Growing up on Muddy Creek: When the Barn Burned Down

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A depiction of the destruction caused by a hay fire in 1920.

It was in August 1920, one of those hot, humid, lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer. The sweet clover had been cut and windrowed with the side delivery rake so the hay loader could pick up the windrows and pass the hay up the reels onto the wagon, where two men had all they could do to level the load so it would ride to the barn.

The wagon had been pulled with the Titan tractor, partly because its speed could be regulated so as not to cover the men up when the hay was heavy.

At the barn, the hay fork (hooked to a 200-ft. roll of 1-inch rope and hitched to a team of mules) had lifted the hay up to the track and then yanked it into the barn, where it was released by pulling the trip rope. At least two men had the sweaty and dirty job of moving back the sweet-smelling hay to fill every cranny and space. Dad was so proud of having the barn filled without the hay ever getting rained on.

In between the haying, Dad had the men mixing cement and laying a new 7-ft. cement drive from the yard into the barn yard. They would mix the concrete by hand in mud boats, about two wheelbarrow loads at a time. That was the way most everyone mixed cement before the advent of mechanical mixers.

Each day, the men would lay about 12 feet, putting a piece of rubber belting from the oil field in each section as an expansion joint. It worked, for even at this late date, nearly 70 years later, that drive is solid, with few cracks except for one place.

On that fateful day in 1920, though, they had mixed enough cement to lay the usual section when suddenly the clouds began to roll in and the distant thunder could be heard. Dad, John Bellinger and Ralph Weaver, who had been doing the work, quickly got some cow blankets from the barn and laid them over the new cement, supporting them with fishing and bean poles.

The darkness deepened, and the lightning grew more intense as the storm closed in on the farm. The lightning flashes came so close together that we couldn’t tell when one stopped and another started.

Great jagged bolts would flash toward the earth; the thunder was deafening, and then it hit with a terrible crash. The vibrations were so great the whole house shook.

I was standing in the kitchen door-way with Aunt Esther, mother’s hired girl. I could see Dad and the men scurrying to get the fresh cement covered before the rains came, but then that bolt of lightning hit the south end of the barn and almost instantly set the mow afire. All that dried hay flashed into flames like tinder.

Dad had Curley Collier fitting the cattle for the show circuit in the east wing of the barn. About 15 animals were tied out there, bedded down with straw.

My first thought was of Old Bess, my favorite cow, and without thinking, I ran to the barn and untied her and led her far back into the pasture field, toward the Vanatta place, and tied her again to a fence post.

I then came back with Aunt Esther and watched the fire. The rain fell in torrents. Mother rang the party line five rings, and all down the line people were alerted to the fire and came running.

George Griggs and his boys, John Fierheiley, Lloyd Pepple, George Lewis and Dale, the Bridgett boys and a bunch from Tom Town. They got there too late, though, and could do nothing except watch that the fire didn’t spread to the shop building or the new hen house.

There had been a painted sign on the wall of the barn that said, ‘Walnut Ridge Farm, Visitors Welcome,’ in big, block letters. I recall watching those letters open up as the boards burned, and then disappear. It was only a few moments until the roof fell in on top of the hay.

Fortunately, the fact that the mow was filled with hay acted as a deterrent and delayed the burning of the lower part of the barn. There was no way it could be saved, even if there had been a fire department, and of course, there were none in those days.

The men were able to get all the cattle out of the barn as well as the show box with its halters and gear.

However, most of the harness for the horses went up in flames, as did two tons of cotton seed meal that Dad had just got in.

After the fire, he spread that meal over the garden, thinking it might enrich the soil. But the opposite happened; nothing would grow on that space, not even weeds, for years. Ten or so bags of Red Top seed that had just been hulled also were lost. The new cow blankets that Dad had just purchased were being used to cover the new cement, and so were not in the barn when it burned.

The new patented stanchions where the cows were milked did go up in smoke, as did a manure spreader that Curley had been filling when the lightning hit.

The two 30-foot-tall redwood silos that were at the east end of the wing where the show cattle were tied acted like a flue and flames shot out of them 20 feet high even though there was no silage in them to burn.

A fire is a wonderful but terrible thing to experience. It all happens so quickly – one minute, the building is there; a few minutes later, it is a pile of ashes, which smolder for several days.

As soon as our barn’s ashes were cool enough to handle, Dad used the slip scoop and a team to move them out and get ready to rebuild. The cement floor was badly scarred from the heat, but the new barn was built right over the old foundation. A new poured cement silo was erected, and a new milking barn was constructed on the south end of the old barn.

The new barn was 57 feet longer than the old structure, which measured 60 by 40 feet, and had a specially designed hip roof line that gave much more mow space with no interior supports. Most important of all, it sported a new manure handling system – a manure carrier that hung on a track and made it possible for us to forget the old wheelbarrow. Now the cows had ‘indoor plumbing,’ something that even few people’s houses of the time had.

The night of the fire, they had to tie the cows to a fence post to milk them, so the next day Dad put the whole crew to work remodeling the red barn across the road into a suitable milking parlor with stanchions and feed mangers. It served well during the two years it took to construct the new barn.

Now, years later, that one section of drive still has a rough surface where it had to be reworked after that down-pour on the day the barn burned down. FC

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

Great jagged bolts would flash toward the earth; the thunder was deafening, and then it hit with a terrible crash…

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