Growing Up in a Barn

A story from our April 1970 issue, by Esther E. Wood

During the winter months Father kept the big barn door closed. It was rolled back only when our horse, Prince, entered or went out of the barn. We children were expected to use the shed door when we went to do the hen chores or to shovel snow. “The creatures in the barn deserve to be draft-free in the winter,” Father used to say.

April 1970
“Springtime at Pleasant Point,” by John Ireland Collins, April 1970 issue

On a warm day in late February my father would open the wide barn door. Then he would lead Prince from his stall, give him a pat, and say, “Now do some snow cleaning.” Prince did just that – but not before he had raced to the spring and back with his mane flying in the wind and his feet swinging high. After he’d had his sprint, he rolled in the snow and whinnied as though to say, “See me! I’m pretending that I’m a great black kitten.”

When Saturdays in March turned warm, Father rolled back the door and worked in the sunny doorway of the barn. One Saturday he washed the harnesses and oiled them; on another he cut the sprouts from the potatoes. A third task was one shared rather unwillingly by my brothers. All the remaining apples in the cellar — the Baldwins, the Bellflowers, the Ben Davis, the Nodheads, and a few Moose Rivers — were transferred from boxes and barrels to baskets and brought up the cellar stairs, through the kitchen and the woodshed to the open barn door where Father presided over the task of sorting them. The perfect apples were taken back to the cellar. Those that had withered or decayed a bit were chopped for Prince and Molly; some were given to the hens, who crowded around tire discarded apples with cries of joy. The rotten fruit was thrown on the wall, where the seeds were eaten by the squirrels.

Because Father knew that Ben and Otis did not enjoy the chore of picking over the apples, he always planned a little treat for them when the task was done. Though my share of the work was small, I always had my part in the surprise. One year after a fresh snowfall, he told each of us to fill a bowl with clean snow. By the time we had returned to the barn with our bowls of snow, he had assembled a pitcher of cream, a bowl of sugar, a bottle of vanilla and numerous spoons. He showed us how to make a delicious concoction by pouring cream and vanilla over the snow, then sweetening the bowlful to our individual taste. Some years he gave each of us a bag of candy or a box of crackerjack. I recall that one year he took us to the bridge over the meadow brook, where Mother joined us for a pre-spring picnic.

On April Saturdays my brothers and I liked to have the barn door open so that there would be light enough for us to roll marbles on the floor. In the afternoons our cousins joined us to play hide-and-seek in the barn, where the hay mow, the grain room, and the “up-overhead” offered hiding places galore.

Once during April or May, we used the open-barn door for a theater and presented what we called our “barn concert.” And we continued to give it long after we had outgrown marbles and hide-and-seek. I think that we got our ideas of a concert from a book called The Art of Elocution. It contained poems and dialogues and plays, and in its introduction had illustrations showing a toga-clad lady, expressing surprise, horror, joy, dismay, and other emotions.

My brothers and I always spoke pieces at the concert and were careful to imitate the emotional lady in our gestures and facial expressions. My cousins and playmates were not strong on speaking pieces, but they had a variety of other talents to add spice to our presentation. Harold Bisset could turn handsprings and wiggle his ears. Edwin Maddocks could walk on his hands with his feet aloft. Olive danced an Irish jig. Austin did magic tricks that entertained and mystified. Little Alice sang duets with my brother Ben.

In the summer months, when the barn door always was open except on days of rain or fog, the doorway often in use. Mother and I sat there to shell peas, to snap beans, and to pare early apples. Father cleaned fish and shocked clams there. My brothers sat there to pick over berries and husk ears of corn. On hot nights the fragrance of meadow hay and sweet clover filled both the barn and the doorway.

The door remained open during September and October, and in the doorway squashes and pumpkins were sorted, marsh cranberries were picked over, and Father flailed the dry beans for winter baking. Sometime in November the day came when Father ordered, “From now on, keep the barn door closed, please.” When we children looked sad, Mother cheered us. “Before you know it, you’ll be planning your barn concert.” “Yes,” said Ben,” and we’ll be picking over the winter apples.” — Esther E. Wood