Growing Up Country — On Island Time
Chapter 2 – The Barn
East of the wide spot in the ditch stood our barn. It was the largest surviving barn on Lopez at that time. My Grandfather Weeks had hired a man to build it in 1905. He came to the Island that Winter, selected the trees he would use for the frame, cut them down, yarded them to a clearing in The Woods and cold-decked them there. They were allowed to dry in the cold deck for a year. Then he returned to the island, hand hewed the beams (Mostly 12”x12” beams 20-40’ long.) He then assembled the barn’s timber frame, collected his pay, and left for his next job.
Pa & his brother Bertie installed the floors, siding and roof. Of course there were five large barn doors to be constructed and installed, as well. The only windows I recall were in the milk barn, the horse barn and one in the granary. I am assuming that Pa & Bertie – and probably several other Island men and boys – provided the “grunt” labor (heavy lifting) for the project. Sixty-five years later, when they were turning The Weeks Farm into Lopez Village, they thought they could just run a long cable around the barn and pull it down with a D-9 Cat. That Caterpillar tractor just dug a grave for itself in our barnyard. They had to hire a crew to come deconstruct our old barn piece-by-piece. I’m told that there are parts of the timber frames in three ski resorts in Montana, Idaho and Colorado.
For a young child, the driveway of the barn was a wondrous soaring space of gigantic proportions. It was forty feet from the driveway floor to the top plate that spanned the eaves of the barn, and another twenty to the peak of the roof. The driveway is the part of barns built during horse farming days where they could back wagon loads of hay and grain into the barn for unloading in inclement weather — a very serious consideration when you live in the Great North Wet. (Please pardon me on my use of that pun. The chambers of commerce in the Pacific Northwest got into the habit of referring to the region as “The Great Northwest.” I’ve just gotten into the habit of calling it The Great North Wet, because – at times – it seems more descriptive. Kind of like how “flutterby” is more descriptive than butterfly . . . Have you ever seen a butterfly on a stick of butter? I’ll bet you’ve watched them flutter by though, haven’t you?). The driveway was open to the roof so they could use the horse-drawn hay hoist and conveyor (Also known as a “hay trolley.”) to unload the hay wagons. I’ve seen one of those work, and they are a marvel of ingenuity. The forks would be lowered into a load of loose hay by backing the team connected to the hay trolley via the draw rope. Once the forks were sunk into the hay enough to make a load, the team would be driven forward, which would raise the forks with their load until they contacted the trolley body on its track mounted to the underside of the king beam at the peak of the roof, then that lifting motion would be translated to horizontal motion, moving the trolley along its track until the forks were tripped to drop the hay. The team would then be backed, slacking the draw line, and the counterweight (Usually a bag of rocks.) would draw the trolley back to the starting point over the wagon. The hay trolley is a very impressive piece of engineering deign. It was a very efficient and ingenious device for lightening the workload of farmers. In under an hour it could unload an entire wagon load of hay right into the hay mow. That same load would probably take half a day to unload and pitch into the mow by hand. If you want to know more about hay trolley systems and how they worked, follow this link:
East of the driveway was the hay barn, which was also open from the driveway floor level to the roof. There was a wall that divided it from the cow barn, with a floor-to-roof doorway in the middle so you could pitch hay out of the hay mow into the feed bunkers in front of the cows. There was a six-foot wide passageway from the driveway to the cow barn. It had a deck over it, and when they farmed with horses, that was where they stacked the horse hay. Horse hay is always of higher quality than cow hay, as horses are more finicky about their food and need more protein than the cows do so they can do their work. Cows just need to make milk, which they do naturally in the wild, anyway. Horses have to be taught to carry riders and draw loads — it’s not at all natural for them to do so. We’re just lucky that God made them amenable to humankind.
The cow barn was actually a shed structure attached to the mid-plate of the East wall of the hay barn. It stretched clear across the East side of the barn, where the horse barn only went half way across the South side. There was a eight-to-ten-foot wide driveway that ran along the outer wall for the cows to come in the door at the North end of the cow barn and move to their individual place. The “herd boss” (Alpha Cow) always took the first stanchion next to the South door, and the other cows selected their stanchions in the herd pecking order. So, why did Alpha Cow take the South stanchion? It put her furthest from the door in the North end of the barn. Instead of the cold Northeast wind, she’d get the body warmth of all the other cows blown her way. Cows are intelligent – just not in all the same ways we are. There was a 12” wide, 6” deep gutter built into the floor behind the bedding/areas for the cows. My brothers would pitch straw bedding approximately 6” deep between the stanchions and the gutter for the cows to lay on when they weren’t being milked. Even though there were no wild predators on the Island, the cows always were in the barn at night, so they were out of the weather and safe from any marauding dogs.
The cows were milked via “bucket milkers” which consisted of a churn with a tight fitting lid. On the lid was an air-powered pump and regulator assembly that provided the suction for the four teat cups that were attached to the cow’s udder. The same system is still in use, except they now pump the milk straight to a bulk refrigeration tank instead of to the reservoir of a bucket milker. Where we only had to clean & sterilize the milker, modern dairy farmers have yard-upon-yard of milk pipe they have to clean & sanitize, plus a multi-thousand gallon milk tank. Can you guess what happens to those thousands of gallons of milk if any part of the system is contaminated?
From the South door of the cow barn there was an elevated walkway that was about six feet off the ground at the barn and about ten feet off the ground at its far end, which was about eighty feet away. This was where the manure was moved from the cow barn and added to the manure pile. It made an excellent – but smelly – castle parapet in a young boy’s mind!
Most of the activity in the barn took place in the cow barn, since ours was a dairy farm, with the cows being milked twice a day. My brothers would pitch down hay into the feed bunkers in the morning, then milk the cows. If I remember correctly, we only had two bucket milkers. The drill was wash the cow’s udder, then attach the bucket milker to the air line, turn the valve to charge the regulator, then the teat cups were applied to the cow’s udder. We had one cow who would let her milk drop as soon as she heard the air hit the regulator on the milker, so they had to be quick. Once the first cow was hooked up to the milker, whoever was doing the milking would move to the next cow in line and get her started on the milker. Once she was hooked to the milker, it would be time to go check the first cow and see if her udder was close to empty. If it was, it was time to take the milker off, strip the last of the milk from the cow’s udder into a clean pail by hand milking, empty the milker and the pail into one of the ten gallon milk cans, cap the can, rinse the milker and pail and move to the next cow in line. By the time the third cow was hooked up, it was time to check the second. This process was repeated until the last cow had been milked. Then it was time to turn the cows out to pasture for the day, take the milk and the milkers to the water tower. The first floor of the water tower was used as our farm’s milk house. This was where the milkers were cleaned while the milk was run through the separator to separate the cream from the milk. The milk went into clean ten gallon cans, and the cream went into clean five gallon cans. The cans then went into a concrete tub cast into the floor that had cold well water circulating through to keep the milk chilled until it was time to put the cans out by the edge of the road in the driveway next to Dad’s shop. Then it was time for my brothers to get cleaned up and ready to go to school.
I’m pretty sketchy on the details, because I was too young to help with the milking. I have lots of good memories from tagging along after my brothers. They let me “help” wherever I could, but I think I was probably pretty much in the way.