The Sanctuary of the Barn



​A great story going around is about some Amish boys who found a novel way to make a little extra money. Their barn is the traditional kind, of course, with stables and hay mows and even dovecotes. Pigeons or rock doves have from time immemorial been a part of barnyard farming because they provide an economical source of squab or what my mother called pigeon pot pie, plus some fly control, and if you want, communication with faraway places. They can scavenge part or all of their food from the neighborhood and the barnyard itself. It seems that the pigeons in this story, that made their home in this farm’s dovecotes, had homing instinct. The Amish boys learned that a nearby game farm was buying barn pigeons to let loose as targets for would-be great white game hunters. Great white hunters are not great marksmen so they miss most of the time. The Amish boys’ pigeons flew back to their native barn and could be sold again until they died of old age. If that’s not real economy, what is?

​As more people turn to small farming as a business, or just for fun, or both, they are going to experience some of the delight that those of us who grew up in farm barns cherish. And in doing so, many unforeseen advantages, like these pigeons, will occur. The local, artisanal food movement is reviving interest in all this (although I haven’t seen anyone selling pigeon pot pie yet) and therefore in smaller versions of the old traditional barn. That’s ours in the photo above which we built for a small flock of sheep, two cows and calves and one horse 35 years ago. (I think the pet craze has something to do with the new interest in farm animals too, a subject for later blogs.) These barns are built for animal and human comfort, not like today’s factory barns crammed full of animals with little thought for anything except how to reduce the per unit cost of production. Barns are becoming again society’s food sanctuary at the center of the new farming universe. As such, they give off an aura of peace and security that is uncanny and difficult to put into words. There are certainly times when mayhem can hold sway there too to keep the farmer from getting bored, but for the most part, standing in an old barn full of animals you feel a tranquility sort of like being in an almost empty church in the middle of a quiet afternoon. For some farmers, their barn is their church.

​On such farms the barn becomes a menagerie full of livestock pets. Children turn barns into playhouses, a place for games of hide and seek, of swinging on hay ropes, of sliding down mounds of hay. And of course the barn dance is still part of our living heritage. Basketball historically seems to have started in barns. As the mows emptied, the floor space opened up. Some say that’s why basketball’s main season is spring. At least I can guarantee you, basketball is still alive and well in some barns. Ask my grandsons.

​The work is challenging, but pleasantly so most of the time. Numbskulls do not last long in the barn. You know all your animals by name. Curlyhead needs to be penned tonight because she is about to have lambs. Make sure Trump, the rooster, is in the coop before you close up, or he will be crowing at your bedroom window at daybreak. Give Shorthorn, the steer, a little more grain tonight and don’t let Whiteface push him away from it. Be sure to turn off the hose filling the watering trough.

​There are limitless ways to design these structures to suit your needs and number of livestock. Study the old barns. Hundreds of years went into their design and function. The magic here is that you are hardly ever doing just one thing when you are working there. When you are feeding and bedding down the animals, you are making the fertilizer for next year’s crops. And oh how the cows romp in the fresh straw you put down for them to sleep on. Happy cows give more milk and I think have less mastitis. The clover hay you feed has already paid for itself by supplying free nitrogen to your soil. The hay piled high in the mow is a monument to its role in controlling erosion when it was growing in the field. In Minnesota’s sub zero winters, I often milked coatless because the cows and the bank barn built into a side hill and the insulating hay kept the place fairly warm. When we milked the modern way, with a milking parlor, we had to install a stove to stay warm. Chickens running loose provide some fly control as they eat fly larvae in the bedding and eat the half-digested corn wasting in the cow manure. Cats pay for the milk you give them by controlling mice and rats.

​As you loiter after chores, you think about how you and your barn sanctuary form a sort of halfway house between man and nature. You are filled with great satisfaction and a feeling of independence. The world beyond might be foundering in chaos, but right here in your quiet barn, peace prevails…at least until Rooster Trump starts crowing in the morning.


Tim, that third building is another machine shed. The corn crib is out of sight behind the barn as is the chicken coop. Gene

Yeh i checked because i saved the picture and the on in Illinois is a gambrel roof too.I loved the picture of your place and the 3 buildings. I see your gambrel roofed barn you built and the shed with the tractor What is the third building there? Your corn crib/granary?There is a nice Facebook group that sends in pictures of old farm houses and barns. I’ve been getting a lot of ideas for my place. Oh to win the lottery. lol

Time Henslee. In Holmes Co. Ohio, I see both gambrel and gable roofs on Amish barns. Gene

Do any of the amish build gambrel roofed barns ? Or are they all the gable roof type? I read somewhere they were building a big barn in northern ,illinois but dont remember the roof style.

Marsha aka Homegrown January 19, 2016 at 6:20 am

Here in SE Ohio, southern Tuscarawas County, the Schwarzentruber Amish are building many new, traditional barns, thankfully. My neighbor Lizzie told me they like pigeons in the barn because they ‘keep the cobwebs down.’ Makes sense! Occasionally a Cooper Hawk (and yes there are some bald eagles down here), will devastate their population at a barn and then move on. Everybody’s gotta eat. Be well, Logsden. Never stop writing.

Barns ! Yes, being in a barn brings a sort of peacefulness… if one is not delivering a breech birth baby animal…. even then there is a pervading sense of honesty within a barn…In my ninety years I never got to live on a farm, but if visiting I headed for the barn. Good health to you and yours.

When I was a boy, of course part of my chores was feeding and watering the livestock. In that big ol’ barn lived sheep, beef cattle and hogs. The cattle had huge concrete watering tanks, three feet wide, two feet deep and eight feet long. We kept catfish in them. To fill the cattle tanks, I had to cross through the pen that held our ram, Everett. He was huge, and had horns that curled out from his head, but always seemed pretty docile, even though I had been taught never to trust anything on the farm with gonads. I hadn’t buckled my boots one day when I crossed through Everett’s pen, and decided to buckle them when I was in his pen. The learning curve for that is very steep! I learned sheep values in a hurry. Turns out, when you lower your head towards a sheep, that’s considered a challenge. Everett sat me on my ass, seeing stars. I did not buckle my boots in his pen again.

That barn was the ultimate playground for my friends and me. We built tunnels with bales of straw because the bales only weighed 45 pounds, and were perfect building blocks. We found nests of raccoons. We saw barn owls. I saw piglets, lambs and calves being born, and learned the responsibility of caring for them. I watched the vet pull a calf out of a cow with come a longs, so I saw some of the ugly of life, too. That ol’ barn was a great classroom for me, and I will always value what I learned in it. It has served me well.

My grandpa’s hay barn (in Lithuania) was the place we lived in. Filled with loose hay, it was heaven. We would climb up on the rafters and then would launch into the hay. Sometimes all bunch of us, all cousins and everyone would huddle together buried in the hay. The roof was reeds/straw, we would pluck out some good straws making grandpa mad. Attached to the barn was wood workshop on one side and tool storage on the other. Some good pickings for kids there too. My kids do not have that exact experience, but we had found some neat 1890s farms with authentic barns, so we still chase cats there, sit on the hay and dream. And now almost time for baby lambs to be born, we may end up sleeping there too. 🙂
We used to give cats milk (also feed milk to hedgehogs who would wonder over from woods tot he farm), but now were told by some new age farmers that milk is no good for cats, and you have to feed them eggs instead.
Thank you for this barn warming post, like it.

What an awesome post, and makes me sad that I will probably never have a barn (I know, never say never). Gene, I have been a fan of yours since 1976, when I lifted a well worn copy of Two Acre Eden from a furniture display at May Company, where I was working at the time. I was just killing time while there were no customers, but that book came home with me, and I read it every year in the early spring for inspiration, and entertainment, of course :-).

Eric B: I don’t know anyone personally but there are many sources listed on Google. Gene

Though it’s over half a century ago, I loved our farmer neighbour’s barn in England’s Leicestershire. Jumping from bales of hay into the straw below was great fun. Calling next door for fresh milk and eggs was a daily treat during school holidays. While my mother chatted to the farmer’s wife, I watched their cats padding about the oilcloth on a table that was always set. To my great disappointment, ours were never allowed.

Good one… like letting the city boy hold the milk bottle between his legs for the bottle fed calves…

” Rooster Trump “. Heh heh , got it…

On Christmas morning after milking was done, my Dad would give the cows an extra helping of the best second crop alfalfa hay we had stored in the haymow. As he would stand there and watch them anxiously munching away on the beautiful green hay he would say, “We are the luckiest people on Earth today”. And he may have been right.

The symbiotic relationship between the farmer and his animals has in many cases been replaced by a relationship between the farmer and his lender. Not a step forward, in my book.

My brother and I and some neighbour kids were playing hide-n-seek-tag in our “Big Barn.” I spotted my brother climbing up the ladder to the hayloft level in the wagon bay, and I took off after him. He was running just ahead of me, when he promptly disappeared!

I’d been reading Tolkien at the time, and I was ready to believe he had slipped a magic ring on his finger! But I slowly crept to where he had disappeared, and saw, through layers of loose straw, a vortex-shaped opening to another dimension — the ground floor. I peered down the hay funnel, and saw him lying below, blow cushioned by a hay pile, but holding his face and moaning.

It turns out that, as he went through the floor, a splinter of wood the size and shape of a pencil had come loose, and had found its way into his nostril, piercing it.

There was a lot of blood, a trip to the hospital, stitches, and a good scolding involved. He still has a scar.

I wonder if you, Gene, or anyone else reading this actually knows of anyone that’s raised free flying/foraging pigeons for meat. From what little I’ve found to read, it seems like some of the “meat breeds” are too big to fly and forage well. I’ve heard of such pigeons in north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, but I’d love to hear about any American examples if any modern or recent examples even exist. I don’t think I’d be the one to figure it all out, but if there are others out there whose example I could follow, I’d very interested. Unfortunately, the cheapness of conventional grain seems to have completely eliminated forage from the diets of every flock of domestic meat pigeons I’ve heard about in the US.

People seem to have raised pigeons from “time immemorial,” but in special buildings/towers in Persia and Egypt, for example. I would hate to have to clean them out.

On the farm where I grew up there alas, was no haymow. It had been built in the early part of the 1900 s when farmers were realizing about the need to store tall machinery(corn pickers,ours was a one row new idea #7,an allis chalmers #72 pull type PTo powered combine ,and a portable PTo powered michillana feed grinder, plus all of the other machinery and feed stuffs. Farmers had figured out that if you start stacking hay on the main floor you can stack more and not have the exspense of building a hay loft.Ours was a gambrel roofed 30’x40′ bank barn. THe best kind.;)It was white with asbestos siding and blue wind proof shingles with two great metal ventilators on top of the roof to wick out moisture from the hay and the animals below, usually a dairy cow or two and some sows. On the west side(the back side) was a corn crib my grandfather had built with a dirt 14′ drive then the corn crib which ran for the entire 40 ‘ length of the barn,Thee corn crib itself once of my favorite places was 6’wideand on the barn side 10 tall from the floor up. Great place to play when youre a kid and want privacy from the prying eyes of adults. It held about 960 bushels of ear corn.One of my first and biggest satisfactions as a young new farmer restoring the place was when i raised enough corn to fill the crib.In the bottom of the barn on the far east side i raised sheep, both lambing and feed out as they grew up, The middle was reserved for putting the manure spreader and feed stuffs plus various equipment such as a feed box where i would shell out ear corn for them. I had a gate strung across at an angle so the sheep would have access to the cement feeding floor and beyond that the pasture which had a small jump across,creek,(pronounced crick).The west side was a 12′ wide pen that ran two thirds of the 40’ length of the length back.IT was there that i raised the fattening hogs., my main business.

About 10 years ago, Gene, I was reading everything you’d written that I could get a hold of, as I could sense the truth in your writing. Eight years ago we jumped in, moving from the west coast to “flyover country” (an excellent suggestion, I should add), and taking up farming. Barns have been my cathedral for as long as I can remember, and now we have two — one with an active dovecote, which has had my son thinking about homing pigeons. We just moved an 1877 barn which (unlike or older original barn) is suitable for hay slings, so now we’ve gone high-tech (circa 1910, according to the patent date on the hay trolley) with our loose hay operation. Unbeknownst to my former self, loose hay turns the loft into a perfect play area, whereas bales are a little rough on landing when jumping from those upper beams.

In our original barn (bank barn) we also milk cows. It was 6 degrees outside, but we were all quite comfortable in the barn, just as you describe. There’s so much wisdom in older designs and ways that we’ve tossed by the wayside without ever knowing it. Thank you for bringing it to our attention!

My first job in 1970 was at a potato farm. The barn also held the potato washing and packing equipment. The pigeons where a health hazard but the farmer couldn’t get rid of them. That fall for the first time dove hunts where held in the fields around the barn. Florida dove hunters are crack shots. No more pigeon problems.

The decline of the general-purpose livestock barn is kind of sad. There are a lot of them falling in around here. The ones that are standing no longer house mules and horses in their stalls but old, stowed-away farm equipment that’s too small by today’s standards. The only new barns being built seem to be big pole barns. It’s kind of like churches: gone are the days of worshipping in brick sanctuaries with stain glass windows and pews. In fact, it seems like most new sanctuaries are more or less enclosed pole barns.

I love all of your posts but this one really hit home! My barn gives me a feeling of comfort,security,peacefulness, and solitude. I love the smells, sights,and sounds of the livestock every time I enter its sanctuary. I also get so irritated when I see a barn falling into neglect and its eventual death. Friends of Ohio Barns is a great organization that is trying to spread the word about how these relics can be saved and appreciated for there multiple uses.

Others can have their huge, glitzy houses. I prefer my beautiful, serene, sweet smelling barn filled with well cared for livestock.

Was just reading “The last Husbandman” this morning while having coffee. Reading your weekly post is like a snack before lunch when I resume reading your book. Thanks for thed great writing.

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