There is a fascination within me for old wooden barns. It is partially because I spent so much time in the barn as a kid. We were dairy people, of Portuguese decent. It seemed to be our lot in life to care for the cows and to milk from the land what we could to nourish our body and soul.
The barn was a necessary tool in early Dairyland, and quite often it was the first building on a new homestead. I’ve heard stories about early dairy pioneers who lived in tents while they built their barn to house and care for their dairy cows first.
The barn served as a place to keep the hay out of the rain and a place to milk the cows. It was a good thing to milk the cows out of the rain. Remember, the cows were milked by hand and into a bucket under the cow. It was nice to have a roof on a rainy day.
My father spoke of a time in the early 1930s when he, Grandpa Frank and my uncles milked the cows on the open rangeland of Dairyland. The cows grazed on the native grass. The boys moved a couple panels around the fields to form a semblance of a pen, then hand-milked the cows out in the open. It wasn’t vety sanitary if it rained and the rain dripped off the cow’s back and into the milk bucket.
Now, as most of these old barns are nearing the 100-year mark, they are showing their age. Some are well-kept and exhibit beauty of strength and stamina. Others are deteriorating and seem to give in to Mother Nature grudgingly as they release one board or one shingle at a time to the wind and rain.
The elements of nature take a toll on the wood as the hot sun, frost, wind, rain and, possibly the worst of all, moisture from the valley fog moistens and soaks into the wood. Sometimes the barns stay damp for 60 days or more, which allows lichens and mold to grow into the wood. Then comes the drying, hot summer wind to suck the cellular sap dry.
The yearly moisture swell and drying shrink does a number on the wood. The softer structures break down and the harder structures, which represent growth rings in the tree, emerge and become more profound. Over the years a beauty emerges in the wood that can only be created by weathering as the lines of time become dominant.
Some of the wood turns shades of caramel, from light fawn to deep and dark, while other wood turns silver gray. I’ve heard it described as kind of like old people who turn gray with age and the lines of time begin to show through. Some barns, like us, even begin to lean and sag a little, a process that is barely noticed from day to day but over time it shows.
Every barn has a story. They are stories of families, both in good times and bad, both happy and sad. Farm success and failure was framed by these barns. There are stories of children playing in the hay while fathers milked and fed the cows, boys climbing in the rafters to catch pigeons and swarming bees deciding to hive by the door.
But the barns are disappearing, falling down from neglect and being removed and replaced by newer, modern structures. It makes me sad, so I decided to photograph all remaining barns in Dairyland in 2012. Even sadder, in the four years since doing my photo project, at least eight more of these barns have been removed.
As I took the pictures, I talked with many of the farm owners. Gary Maddelena made a profound statement to me that day when he said: “Wooden barns are like teepees; when they are gone, they are gone forever.”
Ronnie Ray is a third-generation dairyman and has lived in the Dairyland area for more than 60 years.