On my father’s farm was a simple barn. Painted brick-red, the barn was no more than 400 square feet. The ground floor stall was home to my brother’s horse, Son’s Melody. Overhead, the loft was used to store hay and feed for Melody and was a retreat for me and my childhood friends on cold winter days — a spot where I could get away and spend time by myself. After discovering the excitement of jumping out of the loft onto a mound of hay 10 feet below, my sisters would often join me in the fun. Now, our family farm is no more. A multi-million dollar high school, built in 2002, transformed the land, barn, and chicken coop, but not the memories I keep to this day. Having a barn on our farm was for a period highly functional, but over the years function turned to nostalgia.
“So have a good time every day, cause you’ll never get away from old man, old man time ...”
Sentinels on the backroads, barns were numerous and highlighted land where farming was a part of life for many families. The family barn served as a “bank” to store crops, provide animal shelter, and protect farming equipment. As progress races forward, barn sightings have become less numerous. An economy based on agriculture has transformed into technological dependence and consumerism. We just don’t need barns like we used to.
Throughout history, barns have been agricultural icons supporting a changing cultural lifestyle. In mainland Europe, early barns were structures known as byre-dwellings and were similar in size to huge halls and religious buildings. Over time, the construction of barns lessened in scale, relative to the land they occupied. Evolving construction of barns soon featured pass-ways for wagons and machinery, and lofts were added for the storage of grains and food. In the United States, barns were first constructed from timbers found on the farm but soon evolved to truss-framed or plank-framed buildings. Local sawmills cut and planed wood planks. This construction method saved time and wood, and it provided more storage and loft space for less money.
Numerous barns were painted red. Ferric oxide, used to create red paint, is an excellent preservative and protects a barn’s wood from the elements. Farmers’ Almanac explains it this way: “Hundreds of years ago, many farmers would seal their barns with linseed oil, which is an orange-colored oil derived from the seeds of the flax plant. To this oil, they would add a variety of things, most often milk and lime, but also ferrous oxide, or rust. Rust was plentiful on farms and because it killed fungi and mosses that might grow on barns, and it was very effective as a sealant. It turned the mixture red in color. When paint became more available, many people chose red paint for their barns in honor of tradition.”
In the 1850s, tin sheet metal replaced wooden shingles as the preferred roofing material due to durability. A common site today is the barn’s tin roof oxidized to a dark-rusty red. Traveling South Carolina, we see barns related to the agriculture of a region. Perhaps the most historically significant barn structure standing in South Carolina is the winnowing barn at Mansfield Plantation outside Georgetown. Once the world center of rice culture in the 1700s, Georgetown and the surrounding area needed rice mills and winnowing barns. Winnowing barns are structures built perhaps 10 to 15 feet off the ground. Raw, husked rice was poured out of a large hole in the center of the floor, and the lighter, undesirable chaff was blown by the wind away from the rice kernel. The winnowing barn at Mansfield is the sole remaining barn of its kind in South Carolina.
Travel the Pee Dee region of South Carolina and spot the increasingly rare tobacco barn. Built for the purpose of drying or curing the tobacco leaf, tobacco barns were towering structures with interior sticks hung overhead for the purpose of curing tobacco leaf. Often a charcoal fire pit was located on the barn floor to provide additional heat for the curing process. Tar paper, usually red or green in color, covered the exterior of the barn to keep heat from escaping through the planks. Progress replaced charcoal fire pits with propane gas heating systems to aid the curing process.
Journeying through the eastern towns in North and South Carolina, you’ll spot numerous warehouses where cured tobacco filled the cavernous structures to be auctioned off by tobacco brokers. The health consequences of using tobacco became the demise of the tobacco barn and warehouse heyday. It is a common site today to see tobacco barns overwhelmed by trees and weeds with a tin roof peeled back as a result of years of wind and weather. A compromised tin roof will lead to the tobacco barn’s slow but inevitable fall as water, sun, and wood rot attack the structure. Peering into such edifices today repels any desire for exploring the barn’s interior for fear of the structure collapsing.
In the Midlands and surrounding area, it’s easy to spot the dairy barn. Use the sighting of tall grain silos as your guide to these grand barn structures. Towering over the landscape, dairy barns were built to house, milk, and care for livestock. They usually contained ample loft space to store nourishment for use year-round. Pulley systems lift hay bales weighing hundreds of pounds. Underneath the loft door, a similar sized walkway entrance allows vehicles and livestock to pass through the structure. Dairy barns have evolved from wooden construction to cinder block or metal structures. “See Rock City” painted on barn roofs has been replaced by tiger paws, reflecting the influence of a certain agricultural college.
On idyllic rolling upstate landscapes, one can find an abundance of horse farms and barns. Horse barns are typically lower structures with numerous stalls for horses to feed, sleep, and convalesce. Stall floors are covered with hay, straw, shavings, and other types of bedding in order to soften the floor and provide warmth from the cooler ground. A common site when visiting a horse farm is of horses peering out their stall door looking for a treat.
Don’t forget to check out the artistic flair atop a horse barn. Weather vanes are statements about the barn owner’s taste in finishing touches.
Old Man Time, changing cultural lifestyles, neglect, wind, storms, and unrelenting sun have turned once proud barns into beaten down structures in peril of existence. A renaissance in recycling barns and their functions gives hope for some barns to live again, albeit through a different medium. Artisans in search of seasoned, weathered wood now roam backroads seeking barns on the edge of extinction. The wood might be used for framing artwork, building tables, or as flooring in homes. Dairy barns are now retrofitted and serve as venues for weddings, parties, and corporate retreats — all good purposes to extend a barn’s legacy.
What goes through your mind when you see a barn still standing? Did the original builder pass away leaving children to use or preserve the barn? How many families turned away completely from farming due to changing cultural and economic times? How many children played in lofts or helped take care of livestock in the barns? Barns instilled self-reliance, a play place, preservation of family values, and perhaps a retreat in which to reminisce about the good old days. Look again at a barn door and see how Old Man Time has beaten on the door, but yet the door still stands.
“He gives you beauty charm and grace, then puts wrinkles on your face. That’s old man, old man time.”