Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

Across the fence

Old Barns and Memories


This week I would like to say “Thank You” to all of you who have taken the time to read my stories, reminiscences and retellings of historical people and events in the Heartland of this great nation. I have personally enjoyed sharing these with you and have been pleased to know that they have been appreciated by you. Growing commitments in other areas of my daily life have clearly indicated that I must make some choices about how I spend my time. My commitment to a weekly column consumes more of the time that I believe I should be expending elsewhere.

And so I bid you farewell and I will cherish the times and the memories that we have shared. I leave you with a repeat of my very first column. I hope you enjoy it one more time.

Some say it’s bad luck to tear down an old barn and I suspect that more than just a few folks hold this ‘superstition’ as fact. Over the years, I have watched a number of old barns lay themselves down after long weary years of struggling against the wind and weather in an effort to remain upright. I have been amazed at the precarious angles some have held for years before finally laying down to rest.

Ours was a grand old barn. Like most others in the rolling northeast Kansas hills, it was a barn for all seasons and every possible use. It was as tall as a four-story building. In my dim memory of it, it was a weather-beaten, faded red with shake cedar shingles aged to a silvery gray. Its doors hung, like the bent back of an old man, on tired hinges that groaned in protest at each opening and closing. The age of the old barn was uncertain, but I would judge it to have been built in the 1860’s. The constant force of Kansas winds had pushed it beyond plumb until stout poles had to be braced against its timbered frame to keep it standing.

The upper half was the loft where hay was stacked loose for winter feed. Openings in the loft floor allowed hay to be forked into mangers below where cattle and horses waited each morning and evening. Rough-cut two-by-twelve joists sagged from their years of supporting a sprawling pine planked floor and untold tons of hay. The rails, pulleys, hooks and ropes ran the length of the ridgepole from eave to eave and out past the huge hay door, hinged at the bottom like the door of a mailbox. Twenty feet tall and nearly as wide, the great door took a stout team of horses, hitched to a rope as thick as a scythe handle, to open and close.

The lower half was divided into large storage bins for feed, heavy timbered hay bunks and wooden stanchions worn smooth from decades of soft-necked milk cows. There were stalls for horses, tack rooms, and sizeable pens built for the comfort of an occasional orphaned calf or a shelter from spring blizzards for stubborn first-calf heifers.

To a youngster who had not yet cast a shadow in a schoolhouse doorway, the barn was a personal adventure land. Dusty, cobweb covered beams that spanned various sections of the barn became narrow footbridges over bottomless crevasses where prehistoric monsters lurked. Monsters like the dinosaurs in the ‘Alley Oop’ comic strip that Dad sometimes read to me. Mazes of alleyways, feed bunks and pens with hinged, half-height doors were unexplored canyons and caverns where danger lurked at every turn. Vague shadows, cast by the constant near darkness that deepened in every corner, hid unspeakable demons ready to snatch and devour any tender soft-boned child that lingered too long in places where sunlight was unknown.

But the dangers below were escapable by way of the towering ladder built with two-by-four lumber nailed across supporting studs that reached upward. A dizzying 20-foot climb, from the dirt floor below to the pine-planked floor of the hayloft, and sanctuary was found. The rays of sunlight that could not penetrate the darkness below shouted through the loft in slivers of light that burst through cracks between siding boards and gaps where cedar shingles had rattled free and flown away in the last close call of a Kansas twister.

In the loft I would dance with the sunbeams, kicking up dust from the dry and aged hay that formed the mountains I would climb. Dust mingled with the sunbeams and sparkled like gold, flashing alternating shadows and light across the floor and against the walls as I danced in the flickering spotlight.

All too soon my adventures in the old barn came to an end. In the summer before my first year in school, the old barn was torn down and replaced with a modern, galvanized steel-sided pole barn. I remember my grandfather, my dad and my uncles, with crowbars and hammers, ripping rusty nails from weathered boards that fell to the ground in stiff, jumbled heaps. I remember the stark nakedness of its timbers after the covering boards had been removed and all that stood was the skeletal frame of planks and timbers. Despite being stripped and exposed, the proud old barn refused to give up and fall to the ground. My uncles began a steady but powerful, rhythmic pushing and pulling that increased in its intensity until the frame finally crumpled to the ground like the scattered bones of some giant beast.

Memories of the old barn have faded and there is not even a picture in the family album to rekindle what memories there are. I do remember the old wood beams that were worn smooth as river stone by the horses and cattle that had rubbed the pillars as they passed by to stanchions or stalls. I remember the smells, smells of horseflesh and leather, cattle and fresh milk, manure and mud, fresh milled oats and corn, sweet clover and alfalfa. I remember the urgent mewing’s of feather-light baby kittens clambering over one another in the manger as they searched, with unopened eyes, for their mother’s milk. I remember the low, rattling wicker of horses from their stalls in early morn and the low-pitched rumblings of a first calf heifer as she nudged her newborn calf to her flank.

And I remember dancing in the loft. Dancing just for the joy of it. Dancing with the sunbeams. I spent a lot of time in the new barn, but I don’t ever remember dancing there. As I grew older it seems there was less joy in my world and dancing seemed frivolous. Some of the magic in that old barn had also crumbled to the ground and died where it lay.

And I wonder, perhaps it really is bad luck to tear down an old barn.

Volume 1 of “101 Yesterdays”, containing 50 selected columns from the past six years is now available. To order contact Tim at HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected][email protected] or send $17.00 plus $3.00 postage and handling to M. Timothy Nolting P.O. Box 68 Bushnell, NE 69128


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