"There's a barn foundation in the side yard and a concrete silo without a top." That's how we often help first-time visitors to find our place. The long-gone barn was sizable, stretching about 90 feet and built into the side of a hill, as so many livestock barns were in generations past.
Most of the bank-side wall has collapsed as the freeze-thaw cycle of the earth has exercised its seasonal muscle on the stone and crumbling mortar.
I've come upon remnants of barn wood moldering in the woods, but the beams and framing are gone. Still, with the silo and foundation, enough remains to give some idea what the barn must have been like.
At the east end there's a concrete pad and a doorway gap wide enough for cows to enter and exit. Most of the floor space is unpaved, clay packed hard by the hooves of livestock. A covering of spongy black soil lies on top of the clay, the fertile product of rotted manure.
Some years Kathleen uses the old barn floor for a flower garden. The plants grow vigorously until the inevitable July dry spell. Then the moisture-seeking roots can't penetrate the hard pan, and the flowers will die unless she talks her husband into parking a tank of water nearby so she can irrigate.
Every spring we talk about turning the old barn foundation into an outdoor room, a patio with a grape lattice overhead. We'll use the stone from the shambles of the foundation to make a 3-foot-high wall around the area.
We talk of taking down most of the silo and using the short concrete staves for paving. The subterranean portion could be capped and used as a root cellar or a naturally air-conditioned summer resting place.
If we ever accomplish our plan we'll have a pleasant spot and reminder of the farm's former days.
We built our current barn atop the hill behind the shop. Like most modern barns it's framed on treated poles, but it's different from most. It's tall (14 feet at the side wall) and sheathed with rough-cut boards instead of metal. Our original plan was to use the barn to store 4,000 bales of hay.
At an agricultural show I fell into a conversation about hay barns with a farmer of long experience. He shook his head as I talked about my ambitions. "Put your equipment inside and leave the hay outside -- use round bales," he said.
A couple of years later I had a friend round-bale an alfalfa field as an experiment. I didn't have to wait until winter to notice the good results of this choice. I immediately became more popular with my wife and children. I could bend my elbows without pain. I could get more hay put up before it passed its nutritional peak.
Come winter, the cows did a good job cleaning up the hay. The spoiled stuff that was wasted provided a good bed for the cattle to lie on in the field.
Instead of hauling a trailer load of hay out to the pasture every day, I put out round bales in sturdy feeders every second day. We cleaned up the tractors and machinery and gave them fresh coats of paint, then parked them indoors. We discovered that it's a pleasure to use equipment that doesn't resemble a rusty tin can.
We still do some hay in square bales, usually the best-quality stuff for feeding heifer calves, or to use for emergencies when the snow is too deep to get through or for days when it's too cold to start the tractors.
We've built two lofts in the barn for this hay and some straw for bedding. The lofts also provide dry storage area for lumber we've milled, our maple syrup gear, and seasonal stuff like the old snowmobile and winter tires. Racked up in the trusses are potato crates, a collection of toboggans, a hay conveyor, and a swing set waiting for the grandchildren to appear. On the ground floor one wall is hung with all the stock tools of rural life -- a fence-wire winder, shovels, hay forks, halters, coils of rope, pry bars, picks, mattocks, hoes and sledgehammers. A barrel is jammed full of plastic posts for rotational grazing.
The wall of a stock pen doubles as a rack for log chains and tractor tire chains. A lifetime collection of farm stuff, things that are important sometime every year, whether it's for an hour or a week.
We still have things to do to the barn. The east side is still lacking two large tracked doors. I want to cut a doorway between the back shed and the large stock pen on the south end of the barn. This will make it easier to get calving cows into the cleaner, better-lighted area. The main passageway through the barn needs to be paved with crushed stone.
Finally, I want to paint our name on the gable end facing Alps Road. I have always admired barns that had the confidence to bear their owner's name. I like to think that after I've passed on to greener pastures, the barn might hold up my fading name to the passing world. A guy could have worse ambitions than to be part of a wooden landscape.