Old barns are part of our aesthetic environment, our childhood memories, our region's architectural and agricultural history. Unlike old, historic houses, our farm buildings are too often permitted to fall into decay, there being scant economic justification for major investments in preservation or restoration. It's a shame. Nearly every year sees a fire or a roof cave-in or a bulldozer destroy another barn, while others simply continue to crumble a little farther into the earth. And they don't build old barns anymore.
There are still some beautiful Dutch-style barns in Ulster County, with the huge expansiveness of their gable ends relative to their sides. But it was the English-style barn that was more typical of the dairy farms that spread across the Wallkill Valley with the advent of the railroad in 1868-70. For 100 years thereafter, these structures were the center of activity for the valley's prime industry: milk production.
The ambiance of an old dairy barn was one of life's little pleasures: the aroma of aged cow manure mixed with slightly pungent hints of sour milk and ensilage and the sweet smell of hay and freshly scooped grain; the sounds of stanchions gently clanking or a cow mooing out in the barnyard, mingling with the meowing of a kitten and the gentle purr of a tractor from way off in the fields.
There was the Kosteczko ("Kerstocky") farm, a mile west of me in Galeville, which I visited as a very young child because one of the grown daughters was friends with my parents and occasionally babysat for me and my brother. It had wooden stanchions, and the entire barn listed a good 15 degrees toward the east by the time the last cows were sold in 1988.
Jesse Birch was the farmer nearest to our house. His farmhouse, part 18th century stone and the rest early 19th century, stands only a few hundred yards across the fields. His barn was a long, 19th century, board-and-batten English barn with a well-weathered exterior. Mr. Birch loved to tell jokes, in his slow, nasal, gravy-like voice, and he liked to sleep late: he'd milk his cows at nine in the morning and again at night, and we'd sometimes see the headlights of his tractor after dark. Once or twice I worked a few hours for him, when I was 14, helping clear brush and unload gravel from the gravel bank on his property.
When I was 16, I worked full time for a summer at Dick Borcherding's farm north of Gardiner, which I've written about more than once. Every morning, before haying or other work, I'd let the cows out and clean the barn with a shovel, wheeling the full wheelbarrow out the back door and across a plank suspended five or six feet above the ground, to be dumped into a manure spreader supporting the other end of the plank. And back home in the evening, after supper, I'd often walk over to the Abrahamsen farm, in the opposite direction from Mr. Birch's, where six kids in the family were augmented by eleven kids in the household of the full-time hired hand. The latter lived in a house of concrete blocks, a stone's throw from the home of the Abrahamsens, which was another 18th century stone structure. We played games of all sorts, in the barn and around the grounds, with the children ranging in age from about five through the early and mid teens. Once I dropped over to find one of the hired hand's boys, about 14, in a panic because he'd been playing in his father's car and left it out of gear, and it had afterward rolled down a gentle slope and into a mounded wood pile, and he couldn't get it free. I grabbed a bumper jack and lifted the front so we could clear out the logs from underneath, and he managed to back the car up to its proper spot minutes before his father showed up.
My own barn is practically brand new, less than forty years old. It is a small, red barn with wooden novelty siding and traditional style double doors. It houses my chicken coop, and there's lots of storage space for lumber leftovers, spare garden fencing, an old lawnmower, splitting maul and wedges, wooden-framed storm windows or screens, chicken feed and cartons of books. An attached wire-fenced chicken yard offers fresh air and a few worms and bugs to my tiny flock. It serves me well, but I'd be lying if I ascribed to it any of the ambiance or history of a big old cow barn.
Some years ago, I interviewed several retired farmers as part of a little research project for the Town of Shawangunk Historical Preservation Committee. Someone suggested I talk to old Doc Hoppenstedt, who for many years had a veterinary practice in the hamlet of Gardiner. He was long retired, living in New Paltz, but in his day had done plenty of tending to sick cows at area farms. (A cow doctor was more than willing to make "house" calls rather than have the ailing animal brought down to his office!)
I had not seen Doc Hoppenstedt for many years, but when I phoned him he immediately knew who I was and where I lived, and offered to drop by for a visit. When he did, we eventually got talking about Jesse Birch (who was long deceased). In late middle age, Mr. Birch had had some health problems and retired from farming, and started working for Dr. H. in Gardiner, cleaning kennels and cages. Apparently, he worked out very well and was happy at his job. One summer, Dr. H. related to me, a young woman interned at the practice, in preparation for starting vet school herself. Dr. H. told me this little story from those days:
He and Jesse Birch got to reminiscing, in the presence of the young intern, and the doctor told him, "Jesse, your barn must have been the coldest barn I ever had to visit. I guess that wind came off the mountain in a beeline straight from Sam's Point to your barn, and with the battens loose from the boards, the winter wind used to blow right through your old barn."
Mr. Birch replied in that very slow, half-whispered, nasal voice as thick as gravy or pea soup: "That barn was so cold, Doc, one morning I had to thaw the cows' tits out with a blow torch before I could commence milking."
"REALLY?" the young woman exclaimed, not quite used to distinguishing rustic humor from fact.
Mr. Birch and the good doctor never let her live that one down.