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Visiting my old Kentucky Barn

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By Janny Wilcke

When my husband and I first moved to Henry County about ten years ago, we agreed that our little century-old farmhouse, while badly in need of serious upgrading, was nonetheless charming and felt immediately like home. We both loved our mix of woods and pastures, our long winding driveway, and the ponds scattered here and there. What we did not share feelings about was an old barn that stood just sixty yards from a shiny new metal one and directly in view from the house.

To my husband, the barn was a leaky and decrepit eyesore whose only value was its potential in the market for weathered lumber or logs. But to me it was a romantic old treasure, a nostalgic connection to the past. Where he saw sagging doors, a loose tin roof, and a poorly constructed shelter for possums, I saw a tangible link to a period when life was simpler - before cell phones, computers, and all the other inventions that typify the pace of modern life. For my husband, the story of that old barn was over and done, but to me, its story had just begun to unfold in my imagination.

The barn is fairly large and, while similar to many of the tobacco barns in Henry County, was clearly erected by amateurs. It has an old metal roof and a lean-to, likely built for stripping, on one end whose windows were all broken long before we ever took possession. The floor is dirt, of course, and slants at a marked angle just as does the hill on which it was built. The most interesting feature of “my barn” – my husband started referring to is as “Janny’s barn” - is an inner crib of huge oak logs, which, were it not for my intervention, would have been sold. That core of the barn is over a hundred years old. The rest was added much later to suit the barn for tobacco.

My mind is full of questions. When precisely was the original barn built? When precisely was it enlarged? What else was the lean-to used for? When was the barn wired for electricity? My imagination takes on a life of its own. I see sweat-drenched workers hanging tobacco to dry from poles in the heat of the late summer. I can hear anxious cows ready to be milked or fed. I can smell fresh hay stacked snuggly under the rafters. And in my mind, that lean-to becomes a chicken coop, and I follow the farmwife as she searches for eggs in straw nests. I see a farmer in suspenders and I hear children laughing as they play in the haymow. I am like the Dr. Suess character whose mind transforms his simple walk on Mulberry Street into an exciting tale of adventure.

Years after my husband decided the old barn must go, it still stands. Seeing how strongly I felt, my husband put aside his plans to tear it down, although never giving up his efforts to change my mind. More than one friend, probably coached in my absence, has made disparaging remarks to me about the barn. “It devalues your farm,” they say, or “It’s kind of an eyesore,” or “That old thing may fall down someday.” The last remark is most persuasive because it goes straight to my heart. My husband would never come out and say such a thing, but the unspoken question is, what kind of grandmother would keep an old barn capable of collapsing on her grandchildren?

But I am not fooled. There are lots of barns in Henry County in far worse shape than mine. They slump on their old foundations with a tenacity that belies the disarray of their appearance. Some of them are still in use as I see good machinery sheltered under flapping roofs and tobacco hanging in extremely dilapidated old structures. Some, while abandoned, are tottering, holding on, not ready to be forgotten.

I have plans for my old barn. I will create a new history to add to its past. I have spent many hours cleaning out the debris left by past owners - bottles, cans, wire, pipes, and even, with the help of my husband, an old refrigerator. I mowed a yard for the barn and carefully hacked the vines and weeds growing on all sides.

The thought of looking out my window and not seeing that old barn is more than I can bear. Its demolition would feel like the death of an old friend, but it’s actually more than that. The loss of that old barn would sever my connection to the generations who have lived in this county and on this farm before me. It would loosen my hold on a time when life was simpler, when minds weren’t fed by television, videos or the net, when people used their imaginations to entertain themselves, and when an afternoon shelling peas was passed pleasantly – perhaps embellishing stories hidden in an old barn.