Nov/Dec 2020Window to the Past, Key to the Future Text by Joey Frazier and Photos by Nancy Lee
Old barns, like the small farms they supported, are part of a bygone era, but these picturesque snapshots may offer insights for the future.
From before the turn of the century right up through the birth of rock and roll, small farms defined a way of life for many families in the South. It was a good life for most, despite the hard work and some economic frustrations in the 1930s. At the heart of that simple life, oftentimes stood a barn.
Everything that happened on a family farm depended on that barn. The hay for livestock, oats for horses and scratch for chickens were stored there. The plows, whether for a tractor or a mule, also were kept safe from the elements in that same barn. Even the cast iron wash pots and fire barrel needed for butchering had a place in the barn.
Barns were practical. Foals were often born there, but so were stories. Lessons were learned there — some lessons may have been best learned out behind the barn. And, if there was a covey of birds, the family bird dog likely pointed them within eyesight of the old barn.
If you open that barn door today, one that has not been opened in many years, there is no telling what you might find inside. Treasure? Maybe. But most likely you will find memories from this small glimpse into the past. Dig around in a barn and you might uncover a hand pump or a push plow. In another room you might see an old planter or a hay rake.
The past comes alive when sunlight first bounces off a pine floor covered in decades of dust. The familiar POP on the rooftop remind us of evening rain showers splashing down on the rusted tin roof in summertime — and this reminiscence breaks the dam wide open, flooding your mind with happy times. Perhaps you recall your pup’s first point in a ragged field corner; the time you helped your grandfather skin a deer under the side shed; unloading a wagon full of fresh corn into the corncrib, or pulling out hay or oats to feed the livestock.
Maybe you wish you could relive those times, especially during the holidays, when extended family gathered around the table then retreated to the porch where they could watch the children running tirelessly in the backyard. To the kids, in their tender imaginations, the big back yard went on forever. And in the corner of the backyard stood that old barn.
As majestic as the barn may have appeared to a child’s eyes, its leaning walls and battered doors over time could become an eyesore if repairs are left undone. For some folks, rebuilding an old barn becomes an obsession, and a way to transport us, like H.G. Wells’ time machine, back to another place, back to the olden days.
The thing about time machines, at least in science fiction, is that they don’t only create a path to the past, but also to the future. If we can go inside that barn and take a look back out the door, then maybe we can see a way to apply some of the simpler traditional values to our modern life.
One way a barn can be a key to the future might be as simple as opening up the old vault and taking a look at the way folks used the land around the barn. As we have become an urban society, habitat for wildlife is no longer a byproduct of a normal lifestyle. Recreating that habitat will be more difficult now, as it will take intentional effort and probably an investment not only of your time, but financial resources, too.
It is easy enough to remember the good days when you come upon a barn. Its open doors dispel the myth that good days “just happened.” The tools inside, the space for feed or animals prove that life never just happens; people work for it. Our parents and grandparents worked inside these barns to create a better life for themselves, and for their children.
Our great-grandparents may even have had a hand in erecting a barn that served more than one generation or more than one family. They knew even as they drove the nails or hammered the pegs that the barns they built were never about the past or even the present. They were always about the future.
If you are only looking inside the barn, into the darkness, then you are missing the point. Take that next step inside and touch the past, but don’t forget to turn around and look back, out the door and into the light, and use the memories of what our ancestors gave us — the memories of hard work and good times, memories of families tied to the land — to build a better life all over again.
Joey Frazier is editor of South Carolina Wildlife.