by Jim Verwer, Member of Ontario Barn Preservation, originally published in the St Marys’ Journal Argus
At this time of the year the short days and the slower pace of winter brings the recollection of youthful days growing up on the farm and doing chores in the huge century-old, L-shaped barn there. One place there that especially comes to mind is the haymow.
Escaping from the bustle of the large family I grew up in, I would often retreat to the solitude of the cavernous space where the chirp of birds and the flutter and cooing of the pigeons high above would bring a sense of optimism. In spring when the days began to warm and the haymow was almost empty, I would go there to daydream and marvel at the immensity of the structure and ponder how the massive beams were set into place by just a group of men -now long-gone and nameless.
I would lay there staring up at the relics from yesteryear’s method of bringing in loose hay- the large two-pronged hay fork still suspended from the rail slung under the peak 40 feet above where it had dropped its last load countless years before. Now seized and rusting, it hung there silently while the trip rope still swung merrily from an incoming breeze along the gable end of the barn, disrupting the sunlight streaming through and causing shadows to dance along the wall. The wind blowing through the cracks in the weather-worn boards, changing pitch with the velocity of its force, sounded like the notes of a giant organ. A loose board somewhere would emit the occasional squeak adding to the musical effect.
The arrival of haying time would steal away my place of refuge and contemplation with the arduous task of baling -and stacking meticulously layer by layer until the mow was filled -the endless number of small square bales drawn in. After summer was over and we went back to school and the days began to shorten, it was no longer the bright and busy place with the work of unloading wagons and stacking during the bright sunny months. It was now a dark and solemn place where a virtual mountain now occupied the west half of the main barn blocking out any light coming in.
Morning and evening chores on the farm always followed a regular routine, feeding the cattle their silage and chop first, and then when milking commenced it was time to get hay down to feed out. During the winter months when venturing into the darkened upstairs during the evening chores the haymow took on an eerie look with shadows cast from two solitary light bulbs mounted high in the rafters causing the enormous framework of the barn to resemble the interior of a vaulted cathedral. After throwing down several bales from high up on the gloomy mow toward the small square of light glowing through the opening in the floor far below where the faint sound of the throbbing milker-pump drifted up, I was grateful to retreat back down into the warm and brightly lit stables.
On long Sunday afternoons or during the holidays time was often spent there with my brothers building forts out of bales complete with battlements that sprawled out over the huge expanse of the mow from which we would look out for the enemy and engage in mock wars with our toy guns. Countless hours we played there, even in the bitter cold of winter, but did not care as we reveled in the freedom from chores and in the creation of own world not overseen by our parents.
But the winter months went by and our forts disappeared along with the shrinking mow, diminishing steadily as spring crept closer, and once again it regained its emptiness. As the last layers of bales were removed, treasures would surface from other boys who had once been there -lost jack-knives, cap guns, and even part of a Gene Autry Flying A Ranch holster. We realized we were not the first to discover the haymow, and like them, the day soon came when we would no longer play there.
The memories will always be treasured of working in the old barn -but it provided a much greater reward –a place where wisdom was acquired and many of life’s lessons taught to deal with the changing world.
Jim Verwer grew up on the former Gregory Homestead, pioneers of East Nissouri Township, now part of Zorra Township, Oxford County. Jim believes that growing up doing daily chores in a huge L-shaped barn helped pass the time and helped build character but ultimately instilled a sense of history and admiration for the structure. These experiences within his family barn was one factor in establishing his desire and longing to help preserve local history.
The barn is ½ mile east of Uniondale (near St Marys) and is fast becoming one of the few remaining in the area. It survives as one of the largest and tallest in proximity and has become a landmark. This barn still remains in the Verwer family who moved there in 1966 when the farm changed hands.
Jim considers himself fortunate that his dad was very resourceful and skilled at keeping the barn up over the years with annual projects repairing the stone walls, floor and keeping the barn boards nailed in place. He is thankful that his dad passed his skills on to Jim which he now uses to keep the barn up. Jim is intimately connected with his barn and admires many barns that he passes by when travelling through southwestern Ontario with his welding sales job and feels a sense of loss when a familiar barn disappears.
“Memories of the Haymow” was written to bring a sense of importance and meaning to Jim’s barn, to honour its builders, and to hopefully help in some way inspire preservation of some of the other old barns left remaining.
“Memories of the Haymow’s Seasonal Cycles” was originally published in the St Marys Journal Argus which unfortunately closed a few years ago. Former editor Stew Slater, farmer and freelance writer, is credited with the title.