Voices: Yearning for the good old days
By DAN MULLIS
As you travel around the country you see the broken roofs and bare stud walls, and the faded, rotting siding of the old wooden barns. Once a large part of farming, they are now dilapidated, falling, sad reminders of a past way of life. There is something about barns, and when you see the rare one that is painted and standing tall and sturdy, it is a nice thing to see. It gives you a brief comfort, a feeling of a solid past that we are loosing. Shiny metal-clad pole sheds are efficient and easily built, but they lack character. Wooden barns standing tall with their distinctive shapes, with the haymow door high in the end peak and the barn door standing open welcoming the animals, were unique. Sadly, we are losing the buildings and the solidness of the time.
My grandmother's barn was built in the 1880s. The foundation was made of four very large corner rocks, and smaller rocks spaced evenly in between, with 16-inch square beams laid on them, level and square, with a mortise and pinion timber frame built upon them. It must have been quite a sight when new. The mow would be full of sweet-smelling hay and way up on the top beam the hayfork dangled like an ancient bird of prey, a reminder of hot summer days stacking hay to the rafters.
By the time I was around one of my uncles was farming the land and the barn was 70 years old. I remember exploring nooks and crannies where spider webs abounded and hidden, dust covered ancient tools no longer used were buried in the debris. It was a great place for a young boy to discover things from the past. One corner had an old disused pigpen, another an old disused sheep area, and down the middle the main driveway full of dusty old equipment. The only parts still in use were the mow full of baled hay. It was a good place to build hay forts and hide from your older sisters. The warnings from my mother about the hay collapsing and smothering me to death were soon forgotten. Who worried about such things at that age?
There was an area for milking the cows that was a little bit cleaner. I remember cold winter evenings watching my uncle milking. The vapor of cow's breath hanging in the cold air, the ringing sound of the milk hitting the metal bucket. The tangy smell of cow, manure and straw bedding. Magically, a row of barn cats would appear hoping for a drink. My uncle with his head pushed into the cow's side milking, turning his hand sideways, and without looking it seemed, shooting each one a stream hitting them right in their mouth, what a shot, I was always amazed how he could do that. He kept an old pan there and he always left it full of milk for them.
Drinking milk straight from the cow wouldn't be thought of today and we probably wouldn't like the taste. The cream rising to the top, butterfat, it was good, but it was strong.
Gathering eggs was an adventure. The old hens seemed to prefer hiding their nests in the barn rather than in the hen house where they were supposed to. They could be fierce in defending their nests. It was a game seeing who could find the most eggs.
Things like cream separators, home pasteurizing machines and candling eggs are gone too.
Grandmother's barn was torn down in the 1990s — it was still solid, but starting to fade, it was just not needed. The whole farmstead, with its way of life, is gone now, just a plowed field remains.
In some places they are preserving barns and there have been old-fashioned barn raisings here and there so that the knowledge of how to do it is not lost. Some have even been turned into houses and restaurants.
The original function of barns — to house and feed livestock that produced food and milk for the local area and community — is pretty much gone. Knowing where your food came from, who produced it and how it was raised is almost gone. Today we have assembly line milk factories with chemically enhanced dairy cows producing milk that could be $7 per gallon if the government didn't subsidize the industry. Today's egg-producing factory hens never see the light of day and their feet never touch the ground. Who knows what they're fed? We have meat from beef cattle fattened up with chemical help. And now we have our grain foods genetically engineered and chemically enhanced. And it all grows on chemically fertilized soil possibly leeching into our water supply.
We have a bountiful supply of food, the envy of the world. We're just not sure if it is good for us, or how it is changing us.
The yearning for the good old days of our past still lingers. You can't go back and if we could we would find it not as great as we remember. Life was harder then. Early on you had to go outside and talk to your neighbor for entertainment, possibly walk a little distance to do it. Maybe do a little weeding in the vegetable garden. Later times you had to get up out of your recliner and walk across the room and turn the channel knob and walk to the freezer to get a TV dinner. Today, our modern life with all the "remotes and apps" is nice and comfortable; hardly any effort is needed. Maybe too comfortable — obesity and diabetes are big problems in our society. There are some who exercise and eat wisely, but for a lot of us the most exercise we get is walking to the door to get the delivered pizza.
Losing barns is one thing. Losing our health and freedoms is another. Although the future is not looking all that rosy, we can hope we don't lose every good thing about our country's past.
Dan Mullis is a retired instrument maker at the University of Illinois who lives in Danville.