

Perhaps the most striking generational change - and the one that makes the building uninviting - is on the outside. This was an entirely wooden structure when it was build, with the traditional vertical wooden exterior panels found on most barns of the era in the region. At some point, probably more than forty years ago (as I cannot remember the building looking any different than it does today), someone elected to cover the building in large, white panels of cement board. These were placed over top the existing, albeit decaying vertical wooden siding where it still existed. In truth, those panels probably deserve a large portion of the credit for the fact that the building is still standing and structurally sound.

They are also ugly as sin.

The barn is on my mind at the moment because it has begun to decay more rapidly over the past year. Early this fall I noticed a hole in the western roof of the building. It's been a home for wildlife - mostly raccoons (and believe me, we will have more to say about the raccoons) and birds, though there were also foxes living in the barn when we first moved in. The raccoons are particularly problematic here, as elsewhere, as the building is full of mounds their leavings. It is clear that, whatever else might be said for the life of a raccoon living on our property, they don't appear to suffer from constipation.

Cleaning up, and then doing something with the barn has been on the long end of my to-do list since we moved in to the place. I am honestly not sure what that something is or should be. We don't really need the space for storage, for example. I've considered taking out the grain bins - a necessity for virtually all barn scenarios - and returning the loft to full-size. At that point there is a large open space that could be used for... exercising, perhaps? Open space like that is very nice for things like martial arts. But the list of realistic uses is short, too short to make it worth deflecting the type of time and attention it would take to work on it away from other things.

So I'm left in a bit of a quandary. I don't want to simply allow it to slowly tumble down. Benign neglect is the most common course for dealing with these buildings. Driving around the countryside here offers multiple opportunities to see this very approach in action in multiple locations; barns in various states of decline, ranging from those with roofs slowly caving in to those which are just a pile of wood laying on the ground. It is sad to see, but also perfectly understandable. Taking them down, repairing them, either option is a huge project for a building that is no longer in any sort of use.

At the moment my best consideration is to see if I can find a way to inexpensively patch the roof and slow the decline. I've purchased a book on barn restoration, not because I think that's what I'm going to do, but to see if I can better understand what is involved so I can decide whether I think it will even be an option.