When I was a youngster, one of my favorite places to play was my Uncle Joe and Aunt Anna’s red barn. My Uncle Bernie’s farm sported a barn as well. Both were must-stops when we visited our cousins.
The cluttered sanctuary of these wooden structures served up a smorgasbord of playing opportunities. Both barns offered a relaxing place, especially if it was raining or snowing outside and the weather was too bad to work.
Following World War II, farm mechanization signaled the end for many barns. Some were torn down. Others were abandoned or replaced with Quonset huts made of plywood and galvanized steel.
We didn’t own a barn on our farm/ranch in Sheridan County. Instead, my dad built a machine shed and another larger building we called, “The Big Shed.”
This wooden structure, complete with a tin roof and sides, measured 90 feet long. The Big Shed housed our tractors, grain drills, trucks and other farm equipment. When blessed with a bumper wheat crop, we cleared out all the machinery and filled the shed with golden grain.
But back to Uncle Joe and Aunt Anna’s barn. This old, faded out, red structure wasn’t built from lumber sawed from timber on the farm. Heck, on the High Plains where I grew up, farms and ranches didn’t grow trees until folks drove down to the creeks, dug up cottonwood saplings, carried them back home and planted them.
Why were so many barns painted red?
Probably because of the available ferric oxide used to make red paint. Readily available and inexpensive, red became the choice of colors for barns.
These outbuildings, dotting the prairie countryside, rarely showcased cleanliness or order. In Uncle Joe’s barn, dusty horse blankets and cobweb-covered horse collars hung from wooden pegs or rusty nails.
Hay tongs also competed for space. Here and there a busted plow stock leaned against a wooden wall. Some barn corners were crowded with pitchforks and an occasional come-along. Tangled, broken, bailing twine littered the damp dirt floor mingling with the smells of rusting iron, manure and mildewed leather.
As youngsters, we hid in the hay mow (rhymes with cow) or hayloft when our parents searched for us. While wooden steps or a ladder existed to crawl up to this upper floor, we’d try to find new routes to the top. We’d risk life and limb crawling up the side of the barn grabbing onto anything that would hold our body just to wind up in the loft.
Once inside this cavernous space, we’d marvel at the wooden pattern of the rafters and shadows high over our heads. We’d yell out at the pigeons or starlings who tried to invade our private world of kid adventures.
If there were bales or scattered hay outside one of the two large doors at either end of the hayloft, we’d often make the 15-20-foot plunge into the soft landing.
Hay was hoisted up and into the barn through these doors by a system containing pulleys and a trolley that ran along a track attached to the top ridge of the barn. Trap doors in the floor allowed animal feed to be dropped into the mangers for the animals. As pre-teen youngsters, these doors also made a perfect getaway during hide and seek as we jumped through and made our escape.
I loved to explore the tack room with all the bridles and saddles. Before I could ride a horse, I’d struggle to take one of the saddles off the wall so I could place it on a sawhorse and pretend to ride like my (cowboy) hero, Roy Rogers.
And finally, who could forget the many idioms we heard about barns as children. You remember, “You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Were you born in a barn?” and my favorite, “Your barn door is open.”
Today, many of the old-fashioned barns we knew as kids are long gone. They’re mainly memories when folks with farm and ranch backgrounds visit at family reunions and weddings.
Still, these memories provide a warm glow of yesteryear. I’ll never forget the bitter cold days in January when the winter winds whistled under the eaves of my Aunt Anna’s barn and the icy rain played tic-tac-toe against the cobweb-blotched windows…
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.