Historical Detritus

Our Homestead is old, but it is not now, and has never been, a museum. Throughout the course of its existence it has either served as a home, or sat empty, unused. This applies to the house itself, as well as to the property and it’s outbuildings.

The old barn on the property is nearly as old as the house itself, and it appears to have originally been built as an animal barn, with stalls for horses that include feeding troughs and the like. As time has gone on, the need for this type of structure has waned, and it has been put to other purposes - grain storage, general storage, and, apparently, raccoon sanctuary.

In these transitions, however, no one has bothered to remove or relocate the remnants of the prior usages. Hanging in the barn have been old bits of horse tack - various leather strappings and mechanisms designed for hitching horses up to wagons and similar devices.

I’d like to say that I know this because I’ve seen such items hanging in the barn and, to a certain degree this is true. However, it turns out that we have another, far more eager group of historical archeologists living on the property:

Our dogs.

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Over the years that we have lived here they have pulled out of the barn more bits of animal tack than I can ever recall seeing in there myself - the experience of finding yet another such item laying in the yard is a little like watching a slow motion clown car performance.

While I’d like to think that they are interested in sharing these historical discoveries with the rest of the family, I should note that most of these items have leather strapping attached to them, and I suspect it is this which actually gains the interest of our canine contingent. Still, they also have buckles and other metal components as well, which inevitably show up elsewhere in the yard (a delightful thing to encounter with a lawn mower, let me tell you).

The supply of these items surely must end at some point, and then we will no longer have these educational encounters with history. Until then, it does lend a reminder of the fact that it really hasn’t been that long since people used animals, rather than tractors, to plow the fields and get their product to market.

First Snow 2017

As I walked to the stairwell to begin my search for another cup of coffee this morning a glance out the window revealed this:

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Big fluffy flakes here in the middle-ish of November reflect the first meaningful snowfall of the season. We are ahead of the astronomical winter by a more than a month, but as usual, the weather gods of the Midwest feel not the limits of our puny calendars.

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There is something about the first real snowfall that always makes me happy. This is not something I’ve ever been able to really explain - it’s just a visceral thing that happens. Perhaps, like fall, or the first buds of spring, it reflects a change in the landscape, a variation what has been the typical order of things for the several weeks and months prior.

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Perhaps. But snow makes me giddy in a way that the other examples do not. There is something more to it. IMG_5018.GIF Undoubtedly some look out the window and experience the dread of a coming season of heavy coats, cold hands and noses, and shoveling. I know these things will be coming too, and I have no illusions about the potential future swearing I will do as I’m trying to rock, then shovel, then rock some more in my efforts to get my car unstuck from somewhere, where "somewhere" is even, possibly, my own driveway.

All of that is a ways off for now, tho, and from the vantage point of my warm room, with no need to go anywhere, this is a beautiful thing.

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Of Shed Roofs and Holes...

For the past couple of years we’ve had a very large hole in the roof of our shed.

Hole in Roof

It was there for the hole winter

Like most rural residential properties in Illinois, we have outbuildings in addition to the house itself. Like most such properties of similar age to ours - that is to say, 150+ years of age - those buildings vary considerably in terms of condition.

I’ve written before about the old barn, which is slightly younger than the house itself. It was in a state of decay when I wrote that, and it continues to insist on embracing entropy. In addition to the barn, we have two other outbuildings - a small garage, and the aforementioned shed.

The garage is a smallish building - probably technically a car-and-a-half in size - into which we manage to stuff our two, smallish Honda Fits. This is an exercise in automotive yoga, involving parking one of the two cars - mine - so closely to the wall of the building that it is physically impossible for a human being to enter the vehicle from the passenger side. Prospective passengers - my wife and child primarily - must wait outside the building while I back out before they can enter the vehicle. This mostly works out fine - I almost never fail to stop and let them in, virtually never drive off having forgotten them...

Despite its smallishness, the garage also does the heavy lifting of housing most of the things we care about enough to care for them but, you know, not enough to bring them into the house. The cars, the bikes, spare lumber, dog food, and so on.

The shed is a much larger building. It is a pole structure, sided in corrugated steel. Growing up out here we called these "machine sheds" or, sometimes, "Morton Buildings". "Morton" is a brand name, suffering here in the Midwest the same fate as "Xerox" and "Kleenex" have nationwide. There is nothing on the building to indicate that it was manufactured by the Morton company and yet, on multiple occasions I’ve been heard to utter than name in relation to it. More recently, however, I’m sure much to the relief of Morton Buildings, Inc., I’ve just been referring to it as "the f&%king shed".

And this takes us to where we started: there was a hole in the roof of the shed.

While the majority of the building - both sides and roof - is covered in corrugated steel, it did feature skylights made of translucent fiberglass. I wouldn't have actually known they were made of fiberglass, but Mother Nature felt it important to educate me, and so chose to rip one of the panels off in a windstorm, providing me the opportunity for close inspection of pieces of it down on the ground.

Now, I’m all for gaining knowledge, and I don’t want to seem unappreciative, but this lesson had a rather permanent effect upon the weather-tightness of the building. Perhaps Mother Nature could, in future, email me a link to a Wikipedia entry or something...

The process for addressing this took longer than one - particularly if one is me - might have expected. First up was a call to the insurance company in hopes that repairs to the building might be covered. Unfortunately, they pronounced the repair costs to be below our deductible, and drove off with their checkbook secure and unmolested.

Not expensive enough for the insurance company isn’t the same as inexpensive, however. Given this, and given the fact that most of our items of value were already stored in the garage (even with a roof fully sealed against the elements, the dirt floor of the shed is not ideal for longevity of stored items), we moved the few other items in there away from under the roof opening and started to save up.

Once we were ready to get the roof repaired, early exploration of this found a new area of concern. As I mentioned, there is no indication on the building to suggest that it is a Morton Shed and, in fact, no indication on it (that I can find) of its manufacturer at all.

And - not only am I unaware of the make of the building, but I’m also unsure of its age. I know that it was not there when I was little, and that it had appeared at some point between when I moved away and when I returned. The progression of years is such that this seems to encompass but the briefest period of time, but reality insists that it covers a span of at least 15 years, if not closer to twenty.

I am not always a fan of reality.

This wouldn't seem much of an issue to the casual observer, but it turns out that corrugated steel siding comes in multiple, subtlety different shapes and designs. What this means is that matching the pattern on the building becomes a challenge. The pattern on our shed looks like this:

Shed Pattern

When first informed of this issue I thought perhaps of repurposing sections of siding that appeared on the old barn. Two different types of siding had been added there over the years, likely in both cases to better seal it up against the elements and extend its lifespan.

The Barn white siding

The Barn steel siding

However, given the barn’s decaying state and, perhaps more importantly, it’s ongoing engagement in providing aid and comfort to the enemy, I would have been willing to repurpose those sections. And you’d think, being on the same property and all, that they’d perhaps be the same type of siding...

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. And of course, by "you", here, I mean "me".

Shed again

Barn White up close

Barn steel up close

If you look up close and personal at those pictures you’ll see that the patterns do not match. Whether this reflects a different era of product, different style, different manufacturer, or all three remains a mystery, but they are, in fact, different nonetheless.

And here I was learning so much about the diversity both within the world of corrugated steel siding, and within the bounds of my very property. The nature of these lessons were such that, while I originally thought them visited upon me by a gracious, if heavy handed Mother Nature, I found myself now wondering if they were not perhaps the work of the old gods brought over by my ancestors, perhaps the whim of Loki peeking thru...

Ultimately I was pleased to find at there is a way to cover the opening with a newer roof panel that does not match, exactly, but which will function to keep the elements out regardless. In fact, this could be done using new translucent panels that continued to function as skylights, but were not made of the fiberglass material that tends to become brittle over time, and do things like break off in the wind.

The shed guys came out and repaired the roof this past week, leaving it looking a little different, but now sealed - at least at the top - from the elements.

All sealed up

The Mantis Strikes!

A handful of times over the years I have encountered people who have found and caught Praying Mantis’s. For myself, however, despite an abundant amount of time spent in the out-of-doors I have never personally come across one.

Not until this summer - now I’ve seen three.

The very first was found by LB, who saw it along the north wall of the old barn, and pointed it out to me. I’m not sure I would have noticed it myself, but there it was. I considered myself lucky for this encounter.

Then, a few weeks later I came across another, in grass that was perhaps a little longer than it should have been around the garden. This one I came across on my own, and I spent a little time with it.

Mantis in the grass

At first it did not notice me, too busy trying to navigate its way through the long blades (did I mention the grass may have been too long?). But then it turned and saw me and my phone there, intruding on its personal space, and took offense...

Mantis Attack!

Mantis Attack! close up

This Mantis was here to say "I will beat your ass if I have to", and showing it’s martial arts cred for the world, and more specifically, for me, to be aware. We stayed in this position, the two of us, for a short while. If I moved in and out the Mantis would reassert, making certain that I would not forget the danger posed by its arcane knowledge.

Seriously Dude - I will beat your ass!

Finally, détente reached, the Mantis took its leave of me, satisfied that I would fear and respect it, and all of its kind for the remainder of my days (Dude had quite an opinion of itself).

I am outta here

The Praying Mantis, or Mantis Religiosa (yup) is apparently not native to North America but rather, like Columbus (and ourselves), is an invader. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) actually lists its page on these critters under the title European Mantis. I actually thought that it might be the case that the versions we were seeing in the yard were some different variety of Mantis, since the outer carapace was a light brown rather than green, but apparently they come in a variety of colors.

And that fancy pose, warding me off and striking fear in my heart? It has a fancy scientific name, of course. This is the deimatic display, and is intended to make it look big and frightening and show off that extra set of eye marks on its upper chest (and who wouldn't want to show those if they had them?).

My third encounter - the day following, as it turns out, which I did not realize until I saw the dates in Photos - was the one that I included in last week’s post. That fellow, of course, was happily munching on a bee when I encountered it.

Bees are what’s for dinner

That one did not attempt to ward me off. One might assume it was too taken with its meal to notice me, but I suspect it is because it was confident that it’s comrade had sufficiently cowed me the day prior such that I was no longer a concern. I was now beneath notice.

Given history as a prelude, I may never see a Mantis in the wild again, but this summer has certainly offered a rich array of experiences with them.

Burdock

If you have spent any time exploring unmanicured areas in northern Illinois you have undoubtedly encountered Burdock.

The Wikipedia entry for Burdock describes its role as a food item in Asian countries and as the inspiration for Velcro, which is all well and good. What Wikipedia fails to do is to accurately describe this plant as a hateful, invasive weed that is designed to wreak havoc on the coat of medium to long-furred canines passing by.

It's slightly possible that I have not been as diligent as I could have been at trimming around the old barn. One consequence of this oversight seems to be that of allowing a burgeoning colony of Burdock to grow in and around that area. What's more, if I wasn't aware of my lawn care failings of my own accord, Rosie, our border collie/Australian shepherd mix has been helpfully making me aware.

I need to do some further research here, but based upon our recent experiences, it seems quite possible that border collies and Australian shepherds were selectively bred as Burdock seed distribution devices.

Sometimes you can catch the seed pods shortly after they have attached, at which point they can be removed fairly easily. However, miss a day or two of grooming, or fail to detect the presence of one of these things during a grooming session, and it can work it's way into a mat of fur that seems to require divine intervention (or scissors) to remove.

It appears that it could certainly be worse than we have it here, as a quick google image search confirms. Still, this fact does not prevent this plant's placement on my "I wonder if extinction is always a bad thing" list.

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.