The barn is the heart of our farm and our history, the place where Dad played circus with his brother, where the hand-hewn timbers and the dust have melded with the yellow light and time stands still. The Iowa Barn Foundation describes barns as the cathedrals of the Midwest. To sit in the haymow and look up feels like that, and yet also feels snug as a bug in a rug, like a shelter from the storm, like I’m climbing the haymow ladder to swing on the ropes and searching hay hole shadows for new kittens all over again, Dad’s radio sharing the evening news while he milks the cow below.
We got rid of our dairy cow sometime in the mid-nineties and started buying milk from the store. These days we make big round bales stored in a pole shed and mostly the barn stands as a reminder of days long ago, but it still serves as protection for our cattle on the really hot days or really cold days, or when a new calf and mother needs a little extra love.
Last summer a storm blew in that seemed about as bad as any, though not worse. But when I got to the farm, one of the towering old pines in the windbreak was snapped in half–luckily just in front of the farm house, not on it. We lost six trees in that storm, plus several that blew down in our pastures, but it wasn’t until two days later that I went into the barn and found the ceiling beam broken. We called insurance right away, who called an engineering company, who took a long time but confirmed just before Christmas that the damage was storm related. I thought that we would just be replacing the beam, but when the contractor looked at the barn, he recognized a tilt in the beams in the haymow above, and the way the joists were pulling apart. The very basic problem is this: the high winds pushed on the barn leaving the supporting timber beams askew. Beyond the broken beam repair, the barn needs to be straightened. But the bottom half of the barn is concrete blocks put in during the 30s or 40s, back when Grandma and Grandpa hired a man to cut off the bottom barn boards by hand. When they put in the concrete foundation, they were marrying something that gives with something that won’t. The contractor can pull the wooden beams back into place, “listening” to the wood and encouraging it to bend, giving the wood a new memory little by little, one day at a time. But the concrete blocks, now brittle and crumbling in places, will not withstand the pressure created by the pulling and moving wooden beams.
So we’re left with an insurance claim that will pay for the straightening, but if we don’t replace the foundation we run the risk of the barn collapsing when we straighten the timbers. And the new bricks and new foundation will cost as much as a new house.
I’m sick about this. I’ve paid insurance and kept enough in savings to cover a new well, a barn full of hay burned down, or enough to start a small herd should some catastrophe wipe out our livelihood. The barn is standing like nothing is really wrong, but really we’re just on borrowed time.
But for now we’re doing this: The broken beam has been fixed. Now we empty the barn so the contractor and his team can install supporting cables to pull the slumping sides of the barn in. This at least, will give it some support. And it buys me time to explore funding options, Lord willing that we don’t get high winds.