When I was a youngster, one of my favorite places to play on a cold winter day was my Uncle Joe and Aunt Anna’s weathered red barn. Uncle Bernie had one too and it was also a must stop when we went to see our cousins.
This warm, cluttered sanctuary served up a smorgasbord of playing opportunities. It was also a relaxing place, especially if it was raining or snowing outside and the weather was too bad to work. During winter, time usually wasn’t as pressing as it was during fall or spring planting, wheat harvest, haying or crop cultivation time.
About the time I was growing up, the popularity of tractors marked the end for many barns. Some were taken down while others were abandoned or replaced with Quonset huts made of plywood and galvanized steel.
We didn’t have a beautiful red barn on our farm in Sheridan County. Instead, my dad built a machine shed and what we called “The Big Shed.” It was 90-feet long and housed our tractors, grain drills, trucks and other farm equipment. When we had a bumper wheat crop, all the machinery was cleared out and it was filled with golden grain.
Why were so many barns painted red?
Probably the biggest reason was the ferric oxide, which was used to create red paint. It was cheap and the most readily available for farmers.
The wooden barns that dotted the prairie countryside weren’t generally a good example of housekeeping. In my uncle’s barn, old, 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 the hay mow (rhymes with cow) or hayloft was where our parents searched for us when we were hiding in the barn. While there were always wooden steps or a ladder 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 weight or lassoing a post or board above and climbing the rope, hand over hand, to the loft.
Once inside this cavernous space, we’d marvel at the wooden pattern of the rafters 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 of 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 youngsters of nine, 10 or 11, these doors also made a perfect getaway during hide and seek as we jumped through and made our escape.
Exploring the tack room with all of the bridles and saddles was my favorite. Before I could ride, 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 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 “Your barn door is open.”
Today, many of the old fashioned barns we knew as children are gone. They’re mainly memories when folks with farming backgrounds visit at reunions or weddings. Still, these memories provide a warm glow of yesteryear.
Remember that bitter cold day in January of ’61 when the winter winds whistled under the eaves of Aunt Anna’s barn and the icy rain played tic-tac 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.