Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Old barns fascinate me. Brick, block, wood or stone, their homely shape and voluminous interiors speak of hard work and careful husbandry. Standing inside a vacant barn is a sensory smorgasbord—the faint odors of sweet feed, hay, horses and cattle linger, the lofts filter sunlight softly through drifting dust, swallows dart and sing in the eaves and for an imaginative mind, shadows of thin, muscular men and sturdy women seem to pass just out of sight. Sadly, these monuments to the industrious farmers of the past are becoming obsolete, no longer needed for their massive haymows or long lines of milking stanchions.  

Farming has changed significantly
in the past 50 years. Where once draft horses ruled the hill farms of West Virginia, four-wheel-drive tractors plod across today’s landscapes. Dairy farms were once numerous, providing products for local communities and sales to larger processing plants. As awareness of the health risks of raw milk grew and regulation became the order of the day, the small dairies gradually disappeared. Herds of black and white or soft Jersey brown were gone; in their place came the red and white Herefords and deep black Angus beef cattle. The huge dairy barns were no longer a necessity; many were abandoned or used for storage, and the concrete block milk houses turned to other uses or left to slowly sink into the ground.

Haystacks, carefully raked and stacked to withstand rain, wind and snow, were replaced with neat square bales produced by chugging balers trailing behind smoking tractors. The square bales are quickly going the way of the stacks as the large round bales provide faster processing and require no building for storage.  The popularity of round balers has signaled the sure death of hundreds of hay barns across our state.

One kind of barn is still holding on in some regions: tobacco barns. When I see a barn hanging full of gold-green, upside-down plants, I smile. I know fully the dangers of tobacco use; we raised tobacco for several years and regretfully gave it up when our consciences could no longer take the strain of knowing we were contributing to a known health risk. But I still appreciate a field of tall, lush tobacco plants topped with a crown of bright pink flowers; I still like seeing those barns of golden leaf, and I miss the excitement and music of the annual tobacco auctions. Today I see fewer and fewer tobacco fields, and many of those airy drying sheds and tobacco barns will probably go the way of the dairy and hay barns.

I am sad when I see the skeletal remains of a barn etched against a horizon, the tin roof flapping in the wind. I realize that time marches on and I try to march along with it, although I am often looking over my shoulder at what we have left behind and wondering if the changes are worth the price.

Published in the September 2013 issue of Two Lane Livin'.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Quinn said...

I have seen many unusual barns, and often admire the thought that went into making a functional necessity unique in some way. But I've never seen a barn with herringbone siding before!

Sue said...

This was an evocative piece. I felt the history, and a touch of the sadness that accompanies its passing.


Nance said...

The herringbone was new to me too. I love barns. I weep and wail when I drive by a hundred-year old barn left to it's own devices. No Preventative Maintenance . . . in fact no Maintenance at all. Driving by an old homestead, I check it over to see if the farmer eventually updated the house to match the barn or is the family still in the little 4-room house (w/an addition) or did they upgrade the little house to a nice big substantial 3-story with gables and garrets? I enjoyed your barn post. Hope you are on the ground, at home, and resting up from your European adventures.

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