While studying a photo for an upcoming issue of Farm Collector, I looked hard at the background. That's where I sometimes find the texture of a place, the mood of a setting. Objects in the foreground typically draw the sharp focus, in every sense of the word. Those in the background tend to be uncalculated and forthright.
The photo captured a sheep-shearing scene from more than a half-century ago. The lamb stood on what appeared to be a homemade bench in the barn's alleyway flanked by a man and a youth – dad and a 4-H'er? – busily administering a trim for the county fair. Sunlight poured through spaces between boards in the barn wall; simple wiring of the era was visible on a post. The only other recognizable object was an electric pedestal-style floor fan, and judging from the sweat-stained shirt, I'd bet the switch was turned to "high."
On a hot day, a barn positioned to catch a breeze is a sweet little spot of heaven. It's the kind of thing easily taken for granted, but only rarely does such a feature come about by accident. In the era when barns were the most important structure on a farm, extensive science went into barn design and placement. Southern exposure, north winds, proximity to water, road and granary were important factors. A century ago, the farmhouse was almost an afterthought: The barn, though, represented the family farm's corporate headquarters.
Fred W. Peterson, author of a book reviewed in this issue of Farm Collector (see it here), has made extensive study of farmhouses built in the last half of the 19th century. He has deep appreciation for farm country and its people, and perhaps because of that, he counsels against romanticizing "the good old days" of American agriculture. He tells of farmhouses that were economical and efficient to build but not necessarily comfortable or convenient. He notes the farm's insatiable appetite for work; its limitless supply of discomfort, danger and disease. "For us to forget these challenges," he says, "would be to diminish the achievement of these folk who endured and survived such hardships."
Fair enough. Today's weather-tight sheds are undoubtedly an improvement over barns with quarter-inch gaps between boards, and the farmer of 1850 would regard such structures with both wonder and gratitude. Still, there's much to be said for the simple wisdom that oriented a barn to catch a cooling breeze. Here's hoping you find just such a place this summer!
Leslie McManus, Editor