Barn fires were once common enough that a newspaper headline about another fire might not raise your eyebrow until the day it was your own barn in the story.
That day for us was July 6, 1941.
Built in 1908 by my grandfather Hubert, our barn featured stanchions for 12 cows, several calf pens and horse stalls, an interior wooden-stave silo, and an earthen ramp that lead to the haymow where dad had packed mountains of fresh loose hay that would ignite spontaneously that Saturday.
Around 11 p.m., family members and a few guests visited in our living room, while dad dozed on the couch. Who first spotted the fireball out the window we don’t know, but my oldest brother Sonny thinks he was the first to scream, “The barn’s on fire!” Dad exploded from his slumber and shot to the barn in his bare feet. He fought flames to save four horses, and then family members had to stop him from going back for two calves that bleated madly inside. The cows were spared, as they watched safely from a distant pasture.
Mom sent an emergency telephone message – 10 rings on our party line. The Middleton Times reported that many neighbors and volunteer firefighters from Middleton and Waunakee responded quickly, but were handicapped by a “lack of water.” Dozens of “tourists,” the reporter said, were drawn from miles around, like moths to a flame glowing in the clear midnight sky. When he was sure the barn was lost, dad told firefighters to “Forget the barn, save the granary!” which stood just six feet from the inferno. Today, traces of charred siding show how close the firefighters came to losing the granary as well.
The next morning, Sunday, life had to go on. Confused animals needed water, feed, and housing. Nervous cows needed milking. Neighbors pitched in to convert the machine shed, the original barn on the farm, into a temporary barn again with makeshift stanchions and pens. They contributed feed until the new barn was raised on a new foundation later that summer. The burned-out hulk of the old foundation stood for 12 more years, preserved for its milk house, a small room under the earthen ramp where milk in cans could cool in water until hauled to the creamery in Middleton.
Construction photos of the new barn are blurry, but in the few that survive one can see stacks of new boards, a board propped up on a milk can, dangling ropes, and workers clinging to beams and pounding in nails. Men on the ground feed boards to workers above. Tall ladders cast long, angled shadows across new sideboards. A kid in overalls, unaware of the significance of the work in the background, plays balance beam on boards in the foreground. An abandoned radiator leans against a shed’s limestone wall. A manure spreader stands sentry in the cow yard, which is lined with posts, boards, and gates to hold the animals that will soon enjoy new housing.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
Years later my dad admitted he was glad to see the old barn go up in smoke because it was “so damned inconvenient.” Its basement had no center aisle, so you could not drive into the barn to clean its gutters and pens. You had to scoop manure into a wheelbarrow and then haul it to the spreader parked outside. The silo was too small, said dad, as were the few doors and windows in the basement. A dungeon, he called it.
He addressed these flaws in his new barn: a wide central drive-through aisle, two large sliding doors at each end for easy access, 15 windows, and a 12 x 40-foot wooden-stave silo not inside the barn but attached with a convenient silo room. New pine sideboards had not seen a kiln, so as their green wood dried, they shrunk to leave ½-inch gaps between boards all around the haymow, which created enough air circulation to lessen the risk of a future fire. Dad started the new barn with 17 stanchions made of pine, then later added 12 more of steel for a total of 29, just the right number, he always said, for a farm our size, 120 acres.
Dad retired at age 67. He sold his pigs and cows first, and then hosted an auction on April 24, 1979, to sell everything else, including a DeLaval #73 vacuum milking machine pump and motor, two Universal milker units with extra pail, Patz barn cleaner with 194 feet of clean chain, Stewart cow clippers, two stock water tanks, and 400 bales of good hay.
Asked after the auction if he missed the cows and going to the barn each morning and night, dad said, “Not really. I was ready.” But he did raise a handful of dairy beef cows to sell each year until he turned 75.
Shortly before he died at age 93, six months after mom had died, we sat at our oversized kitchen table and reminisced about his years on the farm. As much as he cared for his cows, dad said he was most proud of the 200 pigs he would raise each year and most fond of the barn cats that would keep him company during milking. The worst times, he said, were dealing with the death of his father in 1927 when dad was only 15, making it through The Great Depression during the early 1930s, and facing that barn fire and its aftermath in 1941.
I was born five years too late to see that old barn, but in a grainy photo I could make out its shape and location. Dad smiled as he pointed out on the photo where as a kid he would scale the roof to the cupola, and then slide down to catch himself on the dormer atop the silo. Since I had no interior photos of that barn at the time, I asked dad to sketch the layout of its basement, which he did with happy total recall 64 years after the fire.
“So dad,” I said. “It seems that you do have some fond memories of that old barn.” “I suppose,” he replied, but then he told me another reason he was happy to see it disappear: it opened the view to the West so he could finally enjoy sunsets from our house – echoing a well known sentiment made 300 years earlier by Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide:
Barn’s burnt down.
I can see the moon.
Author’s note: I upload posts as I complete them, so one written about a recent event may precede posts about earlier events. The introduction to each post shows where it fits into the history. For an introduction to my memoir, visit Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story.
This blog is a book in the making. If you're a new visitor, read Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story. You can also find a copy in Prologue.