Farm barn teems with images of life, work, lore

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Our grandparents’ farm had numerous structures within sight of the back yard.

The chicken house, smokehouse with the attached wash shelter, packhouse, outhouse, tobacco shelter and five tobacco barns had their own charm, but it was the farm barn that captured the imagination of my siblings and me, as well as our cousins and neighbor children who hung around the barn and observed farm life being played out.

The unpainted barn was across the field from our house and between our grandparents’ homeplace and our newer home.

We children passed in front of the barn many times on our way to visit our grandparents, to work and play on the farm, to pick blackberries and apples and pears and to go way down to the back pasture where the wild things were.

We walked past the barn so much that it became familiar and comfortable. It was alive with wonder and adventure for us to grab and imagine.

The barn, which was of average size when compared to those on neighboring farms, had several sections, each with its own purpose and design.

First, the center section housed the stable for the mules, as well as a large open space that stretched clear to the back of the barn. A large wooden gate was at the front, and another was at the back of the open space. The two gates stayed closed most of the time to keep the mules inside when they were not at work. The back gate opened up to the expansive pasture which went all the way to the tobacco shelter and curing barns.

To the left of the center section was the farm equipment storage section, full of plows, disks, shovels, saws, post-hole diggers, chemicals, tobacco sheets, baskets and, of course, the big green wagon that the mules sometimes pulled to transport equipment, farm workers, crops and joyriders on hayrides.

The farm equipment storage section was off-limits to us children, since it posed threats of injury, poisoning and rodent bits.

The right section, a smelly and dirty place we thought, was home to the pigs. The corn crib was also nearby, and there were probably snakes to keep mice and rats under control. We children loved to watch the pigs eat, but we thought they were mighty greedy and had terrible table manners.

Our grandfather used to go to the Merita Bakery near the railroad track in Wilson and get day-old bread and other products to take to the pigs. Have you ever seen a pig gobble up a honey bun?

The loft, also off-limits to young ones, was intriguing and tempting, with its piles of hay, the big hole through which workers pitched hay down to the mules and a snake or two to keep rats at bay.

We loved the mules, and we loved to watch the farmworkers dress them up for work. We watched with fascination as the bridles, blinders, reins and singletrees were attached as the mules, both named “Gray,” stood patiently and occasionally switched their tail or stomped a big old hoof to shoo the flies away.

After the mules were bridled, they were ready to leave the barn to go plow, haul tobacco trucks, pull the wagon or perform some other heavy work.

We were excited when the veterinarian came to the barn to vaccinate or treat the mules, pigs and cows. When the pigs were getting tended to, there was always a whole lot of squealing going on.

When the farrier came to shoe the mules, we watched with wide eyes as he drove nails into the mules’ hooves. We were so afraid that it hurt the mules and that they would start kicking someone. We believed that the mules were glad to get back to their stalls after they got their new shoes.

Sometimes we would climb on the barn gate, talk to Gray and Gray, spin a few barn yarns and dream of going up to the loft to pitch some hay.

Occasionally we were allowed to go with an adult behind the barn and dig for worms for an afternoon of fishing. The moist dirt behind the barn produced the fattest, squirmiest worms imaginable, a must for catching bream and other pond fish.

Once, our grandfather told of a time when a young Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune stopped by the barn and spent the night in the loft. In the morning the young man told Granddaddy about his stay, thanked him for not being mad and set out thumbing for the Marine base.

Many of us have heard some people say that they “got their education out behind the barn” or got many a “whippin’” back there as well, although the children in our family got neither as far as I know.

Our grandparents’ barn never had one of those advertising signs painted on it. It needed no ornament, nor did it need to be used to advertise for someone else.

Don DeLillo wrote, “Once you’ve seen the signs about a barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

The farm barn of my childhood is still a part of me. I love it today as I did when I was a child, although it is no longer standing.

For those of you who love imagery, ponder this passage from Walt Whitman’s poetry. It needs no commentary.

“Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn, /A sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding; /And haze, and vista, and the farm horizon, fading away.”

Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.