I love barns: old and new, large and small, dairy, tobacco, and well kept or falling apart. I think I can honestly say I’ve never met a barn I didn’t like. This love affair began long before they became subjects for my art. Barns and outbuildings were a part of life growing up on a farm. The barn was a playground for me and my friends, a place for hiding, building forts in the hay, for climbing, and for jumping out of lofts and second story windows. Our barn had little to offer architecturally. It was a plain 3-story structure with a tin roof. The stone and concrete ground floor that supported the 2 framed floors above, housed the various livestock. The top floors were home to several hundred chickens. It wasn’t until I was old enough to accept the responsibility of daily chores that I developed a new appreciation of our barn.
Milking the family cow was one of my assigned chores, a task I did under duress during the deep days of summer. The barn was hot, the air thick and heavy, and seated by her udder with my head resting on her flank I would be smacked in the face repeatedly by her tail flipping from side to side to remove the flies constantly settling on her. But on cold winter days it was an entirely different experience. I recall reading that a cow generates enough body heat to warm a small cottage. I don’t know if that is true, but I can say with certainty that the animal gives off heat. Sitting on that stool with my head pressed into her flank was like sitting in front of a heat vent. There was no tail to worry about, and her teats warmed my hands better than any gloves could. Completing this experience were the kittens that seem to be found in every barn everywhere. Somehow they knew it was milking time and would gather around the milk pail in anticipation; I loved to watch them scramble over each other after I squirted them with a stream of milk. I think milking a cow one more time before my last breath will go on my bucket list.
In the years since leaving the farm I cherished the fond memories of a warm and intimate space, a docile cow, and a swarm of fuzzy kittens. Forty years later there was another barn in another place, with horses instead of cows and sheep. And once again I think of escaping the cold winter wind and relishing the warmth and the smells of the horses and straw in freshly cleaned stalls. (Note the focus on winter, and not the hot, sticky days of summer.) I should also mention that in this barn, my wife did ALL of the mucking...her choice. I got to enjoy the fruits of her labor.)
Beyond my personal experiences, I love barns for their architectural and historic qualities. I am drawn to the drama and the mood of a solitary barn, simple or elegant, sitting alone in an empty field, or the intimacy of a barn and several outbuildings, huddled together to create a family haven. I am especially fond of the rambling dairy barns, where one or more additions have been tacked on to the main structure, concerned only with function. The result? A mish mash of architecture and texture...much to my great delight. Looking at these rural icons, many of them now abandoned or a little more than storage facilities, I wonder about their stories, and the hopes and aspirations of the families they served when they were first conceived. I imagine the livestock in their stalls, cats milling about, and children running around, playing in the hayloft, the barns, elegant or simple, served a central role in the daily life of all members of the farm family.
It is sad to see so many of these wonderful structures fall into disrepair and treated with such little respect and appreciation for all that they have provided. Even the unpretentious tobacco barns with their simple lines and lack of any architectural flare stand as lonely reminders of a life that is quickly becoming only a memory.