The Soul of a Barn

by Mary Henneke Miller
(Henneke Family Farm near Ottawa, Illinois)

Mary Henneke Miller

The old barn fell down. It caved into the sloping ground on which it was built years ago.

The faded siding and ancient timbers had been leaning to the east for several years. One March afternoon it came crashing down onto itself during a roaring westerly windstorm on the Illinois prairie.

I was not there at the exact moment of the collapse. As I drove home on the highway that day, I glanced toward my place across the vacant field waiting the spring planting of soybeans. I had the realization that something was missing in the familiar setting, but my mind could not comprehend the reality for several seconds.

The landscape had altered subtly and yet forever monumentally.

The large white barn was gone.

Perhaps it was for the best that I had not been present when my barn fell. I can only imagine the groan of the breaking timbers, the snapping of the pieces of siding and bracing long ago fitted perfectly by wooden pegs and square headed nails.

Over the next few days, I went through almost a period of bereavement. Family, friends and neighbors stopped by and sadly stood looking at what remained of the barn. I was reminded of the wake of a dear old uncle or grandfather. We spoke of the strength that had once been ever present, the hours of toil that had been witnessed, the loving comfort of the secure building that protected cattle from winter's cold and allowed children to swing from ropes over its rafters.

After a time however there were subtle questions about my plans to dispose of the barn. There were not so subtle suggestions involving the toss of a match to the broken framework.

But it was my heart that spoke most clearly to me.

For as long as I can remember the barn has been here at the farm. Although no records of its beginnings are available, the original structure was probably built after the first owner obtained the northern Illinois property around 1845.

A barn expert once told me it appeared the barn had been added onto and "remodeled" post Civil War, due to the stonework foundation and the large hay door which would open downward to receive bales of hay and straw.

As a young child I remember following my dad out to the barn to do morning chores. The door pulled open on a track to reveal stalls for the Hereford cattle, a set of wooden stairs leading to the hay loft and the huge expanse of timber frame beams overhead. There was a basement where the cattle could find shelter from cold and snow. Trapdoors were ingeniously installed to drop feed to the animals.

Over the years I spent many hours in the barn. My brother and I continually built and rearranged pens for our calves, the pony, sheep and one precocious goat.

We witnessed births of kittens and lambs. We laughed at the antics of Mushy the goat and cried when a favorite cat was found dead from distemper.

The Easter Bunny left colored eggs in nests of straw that my brother and I carefully arranged throughout the barn. My dad told us that every Christmas Eve at midnight all of the animals in the barn knelt on their front legs in prayer. Even though I could never stay up that late to check, I knew that it was true.

Throughout my childhood years of growth, learning to expand my thoughts, being allowed to pursue my dreams, I always knew the barn and all that it represented was standing, solid and strong.

The barn had its own presence and personality; it had its own soul. The barn was standing tall when my grandmother as a young girl moved to Illinois with her parents from Nebraska. My father grew up on the same farm. The barn was his workplace and refuge from a complicated world after World Was II.

Now the faded white siding which showed soft red paint of earlier days, the massive beams attached in a patchwork puzzle with wooden pegs, and the aged tree trunks used as support under it all had somehow also become part of my soul, a very real part of who I have become.

Now it is my responsibility to decide the fate of my graceful old barn. There are those who look at the pile of splintered boards and flattened roofing and see something that needs to be destroyed. I see something that has aged and that has had its original purpose diminished.

But the framework is still visible to me. I see the old red paint clinging to the shattered siding. I see the years of wear on the support posts where the cattle rubbed their sides and backs. I can still see the simple outline of the roof which protected and nurtured so many souls for so many years.

The decision is clear. I have begun the huge task of picking up the broken pieces of barn boards and salvaging what is possible. Of course much of the building has been lost, but I feel the spirit of the old barn as I sort through ravaged wood and suddenly uncover an unscathed brown bottle that served years ago to hold medicine for a sick animal.

I discover a decades old horseshoe lovingly tacked to a cross beam. I scrape away old bales of matted hay and realize that although this particular barn has been changed forever, the sense of a purpose still creaks in the wooden floorboards.

The demise and disappearance of the barn is seen on many farms throughout the country. The world has of course changed. American farms have declined in number as suburban sprawl continues.

But perhaps it is time to reassess our values, especially those regarding lessons learned from family and life on the farm (if fate was kind enough to have allowed you that privilege).

I will rebuild my barn using what I can of the old timbers and boards. I might (will!) be writing for advice and support during this process. My barn might not be as massive in size as it once was. It might not be used to store hay and give shelter to cattle. But its purpose will be revealed to me as I again see the barn rise. My barn has shown me that memories are everlasting and are always the foundation of a dream.

Comments for The Soul of a Barn

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Jan 05, 2017
Always sad NEW
by: Anonymous

It is always sad when a barn goes down you can always thing of the story and history it could tell.

Jan 05, 2017
by: Anonymous

IT is always sad when you see a barn go down and when they do you can think about all the story's a barn could tell.

Oct 15, 2013
Our old Barn NEW
by: Douglas Baker

My family had a 100+ year old barn we lost in a record wind in 1962. It seemed to have been constructed using the same methods and materials as the barn in this story.
We rebuilt using as many of the huge beams and perfect rafters as survived.
It is not as lovely as the original but is standing proudly while carrying on the soul of the orginal in the minds of our family members.

Oct 14, 2013
yes indeed NEW
by: Lynda in Ohio

I too recently lost an old barn, and I know all too well of what you so eloquently have described. Old barns do indeed have souls, or so it seems. When they come down it is like losing an old friend. I also saved bits and pieces of my barn, a slate shingle, the hay door, old hand-hammered hinges and door latches, old windows and hand-forged mule shoes long discarded. Not enough to replace the barn itself but some memories anyway.

As far as wondering about why the old barns are allowed to deteriorate to the point of falling down, I imagine in many cases it is a financial hardship to maintain them and sometimes the deterioration is not immediately noticeable and by the time it is apparent, it is too late (as in my case).

Good luck to you in resurrecting your old barn and I hope you are able to keep the memories alive anyway.

Oct 11, 2013
Question NEW
by: Anonymous

Hi, I really liked your article. I can totally understand how you feel about your barn. My question is, though, why did you let your barn rot away before your eyes in the first place? I mean no disrespect, but I've never understood why so many farmers let their barns just collapse. Is it a financial reason? I feel so sad when I see an old neglected barn. So many memories attached to each one, I'm sure, and probably soon to be nothing more than a distant memory once the barn is destroyed.

Oct 11, 2013
Thanks for the memories...Texas barns NEW
by: Linda Meuth

Oh my...what a beautiful words! Words that bring memories and visions of my own experiences of the "family barns." My grandfather's barn in Corpus Christi, Texas was a sight to behold for a 10 year olds memory and the stories it held. It fell during Hurricane Cecilia in 1970. Memories of the smell of fresh cut hay, as we stacked it in the barn built from my great-grandparents home, Bastrop County, Texas.
Thanks for the memories!

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